The Old South of Long Ago …
Last week I spent two days in rice plantation country over near Georgetown, South Carolina. Photographer Robert Clark, friend and co-author, and I went to several old rice plantations: Mansfield, Weehaw, Millbrook, and Estherville. If you’ve never explored an old rice plantation you owe it to yourself to do so. Glimpses of the South before the Civil War are yours for the taking. It’s like walking back two- to three-hundred years.
Robert and I were working you could say but when you love what you do how can you call it work. Our first stop was at Mansfield Plantation. We had a knowledgeable guide by the name of Jim Clark. Jim’s from Elizabethtown, North Carolina, but calls South Carolina home now. Thanks to Jim’s expert advice Robert and I saw much of what I call the Old South and the natural world rolled into one experience.
At Mansfield we saw the allée of oaks Mel Gibson rode through in The Patriot but more importantly we saw vestiges of an old rice plantation. At Mansfield you’ll see the last winnowing tower in the country, a building on high stilts where women separated the chaff from the rice. The rice would be swept over the cracks in the winnowing tower and as it fell into muslin cloth below the chaff blew away.
We saw several slave cabins on the grounds and a slave chapel too. I’m glad do-gooders haven’t destroyed this chapel to rid mankind of evidence of a past scorned by many. It’s good to have reminders of bygone times. Poignant beauty lives in the chapel’s simple lines, old wood, and ancient bricks. To sit in it alone and think, really think, is not a bad thing.
It took a lot of labor to clear the land, build the dikes, and grow and harvest and process the rice. More labor was needed by rice than cotton by far from what I could learn and yet cotton gets mentioned a lot in the same sentence with the word “slave” in it.
The old rice fields pull in the wildlife. In the space of one afternoon I saw two bald eagles, an osprey, and a large flock of American white pelicans overwintering from the Alberta and Northwest Territories up Canada way.
We stayed until dark photographing the haunting beauty of this plantation established in 1718. As a bald eagle wheeled and cried out a rich diversity of bird life answered his call. Winter-brown marsh grasses rattled to a cold wind sweeping in off the Black River. Winter still held the land but spring was forcing its fingers loose. The wind picked up, darkness set in, and we called it a day.
We were back the next morning before dawn. Mists blew about and it didn’t take much to imagine work chants and gospels ringing out across Mansfield. Here and there you’ll see a lot of piles of old brick. Really old bricks. When you see an old brick rounded at each end you know it came over as ship ballast in a wooden ship driven by the winds.
But there was little wind at dawn. Shedding golds and reds, the Earth’s nearest star came up over the Black River, a whirling boiling mass of incandescent gas. A gossamer film of gold overlay everything. Robert took many shots. The deep green that graced the old live oaks the afternoon before now gleamed lemony-yellow-green. An easterly zephyr arrived and the Spanish moss began to dance. Soon the wind stiffened and the Spanish moss trailed west beneath its force.
By 8:15 the day asserted itself. Bed and breakfast guests wandered the grounds. The sun reached that certain point where we put away cameras and headed to Weehaw Plantation to meet Jim Clark.
At Weehaw, a modern-day plantation with old rice-era vestiges, Jim led us to a point where a massive view of the rivers and old cypress bottomland went on for miles and miles. “Used to be like this all the way to the coast,” he said. Standing there looking over the expansive wetlands before us we stood on an archaeological dig of sorts. Workers had uncovered old brick walkways right beneath camellias. Jim broke off a rare red-and-white camellia, Captain Martin’s, and gave it to us. Nearby Union soldiers had burned the plantation’s 100-year-old rose garden out of sheer meanness during the war.
As Jim showed us species of camellias he mentioned the recent discovery of an old plantation home foundation. The years and silt had conspired to cover it but it was there plain as day. As people excavated the old steps and foundation, a dump holding many shards of broken glass was discovered close by. In that ancient landfill dating back to pre-colonial days was the broken neck of a wine bottle pictured here with this column. Jim handed me the broken wine bottle as a souvenir of Weehaw.
“That bottle,” he said, “was made in England. You can see that it is old.” Bubbles rest in its glass and the opening of the bottle is in effect welded to the bottle, a sure sign it’s primitive. It ended up in the old landfill with broken bits of pottery, glass, and cookware for a simple reason. Back then if you stepped on broken glass and cut your foot, your days of being able to work and active were over. Lockjaw, as tetanus was called in earlier times, would attack the nervous system and lead to muscle spasms that would prevent the mouth from opening and closing.
Cut your foot and spores of a bacterium would enter the bloodstream and unleash a toxin that causes all the trouble. Tetanus was much feared and all broken glass was spirited away to a place where no one would step on it. Apparently people back then were phobic about broken glass.
Aware of how the simplest cut could lead to serious trouble back when rice was golden we headed over to Millbrook Plantation. Known as Annandale from 1826 to 2001, Millbrook Plantation’s centerpiece is a Greek Revival home that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. We walked through the house that has been equipped with furniture from the early 1800s. You get the feeling of what life in such a home was about but then when you see large flat screen TVs, you get a strange feeling of time travel gone wrong.
Behind the house was a brackish pond where four endangered woodstorks walked about like old men with canes. Right by a seven-foot alligator they walked, paying the gator no mind and he merely content to sun at the edge of marsh grass paid them no mind in return.
We ended our plantation explorations at Estherville Plantation. Driving through its ornate brick-and iron-gated entrance we knew we were in for a treat. I knew that Estherville Plantation’s history goes back to the early 1700s. It was one of the first plantations to use fresh water tides to irrigate its rice fields.
The plantation home faces an expansive open area of water and old rice fields. The wind coming off all that openness was near strong gale force, close to fifty miles per hour. Photography under these conditions was impossible. All the massive live oaks displayed the whiter undersides of their leaves and the Spanish moss hung parallel to the ground as if wires ran it through. We called it a day and our time with the old rice plantations was done for that day at least.
On the way back to the South Carolina Midlands images and thoughts of the grand old plantations haunted me. Robert and I in a sense are preservationists. We go to places to make a record of what was and is. We take photos and set impressions and facts to paper. I tried to come up with a list of words that capture the essence of these beautiful relics of the Old South. The best I could do was this: old earthy bricks, lost glories, vanquished wealth, red and white and red-and-white camellias, allées of green oaks, white clouds, flat expanses of moody water, and fear: fear of things we fear not. Broken bottles and tetanus, and marauding federal troops who could never claim to be rosarians.