Beginning in the early eighteenth century, exports of rice—dubbed Carolina Gold—made South Carolina rich, and the grain remained one of the Deep South’s most important crops until the Civil War. Declining soil fertility in the tidal swamps along the coast, coupled with the loss of the enormous labor force required for the planting, tending, harvesting, and threshing of rice, doomed the enterprise. Today, visitors to the area will discover vestiges of the fallen empire at former plantations and in the craftwork of the Gullah, descendants of slaves brought to the marshes centuries ago from the rice-growing regions of West Africa. Travelers along U.S. Highway 17 between Charleston and Myrtle Beach will also find the world’s largest outdoor collection of American sculpture and a population of red wolves, one of the world’s most endangered animals.
What began as a hastily constructed palmetto-log fort built on Sullivan’s Island in 1776 to protect Charleston from British attack is today the only National Parks Service site that tells the complete two-century story of American seacoast defense. The cannon walk features artillery pieces spanning decades, and the World War II–era Harbor Entrance Control Post affords great views of Charleston and Fort Sumter. Visitors to the island will also want to swing by the Obstinate Daughter for a bowl of its acclaimed Frogmore chowder, a creamy take on the classic Lowcountry stew containing shrimp, sausage, potatoes, and corn. nps.org
Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Pavilion
The art of coiled basketry traces its origins to West Africa and first appeared in South Carolina in the late eighteenth century in the form of fanner baskets, platter-like pieces used for winnowing rice (the process of separating chaff from grain). Today, basketmakers offer a range of household items, from wine-bottle covers to tissue boxes, as well as traditional pieces, all fashioned from sweetgrass, bulrush, longleaf pine needles, and palmetto strips. Stop in at this open-air market and museum at Mount Pleasant’s Memorial Waterfront Park (or at one of the dozens of stands along U.S. 17) to meet the crafters and purchase a handmade treasure.
Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens
Established in 1681, Boone Hall in Mount Pleasant is one of the oldest working farms in the country, continuously producing crops—from rice and cotton to pecans and strawberries—for more than three centuries. Open-air coach tours transport visitors through fields and orchards and along the Avenue of Oaks, a half-mile drive leading to the main house and flanked by 275-year-old live oak trees. Guests may also learn about the antebellum black experience and Gullah culture through a series of exhibits and live presentations staged in the plantation’s nine original brick slave cabins. boonehallplantation.com
See Wee Restaurant
From the red tin roof to the blue-check vinyl tablecloths, everything about this small roadside restaurant in Awendaw conveys a friendly, down-home feel. Built as a general store in the 1920s, the space was converted into a restaurant twenty-five years ago—though vintage coolers and old shelves lined with cans of beans remain. Start with a bowl of the much-lauded she-crab soup, served with a thimble of brandy, then order the popular lunch platter featuring flounder, shrimp, and oysters tossed in corn flour and fried golden brown. seeweerestaurantinc.com
A one-mile trail behind this Awendaw education center winds past ponds and bogs to a secluded enclosure that is home to four red wolves. The critically endangered species once roamed the eastern United States; today, only 200 or so remain. Visit on Saturday mornings for feedings, then stop in at the center to check out interactive exhibits on other animals and plants that call the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and the Francis Marion National Forest home. fws.gov/refuge/sewee_center
The third-oldest city in South Carolina, Georgetown flourished during the years between the Revolutionary and Civil wars. In 1840, surrounding Georgetown County produced more rice than anywhere else in the world, nearly half the country’s total crop, and boasted the highest per capita income of any county in the United States. Learn about the history of rice cultivation in the area on a one-hour guided tour of this museum situated in the town’s Old Market and Kaminski Hardware buildings, both constructed in 1842. In addition to dioramas and agricultural artifacts, the museum showcases the Browns Ferry Vessel; the fifty-foot-long, circa-1730 cargo boat is the oldest known ship built in the American colonies. ricemuseum.org
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this 500-acre plantation just outside Georgetown was one of the largest in South Carolina. Today, it covers almost 1,000 acres and is regarded as one of the most architecturally intact rice plantations in the state. Operated as a bed-and-breakfast by a descendant of the original owners, the estate features large guest suites situated in three brick outbuildings: the school house, kitchen house, and guesthouse. After breakfast in the main house, visitors may explore the former slave row, stroll the shores of the Black River, and check out the county’s only remaining winnowing barn. mansfieldplantation.com
In 1905, financier and presidential advisor Bernard Baruch purchased eleven defunct rice plantations on the outskirts of Georgetown and established a 16,000-acre hunting retreat. For decades, he hosted the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill before selling the property to his daughter, Belle. Before her 1964 death, she established a trust to administer the land as a research center for state universities. A two-hour bus tour takes visitors to the main house (one highlight: the bedroom where Roosevelt recuperated from acute bronchitis for four weeks in spring 1944), as well as a restored slave village. Seasonal programming includes nature hikes, boat tours, photography classes, fishing expeditions, and more. hobcawbarony.org
Hammock Shops Village
South Carolina’s rice plantation owners once flocked to Pawleys Island to escape the oppressive heat and humidity of their inland estates. Keeping cool was also on the mind of local riverboat captain Joshua John Ward when, in 1889, he created his now-famous cotton-rope hammock featuring a double-latch weave and innovative spreader bar. The hammock grew in popularity, and in 1938, Ward’s family opened the Original Hammock Shop in the resort town. Today, it serves as the anchor of a village of some two dozen standalone shops and restaurants. Be sure to stop by the weavers cottage to watch demonstrations by longtime hammock-maker Marvin Grant. thehammockshops.com
Industrialist Archer Huntington and his wife, sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, purchased four former rice plantations on Murrells Inlet in 1930 with plans to construct a winter retreat. Before completing work on their sprawling Moorish-style castle named Atalaya (now part of Huntington Beach State Park), they established America’s first public sculpture garden on the property. Today, the 9,000-acre garden (across the highway from the state park) showcases the world’s largest outdoor collection of American sculpture, as well as thousands of flowers, centuries-old trees, and a zoo housing native animals from alligators and otters to foxes and owls. brookgreen.org
This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Southbound.