The Charleston Coast From Our View...
You’ve seen them — African-American women, men, and children sitting on corners of the City Market, or at Saint Michael’s Church on Broad and Meeting streets, or along Highway 17. No matter the season, 100-degree sun be damned, these folks remain steadfastly focused on their craft: sweetgrass baskets.
An intricate work of art, the sweetgrass basket is a sought-after piece of memorabilia. Tourists visiting the Lowcountry see the baskets woven before their own eyes and are given a glimpse of the history behind them. It’s impossible to come away thinking these sweet-smelling masterpieces (think fresh hay) are anything less than special.
The sweetgrass basket wasn’t always a piece of art – they were made out of necessity. Today, the folks you see crafting them are Gullah, descendants of slaves taken from West Africa and brought to the coast of South Carolina and Georgia in the 1700s to work on plantations. In addition to free labor, plantation owners gained a wealth of knowledge and skills, such as basketry.
So what are the baskets made from? Nowadays, sweetgrass. But the skill was honed in the early days using marsh grass, or also known as bulrush. Using the needly marsh grass, slaves were able to coil extremely sturdy work baskets that came to be known as fanners. Fanners were used in the rice fields for winnowing, the process of tossing hulls about so that the chaff could separate from the rice. Work baskets also held veggies, shellfish, and cotton.
It was in the early 1900s that sweetgrass was employed to weave with, in addition to pine needles and palmetto fronds, which added flexibility and bend to the creations and allowed for more intricate designs, such as loops.
The Evolution of a Basket
You can find sweetgrass grown wild in moist, sandy soils near the sea, hence the aplenty supply in the Lowcountry. In the fall, the grass is a beautiful purple before fading to white.
When it’s time to collect the grass, you simply grab the green grass by the handful, with one foot on the root, and pull it from the ground. Then it’s time to lay the grass out in the sun to dry for three to five days, which is when it shrinks and becomes a more beige color.
On average, a good-sized basket takes 10 hours to weave, not including the time it takes to source and dry the materials. The price on a larger piece? About $350, which isn’t a lot considering the labor that went into creating it. You can also find simpler designs for $40, or elaborate ones for thousands. However if you’re really on a budget, you can always also find a sweetgrass rose, which are not only below $5 but also simply gorgeous little works of art — just like the baskets.
To learn more about this incredible tradition passed down through so many generations and to have a chance to weave a basket yourself, follow basket maker Sarah Edwards-Hammond on Facebook. She frequently conducts basket classes for both adults and children.
Where have you spotted sweetgrass weavers in the Lowcountry?
The lighthouses of Charleston have intrigued visitors and locals alike for years. You have to admit it, there’s something so charming and endearing about a lighthouse. More than a beacon for sailors, lighthouses fill folks with awe and wonder — whose paths have they lit?
Charleston is home to two historic lighthouses: the Morris Island Lighthouse and the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse. Here are their stories.
Morris Island Lighthouse
We love lighthouses so much so that we find ourselves fighting to save them, as many Charlestonians have done with the Morris Island Lighthouse — a much beloved part of the Holy City’s history.
Though every lighthouse that has stood on the island survived the elements, they were defenseless against other forces like the Civil War. The lighthouse you can still see today, accessible via Folly Beach, was constructed in 1873. But a lot has changed since then. The lighthouse is no longer active, although in 2016 it was lit momentarily to mark the 140th anniversary of its first lighting in 1876.
Once upon a time, Morris Island was once made up of three islands. But erosion eventually led to the three becoming one, large singular island, which you can see today. The lighthouse was originally surrounded by 1,200 feet of shore but by 1938 it had reached the water’s edge. Due to erosion and the constant changes to the Folly Beach coastline, it’s now in the middle of the water, accessible only by boat at low tide.
Save the Light: In 2007, an organization was formed called Save the Light. Its mission? To preserve the decaying Morris Island Lighthouse, a cause many locals feel passionately about. After all, it’s become a part of our landscape. After a year, stabilization for the structure was achieved, with the first phase of the operation costing a cool $3 million. Now in phase three, the lighthouse is sure to stay a cherished part of Charleston’s history thanks to the valiant efforts of SaveTheLight.org.
Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse
The lighthouse on Sullivan’s Island was put there by the U.S. government back in the 1960s. Designed by a triangle obsessive named Jack Graham, the lighthouse itself is shaped like a triangle — with one of its points aimed at the ocean, which allows it to withstand 125 mph winds. On January 7, 2009 a 74-year-old Graham, and his wife, ventured up to the top of the lighthouse for one last look.
The first time they saw the light of the lighthouse was in 1962. Inside, lighthouse keepers enjoy modern conveniences like AC and an elevator (it takes 74 seconds to reach the top!). But the lantern room at the tip-top must be accessed via another trip up a 25-foot ladder.
When first activated, the lighthouse featured a terrific 28-million candlepower light made possible by carbon arc lamps ($900 a pop), and it was the second brightest light in the western hemisphere! Lighthouse keepers had to adorn asbestos welding suits when accessing the lantern room. Due to annoyed neighbors, the light was downgraded eventually to barely over a million candlepower.
Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse is still in beautiful working order today and is visible from 26 miles.
The lighthouses of Charleston may (for some) be reason enough to visit our coast, but for most of us they are everyday beacons, iconic symbols that add to the allure and history of our town. They stand tall, watching over this magical place we call home.
The city of Charleston is bursting with culture and history that begs to be explored, but if you venture a little farther outside of Charleston, you’ll unlock an essential piece of Lowcountry history. The plantations near Charleston offer more than lush gardens and stunning architecture. They provide visitors a glimpse into the South’s complicated past, in addition to the old customs and traditions of the Lowcountry.
Whether you’re lucky enough to call Charleston home or you’re merely visiting for a few days, meandering through the Lowcountry’s famous plantations is a must. Take a stroll through the following plantations to experience their undeniable beauty and get a unique look into the intricate history of the South.
As one of the oldest plantations in the South, the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens should not be missed. Founded in 1676 by Thomas and Ann Drayton, this majestic and historical landmark has been occupied by the same family for over 300 years and has witnessed many notable moments in the history of the United States.
However, the plantation’s history isn’t the only thing that draws thousands of tourists to Magnolia each year. The gardens have a rich history of their own, and their luscious beauty makes the Magnolia Plantation one of the top wedding destinations in America.
History of Magnolia Plantation
In 1676, Thomas Drayton and his wife Ann traveled from Barbados to make a life in the new English colony of Charles Towne (later to become Charleston). They built the Magnolia Plantation and a small garden along the banks of the Ashley River, which provided them with immense wealth through the cultivation of rice.
When you take a guided tour of the plantation, you will hear how African Americans brought rice with them to the Lowcountry, transforming the agriculture and economy of Charleston. There are also four slave cabins, where African American slaves lived and worked on the plantation during this time.
The Magnolia Plantation has withstood many difficult times and witnessed prominent events in America’s history. During the Revolutionary War, the Drayton sons would fight as soldiers against the British. Later, the family would undergo hard times when the Civil War broke out and threatened the future of the plantation.
By opening Magnolia Plantation and Gardens to the public in 1870, the Drayton family was able to preserve the plantation and their livelihood.
The Romantic Magnolia Gardens
As the oldest and one of the most famous gardens in America, the Magnolia Gardens are teeming with stunning horticulture. Explore over 100 acres of Romantic-style gardens that offer something special no matter what time of the year you visit.
You can thank Reverend John Grimké Drayton for much of the beauty seen in the Magnolia Gardens today. To make his wife feel more at home after relocating from Philadelphia, he introduced the first azaleas in America and planted the first outdoor variety of camellias as well.
His ministerial career motivated him to recreate the Garden of Eden, and anyone who tours these gardens can see that he did a spectacular job. With its unrivaled beauty and extensive collection of native flora, the gardens are largely what saved the Magnolia Plantation from financial ruin.
Additional Attractions and Tours
After exploring the Drayton house and the gardens, nature-lovers can take a boat or train tour that takes them through the cypress wetland habitat and the location of the old rice fields. On these tours, you’ll get to see plenty of wildlife that call the beautiful Magnolia Plantation home.
In addition to these tours, don’t forget to take the kids to the plantation’s petting zoo and nature center. The zoo contains both domesticated and wild creatures, many of which are native to the state, including the gray fox, beaver and bobcat.
If you’re looking for the perfect combination of natural wildlife and history, Middleton Place should be on your list of places to visit in Charleston. Nestled on the banks of the Ashley River, Middleton Place is home to America’s Oldest Landscaped Gardens, abundant wildlife and historic plantation stables.
It’s easy to feel like you’ve been transported back in time at Middleton Place. Costumed craftspeople work on-site, and heritage animal breeds are present in the stable yards. Handcrafted carriages transport visitors around the carefully preserved plantation, providing an authentic experience.
History of Middleton Place
Built in 1705, Henry Middleton came into possession of the house through his marriage to Mary Williams in 1741. Since then, the plantation has remained under the same stewardship for 320 years.
From colonial times to the years following the Civil War, the Middleton family have played significant roles in American history. Many family members were influential political figures, beginning with Henry Middleton, who was the second president of the First Continental Congress. His son Arthur was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Arthur’s son was the governor of South Carolina and the Minister Plenipotentiary to Russia.
William Middleton, an ardent secessionist, signed South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession in 1860. In 1865, the plantation was occupied by Union troops, who burned the main house and northern wing. William lacked the funds for major restorations, and the small restorations that he did manage were upset by the Charleston Earthquake in 1886.
The following generations dedicated themselves to restoring the plantation and gardens to their original splendor. In the 1920s, the family opened the gardens to the public, and the plantation was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It officially became a National Historic Landmark District in the 1970s.
Life at Middleton Place
The House Museum and Eliza’s House should not be missed during your stroll on the plantation. Both places give visitors a special glimpse into the lives of the Middleton family, the freedmen who served them, and the many enslaved people who worked on the plantation.
The House Museum includes fascinating artifacts donated by the Middletons, including paintings, books, furniture and documents that date back to the 1740s. The house itself is a sight to see, as it is the only portion of the plantation that retains its original structure.
Eliza’s House is a freedmen’s dwelling that depicts the stories of over seven generations of slaves who occupied the plantation’s grounds up until the Civil War. Named after its last occupant, Eliza’s House offers tours to discuss the domestic life of slaves and freed people, in addition to their laborious work out in the rice fields.
Touring the Grounds and Gardens
To experience the beauty and functionality of Middleton Place, seeing the grounds and famous gardens are a must. The plantation’s plentiful land gives visitors the chance to imagine how Middleton Place functioned during the 18th and 19th century. In fact, many of the animal breeds you see at the plantation today were the same ones used to work the land centuries ago.
You can also take a self-guided tour through America’s Oldest Landscaped Gardens, which contains centuries-old camellias, azaleas, magnolias and other flora that cover the beautiful grounds.
Situated on the Ashley River about 15 miles south of Charleston, Drayton Hall is the oldest preserved plantation in America, retaining nearly all its original structure and historic landscape. Built in the 1740s, the stunning George Palladian plantation also features a Memorial Arch that represents one of the oldest documented African American cemeteries in the country.
Drayton Hall also happens to be located just down the road from the Magnolia Plantation, making it easy to visit both in a single day if you are feeling ambitious. Whether you dedicate a full day or a half-day, Drayton Hall is a must for those who want to unlock a major piece of African-American and Lowcountry history.
History of Drayton Hall
As the third son in the family, John Drayton knew that inheriting his birthplace at Magnolia Plantations wasn’t likely. The 37-year-old widower decided to purchase property along the scenic Ashley River in the 1730s, where he constructed an elite mansion during the late 1740s.
This architectural masterpiece was inspired by the Renaissance influences of Andrea Palladio and sits on over 630 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds. Drayton Hall is the only plantation that wasn’t destroyed during the Revolutionary War, making it a rare gem of the South.
Drayton Hall served as the hub for John Drayton’s enormous plantation empire. He owned over 100 plantations that spanned across South Carolina and Georgia, where thousands of slaves grew rice, cotton and indigo, as well as mining for phosphate.
The profits generated from the phosphate mining largely contributed to the Drayton’s ability to recover from the Civil War. Drayton Hall passed through seven generations of the Drayton family and was acquired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1974. In 1977, it was opened to the public, and many of the Drayton family artifacts can be seen by all.
The African-American Cemetery
In addition to touring the stunning Drayton mansion, the plantation is also home to one of the oldest documented African-American cemeteries in the nation. Dating back to about 1790, the cemetery serves as the final resting place for over 40 people, both freed and enslaved. Some of the graves are named, but most are unknown.
Although touring the cemetery can be a heavy undertaking, it is a necessary stop if you want a true plantation experience. The cemetery grounds have been left in a natural state to comply with the wishes of Richmond Bowens, whose ancestors were enslaved at Drayton Hall. The cemetery and the plantation itself has largely remained unaltered, giving visitors a sense that they have truly stepped back in time.
Venture through the beautiful Spanish-moss-draped live oaks and gorgeous gardens of Boone Hall, and you’ll understand why it’s the most photographed plantation in the country. Located in Mount Pleasant (roughly 10 miles away from Charleston), Boone Hall is also the oldest operating plantation in the Lowcountry and has a thriving modern market.
The enchanting grounds of Boone Hall attract thousands of visitors each year, not only for its spectacular beauty and year-round activities, but also its rich history. Boone Hall’s enthralling exhibits and tours featuring Gullah culture and black history are the best of any American plantation.
History of Boone Hall
Boone Hall Plantation was founded in 1681 when Theophilus Patey was granted 470 acres on Wampacheeoone Creek, otherwise known Boone Hall Creek. It is believed that Patey gave his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Major John Boone about 400 acres as a wedding gift.
John Boone was one of the original settlers of the South Carolina colony and held several prestigious positions, including tax assessor and highway commissioner. The exact date of his death is unknown, but the will he created in 1711 left a third of the estate to his wife and divided the rest divided amongst his five children.
The plantation remained in the Boone family until 1811, when the property was sold to Thomas A. Vardell for $12,000. Boone Hall would have many owners, some of them leaving lasting impressions on the plantation.
When Henry and John Horlbeck came into possession of Boone Hall in 1817, the brothers would begin planting the famous Avenue of Oaks. The brothers were in the brick business, and many buildings in downtown Charleston feature their bricks, including Stephen’s Episcopal Church and St John’s Lutheran Church.
Boone Hall was purchased by Harris and Nancy McRae in 1955 and opened to the public in 1959. Now owned by William McRae, the historic grounds of the plantation can be toured by the public, while the other half of the plantation is used to produce crops such as strawberries, peaches, tomatoes and more.
Gullah Culture and Black History
What sets Boone Hall apart from other plantations is its amazing exhibits and performances featuring Gullah culture and black history.
Their Black History in America exhibit offers visitors the chance to take in educational and entertaining performances that take place in the nine original slave cabins, each built between 1790 and 1810.
Boone Hall is also the only plantation to feature live presentations from contemporary Gullah people who share their unique story and culture with visitors. Taking in a performance at the Gullah Theater is an experience that you won’t soon forget.
Boone Hall Farms Market and U-Pick Operations
Boone Hall has been providing crops and produce for the Lowcountry since the 17th century when John Boone first inherited the land, making it the oldest operating plantation in the nation. Their continued success has allowed them to establish Boone Hall Farms Market, which officially opened in 2006, and the Boone Hall Farms U-Pick fields.
Boone Hall Farms Market features reasonably priced produce that is always fresh and local. Taking part in the U-Pick fields is a fun activity that you can do with the entire family, and you’ll take home a juicy basket of produce that you harvested in these historic farm.
The plantations surrounding Charleston, SC offer stately, historic homes, lush gardens, and an abundance of learning opportunities about early American life. If you’re planning a trip to Charleston, visit a historic plantation site for a rewarding experience that your whole family will enjoy.