My earliest memories of Charleston, South Carolina, go back to the mid 1960s when I would spend two weeks with my Aunt Vivian and Uncle Joe in Summerville. We’d make daily trips to Folly Beach and Charleston, and those trips made for memorable times. We’d hit the beach, crab in the marshes and creeks, and sometimes tour Fort Sumter and the Charleston Museum.
Being a landlocked kid the chance to go to the beach excited me to no end. And crabbing was fun but filled with fears that the claws of a blue crab would nip me. The museum I remember as a dark musty place filled with oddities none of which I recall with detail. What was important however was that I remembered the overall experience.
And then the years passed. Other memories of Charleston came … weekend getaways in the late 1970s, my work off the coast of Charleston in the early 1980s making films, book tours throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, and two heart-wrenching summers in 2002-2003 at the Medical University of South Carolina. Recently, however, I made a trip that built better memories, a happier layer of paint upon old colors you could say.
On this trip I reflected on how our interests change as we age. Mine certainly have. Today I find myself increasingly interested in history and cultural matters. In particular I appreciate things that endure. Things that quietly survive as we people totally wrapped up in our day-to-day lives come and go into that dark, dark night.
There’s a lot to do and see in Charleston, a city on many a “top destination” list. It’s a walkable city, a place where you tread in the footsteps of history. Knowing this, I stayed at the Vendue Inn, a former warehouse long an old hotel on East Bay in the city’s French Quarter. From there I had easy access to the city’s major streets: Broad, Meeting, and King. And, of course, wonderful restaurants.
From the inn’s rooftop grill I watched cargo containers come and go as the sun dropped behind the city. I could see why Charleston is known as the Holy City; its sparkling steeples punctuate the sky and its carillons shower grandeur and chimes to all below. The next day as I headed to lunch on King Street the bells of St. Michael’s steeple struck noon. I appreciated those beautiful peals, knowing their difficult history, one filled with seafaring and plagued by war.
St. Michael’s bells, first cast in London in 1764, crossed the Atlantic to Charleston. During the Revolutionary War, the British, in retreat, commandeered those bells as war spoils. Recovered in London, the bells again made the trip across the Atlantic back to Charleston. Time passed and two bells cracked. Those two bells returned to England to be recast.
When the Civil War broke out, South Carolina confiscated many church bells to recast them as cannon. Sent to Columbia, the bells cracked when their storage shed burned during the firestorm that swept through Columbia. When the war ended, the bells were recast in London to repair them yet again. Because workers incorrectly installed the new frame the bells could not be rung. From 1868 until 1993 they chimed only. After Hurricane Hugo passed through in 1989, the bells returned once again to London to the original foundry to have all fittings replaced. A new wooden frame went up in the steeple and in 1993 the bells finally rang out over the Holy City.
My second day, just past Broad, I found the legendary 18th Century residences known as Rainbow Row.
Named for its Caribbean colors it’s one of the more photographed places in the city. Like the legions I too photographed Rainbow Row. Legend holds that the buildings were painted different colors so drunken sailors arriving in port could find their place to bunk.
Just down from Rainbow Row is the Battery, the waterfront that serves as the Holy City’s face. Oleanders, palmettos, and the Battery make for a classic Charleston setting. Part promenade and part seawall, the Battery stretches along the peninsula where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet, forming the harbor, or as some Charlestonians say “the Atlantic.” With homes of renown, old cannon, pyramids of cannonballs, White Point Gardens, monuments, and more, the Battery pleases history buffs, joggers, lovers, and others. I can’t walk the Battery without thinking of the firing upon Fort Sumter. Cannons deployed during the War of 1812 are said to have given East Battery its name. Forty-nine years later Civil War diarist Mary Boykin Chestnut rushed out into predawn darkness to see shells arc over the water and burst inside Fort Sumter. “I sprang out of bed and on my knees prostrate I prayed as I never prayed before.” An anonymous correspondent wrote of “gun emplacements being shot away, and shells falling thick and fast. The ball has opened. War is inaugurated … Fort Sumter has returned the fire and brisk cannonading has been kept up.”
Homes along the Battery command a fine view of the harbor, including Fort Sumter squatting precisely on the horizon. When Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard ordered the shelling of the fort April 12 in predawn darkness, the firing reverberated throughout the city. Residents and the curious climbed to the rooftops of Battery homes to watch the action. The Rubicon had been passed and a “thrill went through the city.”
From the site of the attack on the union I backtracked to the country’s creation … I visited the Rutledge Inn, the only home of a signer of the Constitution of the United States that serves as a living historic landmark and a grand inn. Touring the inn I walked across parquet flooring that predated the Civil War. Only moments earlier I had walked through St. Michael’s lovely cemetery and seen John Rutledge’s grave. A marker identifies him as the “first president of South Carolina.”
Such sights as these were a long ways from my Folly Beach wave-riding, creek-crabbing days but the sights had been there all along patiently waiting for me.
My last day in Charleston I headed out to Folly Beach to revive some of the old boyhood memories, at least I hoped to. I drove to Folly Beach, which now bills itself as “the edge of America.” I hadn’t been to the edge of America since those summers at my Aunt Vivian’s place in Summerville.
Driving into Folly I saw so much development I had to work hard to remember Folly Road. Mainly I remembered the oleanders. Some of them are still there. I spotted a storm-tossed boat that became a celebrity. In 1989 Hurricane Hugo drove a fishing boat ashore right to the edge of Folly Road. When no one recovered the boat, city officials decided to remove it but a curious thing happened: people began to paint art on it. Peace symbols, names, messages, seasonal art, killer whales, wedding proposals, you name it. This outburst of art saved the boat.
Today, the boat gets painted daily, often more than once, so there’s no guarantee how long an artist’s creation at “the edge of America” will last. Every so many years thick, sagging layers of paint have to be removed. On the day I drove in red paint proclaiming “Happy birthday Jane, I love you” covered the white boat. The boat by the way has its own Facebook page and website.
At Folly Beach proper so much development had taken place I recognized nothing from my boyhood past save the marsh and ocean. Large buildings obscured views of the Atlantic. Condos stood everywhere. People stood in sandy lots waiting to charge money for anyone wanting to park and walk out onto the beach.
Folly Beach, having escaped some dark ages when many shunned it, is a popular place these days. The problem with being popular however is that so many people come to enjoy a place they spoil it, a plight befalling many a beach. “If we build it, they will come” … and ruin things.
I didn’t bother to get out of the car. I turned around and headed for Highway 700, the Maybank Highway. My destination was Wadmalaw Island. That strip of live-oak-shaded asphalt would take me to North America’s only tea plantation. America’s largest tea garden is a 127-acre working farm. In 2003, the Bigelow Family purchased the Charleston Tea Plantation and formed a partnership with former owner William Barclay Hall, a world-renowned tea taster. Approximately 30,000 visitors a year tour the plantation; count me among them in 2012.
Entering the gift shop-tea factory you cannot imagine how fresh the tea smells as it’s being withered, a technical term referring to a moisture-reducing process. The rich aroma of fresh tea brought back memories of when my mom made tea from loose mounds of Lipton’s leaves. The fragrance wasn’t just of tea it was also of youth and years out of reach.
I learned things on Wadmalaw. A tea plant can live 600 years and continue to produce great tea. (Only the tiptop leaves are harvested.) Hall, who’s planting new tea plants, says it his goal to create an income for the next seven generations of his family. How many businessmen can say that. Here you can tour the plantation in a trolley car and sample hot and iced tea samples and get a first-hand view of something that would require trips to other countries otherwise.
My next stop was at Irvin-House Vineyards on Wadmalaw Island, just a few miles and turns off Highway 700. If you’ve ever picked a ripe muscadine or scuppernong and enjoyed its sweet taste you should like their wines. The folks here grow native southern grapes, harvest them, and make wines from them. You’ll also find the Firefly Distillery here where handcrafted vodka and American Classic tea are blended to create Sweet Tea, the world’s first handcrafted, tea-flavored vodka.
My final stop was one to remember: the proverbial dot over the I. The photo that goes with this column reveals why it’s so memorable. I saw another long-living plant that afternoon on nearby Johns Island. Folks, you don’t have to fly to California to see a tree for the ages. Angel Oak is a Southern live oak estimated to be between 500 and 1,500 years old, one of the oldest, if not oldest living things east of the Mississippi River. The exact age is difficult to determine because heart rot prevents reliable coring.
Over the years, true to its species, the tree has grown out more than up. Cables and supports hold up the twisting, reaching limbs that shade more than 17,000 square feet. As you can see its limbs are bigger than many trees’ trunks.
On the ground beneath this monarch were fresh green acorns. I scooped up a few. I intend to plant them. Maybe 1,000 years from now one will survive and shade… No, of course it won’t. Who am I kidding. This land-developing money-hungry nation would never let that happen. Nonetheless I’ll plant the acorns.
Leaving Angel Oak, I headed back to the capital of South Carolina. In just a few days’ time I had added new memories to the book I call My Life. History, a celebrity boat, famous homes, a famous tree, unique sources of beverages, I found this and more on my swing through the South, a land that never ceases to amaze me.