Charleston – Magnolia plantation

Magnolia plantation is the most well-known plantation close to Charleston. The plantation features the oldest public gardens in the United States. Magnolia was founded in 1676 by the Drayton family.

The plantation house itself is impressive, but hardly a symbol of antebellum architecture.  It was built in the 1890’s, long after the Civil war had ended.

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Magnolia house
Magnolia made its riches with rice.  The rice was known as “Carolina Gold” both for its beautiful gold color and because it was “worth its weight in gold” for the Draytons.

Rice is a massively labor-intensive crop, which required the Draytons to use an equally large number of African slaves.  Particularly prized were slaves from rice-growing regions of Africa who had the knowledge to cultivate this difficult crop.  Massive areas had to be cleared and the river diverted to form shallow “fields” that could be flooded with several feet of water. It took over 10 years from the start of the project before the first crop of rice was ready for market.

Magnolia does not shy away from the slavery topic and its history.  Nor does it sugar coat the post-Civil War period when former slaves remained on the property working in their former jobs for meager wages. 4 cabins are on display, each representing a period in the history of the plantation.

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2 former slave cabins
Conditions in the cabins during the slavery era were nothing short of primitive. The cabins have wooden floors, often considered a luxury at that time.  However, given the wet climate of the area, the slaves would otherwise be sleeping in the mud and would have been sick more often so the Draytons made sure the floors were raised.

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Interior of slavery-era cabin
The slavery-era cabin is much as it would have been in the 1850s when it was built. Restoration has been done on some of the cabin but only to repair damage.  Two families would have shared one of these cabins.

Beds were made of wooden posts with rope criss-crossing the frame to form the base of the bed.  A burlap sack stuffed with pine needles, feathers, and other soft items would serve as a mattress.  The expression “sleep tight” comes from the need to constantly tighten the ropes.

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Sleep tight
Next door to the slavery-era cabin was a post-slavery-era cabin that would have been the home of employees.  This cabin has old newspapers covering the walls to keep out drafts and bugs.  The newspaper was coated with a flour/water mix and then applied to the walls.

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Newspapers for wallpaper
I thought the slave cabin tour, called the “Trail to Freedom” was well done, but too short.  The guide spent 30 minutes trying to explain slavery which left only a few minutes to see each of the cabins themselves.  Considering the size of the group, it was not enough time at all.

One of the most interesting stories was of a grandchild of one of the slaves.  His grandfather remained on the plantation as did his father.  Like them, he stayed on the property and worked his entire life.  He had 17 children in one of these small cabins, which he added on a single room. He did not have indoor plumbing.

9 of the 17 children have college degrees and 9 were military veterans.  That man had passed away at the age of 92 only TWO WEEKS before we visited.  His son, in his 60s, still works on the plantation in the gardens just as his father did.

After seeing the slave cabins, we toured the main house.  Because it was built long after the civil war, the house played no part in those troubled times.  Still, it was a strange experience to stand on the massive veranda, looking out over the carefully manicured gardens.  Comparing this house to those we just visited was a study in contrasts.

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The big house

I found the main house a bit underwhelming. Its not any more impressive than other houses from the period although it is especially well furnished.  Given the McMansion building boom lately, I bet many of you reading this have a larger home than the Draytons.

Magnolia is more picturesque than most plantations. After the civil war, it opened its doors to the public as a way to stay financially solvent.  Rice was unprofitable without slaves and Mr. Drayton wisely converted his considerable wealth into Confederate War Bonds in 1863.  Which were not worth the paper they were printed on by 1866.

In spite of the difficult times after the civil war, opening a stately Southern house to the public was considered quite scandalous.  So of course, the Drayton’s were more-or-less alone in the plantation tour market.  Their fortunes turned around, permitting them to continue improving the grounds.

One example is this beautiful and quite well known white concrete bridge over one of the pools near the main house.  It is quite popular for weddings and other events!

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Our last stop was a boat tour through one of the original rice paddies.  The system of dikes and canals is still in place and the field is huge.  I bet 10 football fields would fit into this one large lagoon.  We saw quite a few alligators as well as egrets and other swamp birds.  All of the rice is gone, replaced with cattails.

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Included in our comprehensive tour package was the self-guided “Audubon Swamp Tour.”  It is a mix of raised walking platforms and trails through the swampy ground.  We walked for about 20 minutes until the biting flies and mosquitoes drove us back.  I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like for the early workers to be in those conditions all day, every day.

After seeing the plantation, we wanted some BBQ so we stopped at the Swig and Swine, a highly rated BBQ joint near(ish) to our campground.

20160812_124526_resized [541144]I hadn’t considered Charleston to be a BBQ hotspot, but this might have been the best BBQ I’ve ever had.  Certainly the brisket was just incredible!

People from all over the country, and indeed all over the world, have come to the Swig and Swine.  They have a map and pushpins where people can identify their hometown.  We saw both NorCal and the Florida panhandle were well represented!

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We spent almost 6 hours at Magnolia Plantation between the tours of the gardens, the slave cabins, the big house, the boat, and the grounds.  I had no idea that it could consume an entire day, but it did. If you go, ask them to build in some empty time in the middle of the day so you can eat lunch.  The on-site cafe was quite good and reasonably priced.  Which is good, because once you are at the plantation, you won’t find any services for miles.

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