Down In Camellia Land
Part One left us in the Edgefield General Store, a place with something for everyone, an old fashioned soda fountain, gourmet items, and the talented services of Maine the florist. It was there, near the front door, where two fellows out of Barnwell ambled in claiming they had found a pot made by Dave the Slave. Nancy Gilliam referred them to Old Edgefield Pottery around the corner. Off they went, would-be art peddlers, seeking fame and fortune.
I stepped into the sunshine and took stock of the square. My kinfolk walked this square. It’s taken me most of my life to learn I have ancestral roots in Edgefield. For many years I drove through Edgefield County paying it no mind. It was just a place between here and there. All that began to change when a long-lost relative read my work online and contacted me. We met in Edgefield one November Sunday a few years back. As he showed my cousin and me around town a feeling of odd familiarity took hold. As I walk out the Edgefield General Store, that feeling returns. I wonder just how many times long-deceased relatives stood on the very spot I stand.
A few strides to the left land me at the Tompkins Memorial Library. That’s where I talk with the lady from McDuffie County who is sorting out her family ties. Who knows? Maybe she and I are related. I make a mental note to return to this library, which serves as the official visitors center of Edgefield. It’s said that the library averages 2,000 visitors a year from 40 states and several countries. You could say it carries a load, serving as the headquarters of the Old Edgefield District Genealogical Society and South Carolina Genealogical Society. It also plays a pivotal role in the annual Southern Studies Showcase each September with a variety of speakers and events focused on historic and genealogical research. Check it out at 104 Courthouse Square.
As I leave the Tompkins Library I see the two fellows who found the alleged Dave the Slave pot. I can’t tell if they are jubilant or disappointed. They remind me of characters from “The Andy Griffith Show.” They get into a pick’em up truck and head out of town. (Back in Columbia I made a phone call and learned that their pot was not one of David Drake’s pots.) “Dave the Slave,” as he’s referred to, could read and write, quite unusual for the times, and his 25- to 40-gallon jugs often featured verses and couplets … “Put every bit all between / surely this jar will hold 14.” Edgefield’s Leonard Todd has chronicled Dave the Slave’s life. Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter, Dave W.W. Norton, fall 2008. Check it out.
As Fine As Any In Charleston
I drop in at John Kemp Antiques. John has walked up town but Virginia graciously shows me around, pointing out gorgeous old desks (one has had a top “added on”) and an ancient handgun cased in glass. She shows me a clock from London that seems as ancient as time itself. “It still runs,” she says. You’ll hear about hallmarking English silver and words like “Chippendale” here. Great pieces to be found here as the Kemps have been in the antique business for 40 years and make frequent trips abroad to buy inventory. You’ll find antiques here as fine as any in Charleston. They specialize in Early American/Federal/Empire furniture and silver. Virginia prides herself on their policy that if you purchase a piece of furniture from them, you can trade it back in any time as they stand behind the provenance of their fine pieces. Before I leave I say, “Maybe I’ll bump into John around the square.”
She smiles and knowing I have never met the man, says, “John has a ponytail, and he’ll be sorry he missed you.”
Driving away I look at the fine house, Willow Hill, post 1822, they live and work in. That’s how things used to be. The Kemps, having restored the home to its original Adam style façade, found the perfect place for their antique business.
At Carolina Moon Distillery Martha MacDonald asks if I plan to visit the Discovery Center. I already have it on my agenda but then she says, “My friend, Ellie, a spirited redhead works there.” Okay, I muse, Ellie has no idea who I am or that I am about to pay her a visit. Time for some tomfoolery.
At the Discovery Center, I walk onto the porch between two large artsy turkeys and open the door. The Discovery Center is quiet. Ellie, sitting at her desk, looks up.
“Well it’s good to see you after all these years,” I tell her. I get a confused look. “Can you believe it’s me? I know my hair is different now but it’s me at last.”
I get nothing but a stare …
“I mean, the way we parted wasn’t the best, you know, but here I am.”
More bewilderment. She says nothing. A long pause settles in.
“Ellie Glaze,” I say, “now you know you remember me. How could you forget all the times we spent together?”
“I know you?”
“Sure. Of course that was a long time ago … a long time ago.”
Now I have a tendency to hit the nail one time too many and dent the wood. Ellie squirms a bit and I detect a degree of vexation. She’s onto me. Time to come clean. “My name is Tom and your friend Martha sent me here. I’m here to write a story on Edgefield. I’m just messing with you.”
We share a laugh or two and a relieved Ellie shows me around the Discovery Center, which now has a fine theater as part of its offerings. The Center began life as the Captain James Miller House, circa 1840. Located near Trenton, it was moved to Edgefield in 1992 by the Edgefield Historical Society as part of the Joanne T. Rainsford Heritage Center of the South Carolina Heritage Corridor. You’ll see some fine examples of Edgefield pottery here, a room devoted to Strom Thurmond, and more, including a relieved Ellie.
With time to kill I drop into the Billiard Parlor and look around. My kind of place. I’ll be back. I head downhill and to the right to The Old Edgefield Grill for shrimp and grits (the restaurant’s recipe featured in Southern Living.) Lunch proved scrumptious, but the conversation with Harriett and Janice at the table next to me was even better. Much of it centered on Strom Thurmond’s, shall we say, colorful past. Some whispering commenced … “Now don’t put that in a book!” We talked about the infamous “mule kick that killed eight people” too.
This Victorian style brick home built in 1906 provides great ambience and Strom, come to think of it, was just four years old when the home went up. I wonder … As a boy, was he here?
On To The Tea
The raison d’être, of course, for my variegated journey to Edgefield is the Camellia Tea. Now I’m social but not a socialite, so I’m venturing into uncharted waters. But, here I go. The tea takes place at Magnolia Dale on 320 Norris Street. This home sits on venerated ground, the 1762 site of Edgefield’s first residence. Magnolia Dale itself, circa 1843, possesses a degree of notoriety. Alfred J. Norris, a distinguished Edgefield lawyer and businessman, purchased the property in 1873. Two years later, his daughter, Mamie Norris, came into the world here. She would go on to marry James Hammond Tillman who would go on to become lieutenant governor of South Carolina and a player in South Carolina’s “Crime of the Century.”
Tillman was elected lieutenant governor in 1900 and ran for governor in 1902. (Strom’s birth year.) After a grueling campaign in which Narciso Gener Gonzales, the editor of The State newspaper repeatedly attacked him, Tillman ascended to notoriety for shooting Gonzales at point blank range in Columbia. South Carolina’s most celebrated newspaper editor was dead. Why? Because of the unflattering things Gonzalez published about him in the newspaper. (Tillman would sure have a hard time in today’s social media world.) The story’s political and it’s complex but the upshot is that Tillman got away with it. The general consensus is that the jury was rigged and highly partisan. Although Tillman shot Gonzales in broad daylight before lots of eyewitnesses, he was acquitted on a weak, at best, self-defense theory. The jury believed Tillman was right in taking justice into his own hands for Gonzales had waged a newspaper crusade against Tillman. That campaign helped defeat Tillman in the 1902 South Carolina governor’s race.
Political feuds aside, Magnolia Dale was given to the Edgefield County Historical Society in 1960 for use as its headquarters. Adored Edgefieldian Broadus M. Turner, upon his 2006 passing, left a significant bequest to the Historical Society for restoring Magnolia Dale.
The portraits of Arthur and Margaret Simkins hang in it. Simkins is referred to as “the father of Edgefield” because he donated land for the first courthouse and public square. Other family portraits and notable things distinguish this grand home. As I walk up to it, I sense the history that oozes from the grounds and seeps from the fine old oaks here. If only aged brick walkways could talk. I check my watch, 2:59 p.m. Ladies and a few gentlemen walk toward the entrance where a black-clad Jayne Rainsford greets people.
The Edgefield Camellia Club Tea, part of the Great Gardens of America Preservation Alliance, puts on a fine tea. The tea—three o’clock to five o’clock—makes for a great way to spend the afternoon. Finery and elegance refine two hours otherwise devoted to a chilled winter afternoon. It’s free, elegant, open to the public, colorful, and festive. Tea from the Charleston Tea Plantation and beautiful blooms, properly annotated, bring the Classic South alive. Sandwiches, sweets, and punch are in abundance. Polished silver tea sets gleam as window light strikes them. Faces from the past preserved in oil on canvas gaze at participants. The women are beautiful. The men appreciative. As Miz Clarice pours tea, medleys and trickles of conversation blend into a pleasant river of talk. It is, quite simply, an occasion. As the Edgefield Camellia Club so rightly puts it, “The lovely mid-winter afternoon will be completed amidst a backdrop of chamber music, provided by local musicians,” and indeed it is.
It’s crowded, shoulder-to-shoulder, but I manage to shoot what I deem reference photographs. I get enough decent shots to illustrate my three-part feature. I photograph residents, hostesses with very Southern names, Lady and Henrietta, visitors, camellia authorities, and the curious. All in all, it makes for an intriguing mélange. As I leave, I hear my name called out and am surprised to see a few ladies from Columbia whom I know. This tea has pull. Recent teas have attracted visitors from throughout the state. Georgia, too.
The tea traces its origin to 1949, a fine year I must say, when Edgefield was well known as a premier camellia growing area. Back then, blooms beautified the home of Joe and Chrissie Holland at their “Camellia Tea.” Edgefield, you see, has long grown some of the oldest gardens in South Carolina, and the camellia’s been a favorite here since the early 1800s when the first specimens came to Edgefield. Next winter/spring, do yourself a favor. Drive around Edgefield and enjoy the results of a century of plantings.
I enjoyed my time in “Miz” Clarice’s camellia garden, though she and I talked only briefly. A retired schoolteacher, by the way, she’s very active in the Historical Society. Her father’s camellias make for a great attraction at Darby but much more than camellias grow in Edgefield County. My fondness for the town and county grows as well. People here are friendly and gracious and, besides, my father’s folks, Busseys and Searles, came from the Red Oak Grove community, and my paternal grandmother’s folks, the Blanchards, came from Edgefield as well.
Recently I returned to give a talk to the Camellia Club. What fun we had in this town where my day at the Camellia Tea proved so memorable. I plan to return for an extended stay, an overnight visit, and I hear the Pleasant Lane Acres Bed & Breakfast is a fine place to stay.
As I close, permit me a bit of camellia lingo. Let’s say that my February day in Edgefield made for a good cutting, about six leaf nodes back at a slant. From this cutting, other beautiful days are sure to grow Down in Camellia Land.
- Images: All the photos in this story were taken by the author, Tom Poland.