When 'Carolina Gold' Ruled
Driving down Highway 61, past the fast-food chains and strip malls, the road narrows, and suddenly, I'm under a cool canopy of live oaks, dripping with smoke-colored Spanish moss. The bustle of downtown Charleston, S.C., seems years behind me: I am back in the days when rice was king. The truly rich and powerful of that era entertained here, on grand plantations along the Ashley River. A few of these estates remain. Drayton Hall survived the Civil War largely unscathed, because the owner made the Union Army believe it was infested with smallpox. And if you want a sense of the grandeur of the antebellum era and the hardships of its slaves, Middleton Place is enlightening.
Middleton boasts one of the first and most stunning formal gardens in America. There is a hush about the place, a calm that takes you over. Directly across a long reflecting pool is a row of Magnolia grandiflora, the grand dame of southern trees. They reach up 60 feet and are covered with fat, white flowers, mirrored in the pool's water. I stand for a moment and drink in the sweet smell of the tea olives.
A grand garden. Towering pines and live oaks line the sandy paths in the garden. Middleton's 1,000-year-old oak, the largest in the state, has a limb spread of 180 feet. Henry Middleton, the first president of the Continental Congress, began plans for this 65-acre garden in 1741, modeling it after Versailles. It took 100 slaves nearly a decade to complete his elaborate, symmetrical designs. The centerpiece is a wide, sweeping view from the manor's gates, through what was once the hall of the main house--destroyed in the Civil War--down the middle of curved terraces and twin lakes shaped like the opened wings of a butterfly to the Ashley River. The south flank of the house, rebuilt after 1865, is open for visitors to see furniture, antiques, and family portraits, many painted by Benjamin West.
Doug Nesbit pours into my hand a little rice, called "Carolina Gold" though the seeds were brought here from Madagascar. We set off to see how rice is grown. Nesbit is also the cooper, or barrel maker, in the plantation's re-created Stableyard, where animals are kept, tools made, grains milled, and--in the past--a large slave community lived.
This year, Middleton opened "Eliza's House," a preserved slave dwelling. Over the door of the duplex--named for its last resident, Eliza Leach--is a horseshoe, turned upside down to catch good luck. Inside, furnishings, record books, and pictures offer a snapshot of the difficult lives of the more than 1,200 African slaves who worked at the family's many plantations. Slaves planted and cultivated the fields, separated grain from the stalks and "polished" it by hand, then carried the rice to ships, which took it downriver to the port of Charleston.
Middleton was the showplace of this empire. And for me, it unlocked the door to a critical time in the nation's history.
"The appeal of Middleton Place is not only in the beauty of its gardens but also in its refusal to sugarcoat the past. The contribution of slaves, and the harshness of their lives, is honestly and carefully told here."
R.W. "JOHNNY" APPLE JR., a travel writer and author of Apple's America. His wife is from a storied Charleston family.
This story appears in the July 4, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.