Charleston, SC

How 3 Charleston Plantations Teach History and Enrapture Visitors

Rene Cizio

South Carolina isn’t as known for its Charleston Plantations as it should be. Most people know about its historic colonial architecture, coastal seafood, and the old southern way of life. Still, it should also be known for its preservation of history through a series of stunning plantations. While I was in the area for more than a month, I visited three unique plantations that preserve important pre-civil war history.

While plantations are representations of our grim past with enslavement, they’re being repurposed as educational centers that teach about American slavery, are being used as working farms, and give visitors an immersive glimpse of southern life of the past. These plantations tell stories and show a way of life from the early colonial period through the Civil War era, showcasing what land used to mean to the nation.

Here are three plantations I visited and liked for different reasons.

MIDDLETON PLANTATION

Middleton Place, a National Historic Landmark, focuses on the preservation and historic interpretations based on the Middleton family’s lives and the enslaved African Americans who lived and worked here. Henry Middleton, who commissioned the design of the plantation and grounds, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

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This plantation is one of several in a row along the Ashley River. This two-lane highway leads you through a series of live Oaks that line either side of the road along with blooming pink and white Azealia bushes and other flowers and foliage, making an incredible drive.

Of the three Charleston plantations, I loved this one for its elaborate structured gardens.

At the plantation, I found 65 acres of America’s oldest landscaped gardens. Middleton began creating the gardens in 1741, including various floral allées, elaborately landscaped lawns, a pair of ornamental lakes shaped like butterfly wings and many walking trails. The owners neglected the plantation and gardens for nearly six decades following the Civil War. Much of the house and grounds were almost destroyed in the war’s aftermath but have been restored today.

Visitors are given a map of the grounds and can decide among the many flower-filled paths. The gardens are filled with rows of over 100,000 Camilla trees in red, pink, white and blends of colors.

Fun fact: An allée is a walkway lined with trees or tall shrubs, while an alley is a narrow passageway between or behind buildings.

MIDDLETON PLACE GARDENS

The Camilla allées lead you to the cypress marshes. At the wetlands, a green film floated over still water where pink and white Azalais shared the shore with tall bamboo and cast their reflection off the water.

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Further on, box hedges, azaleas, tea olives, crepe myrtles, and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss led to other ponds and maze-like gardens. I walked among the cultivated gardens and flowers for three hours and wondered about the Middletons. This was one of 19 plantations the family-owned.

My American history books somehow led me to believe that plantations were family-owned farms, which they were, but owning 19 also makes them a massive corporation. It never occurred to me that one family would own so many properties - which makes it significantly more horrific.

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Historians have restored part of the “Big House” and one of the side houses. Soldiers had destroyed them during the Civil War, but one of the side houses remained. It houses the Middleton Place House Museum. You need an extra ticket to go inside.

HISTORIC YARDS AND STORIES

Preservationists converted an outbuilding into the Middleton Place Restaurant. It serves low-country favorites made from fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. They harvest much from the on-site farm and gardens. It closes at 3 pm, so plan if you want to eat there.

Further on were the animal pens and working horse stable yard with antebellum-era livestock such as sheep, goats, and chickens. There were several displays of carriages and farm equipment and live reenactments. I chatted with a cooper making barrels in a wood shack and displayed many types of old devices for the various work they had to do on the plantation.

Fun fact: A cooper is a person who makes casks, barrels, buckets, tubs, troughs and other containers from wood. They call them “coopers” because a “coop” is a small enclosure (barrel) to hold something.

ELIZA’S HOUSE

Further back was an old, enslaved person’s cemetery and Eliza’s House. There is a lot to see and read in this double house, meant to hold two families. You’ll learn about Eliza, her enslaved family and their descendants, some of which lived on the property until the 1990s. Many who stayed did so as paid labor and worked in various domestic roles and as actors for interpretations.

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The plantation sells many souvenirs and books and has a large garden section selling varieties of plants and flowers found on the property. There’s also the Inn at Middleton Place on the picturesque Ashley River.

You buy tickets to tour the property at a small shed near the large parking area for $29. An additional ticket to go inside the remaining section of the plantation house costs an additional $10.

MAGNOLIA PLANTATION AND GARDENS

Another of the Charleston Plantations that line the road along the Ashley River is the Magnolia Plantation. If Middleton Place has the best-landscaped gardens, then Magnolia Plantation has the most romantic gardens. The Drayton family started the plantation in 1676 and opened it to visitors in 1870, making it the oldest public tourist site in the region. They are America’s last large-scale romantic-style gardens. They include 600 acres of wildlife habitats and gardens.

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Fun fact: Gardeners design “romantic” gardens to elicit emotion. They might include a private entrance, serpentine pathways, unexpected seating areas and vistas, subtle lighting or sculpture, and fragrant blooms in every season. Instead of symmetry and order, romantic gardens appear wild and mysterious.

Of the three Charleston plantations, I loved this one for being the most spectacular, breathtaking, romantic gardens I’ve ever been able to walk through.

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There are many ponds and little bridges with flowers of all types planted in picture-perfect places. Long clusters of purple Wisteria hung from the tops of the tree and so much Spanish moss dangled and draped over everything. White Victorian statues peek out from mysterious little spots and blooming Azaleas and Camellias of every color were all over the place. It was exploding with color and fragrance.

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Cultivated– but not too orderly – paths weaved through the gardens between the plantation house and the river. As you meander the paths, flowers, moss, and vines intersect above your head, so you’re constantly walking through a bridal arch.

The interior plantation tour tells you about the life of the Drayton family and showcases the opulent splendor of the era of plantation life before the Civil War. This tour focuses on the years between 1870 and 1975 when the Draytons rebuilt after the war.

On the grounds of the plantation, they host a boat tour, a tram tour, a garden tour, a house tour, and an enslaved person quarters tour, among others. Each tour is an additional cost. But the gardens are the thing worth visiting.

The pontoon boat tour coasts along the river and into the canals, and the tram tour is perfect if you don’t want to walk the many acres or if you’d like a guide to tell you what you’re seeing. The mini train tram goes through the plantation’s forests, lakes, marshes and wetlands while a guide helps spot alligators, turtles and other animals. And there are a lot of alligators in the many plantation ponds.

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A gift shop on the ground floor of the plantation house sells many Magnolias Plantation-themed items and those from the low country.

The cost to tour the grounds and the cabins is $29. The tram, boat and other tours cost an additional $10 each.

BOONE HALL PLANTATION AND GARDENS

The Boone Hall Plantation wasn’t originally on my list of plantations to visit, but I’m sure glad I did because it ended up being my favorite. This was the most affordable, fun, and diverse of all the plantations I’ve seen in Charleston and elsewhere. Plus, it’s still a working farm with plenty of community engagement.

Major John Boone founded Boone Hall Plantation in 1681 on the banks of Wampacheone Creek and has been functional since.

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Of the three Charleston plantations, this was my favorite. I loved many things about Boone Plantation, but the best part was driving onto the property. There are dozens of live oak trees in an allée that line the long driveway forming a glorious canopy overhead dripping with Spanish moss. Boone’s son planted the trees. They took two centuries to meet overhead, creating today’s elegant entryway.  

Along the left are half a dozen brick houses where enslaved people once lived. Now, each is a museum focusing on a different facet of slavery. On the right is a vast pasture for polo ponies because the farm is still active, and some families still live here and use it. Straight ahead is the big old plantation house.

This is different among the Charleston plantations because it’s still a highly productive working farm. They grow many fruits, nuts and vegetables all year long that they sell to the community. Crops they grow:  Strawberries, squash, peppers, tomatoes, blueberries, pecans, cantaloupe, honeydew, beans, okra, corn, and even still some cotton. The list went on and on. They host a wagon ride – also included – that takes you through the farm and you can see all the different beds –  they also keep bees – and grow flowers.

EXPLORING GULLAH CULTURE

“Exploring The Gullah Culture” is a unique presentation. A Gullah Geechee woman gave the presentation and explained her culture through interpretive song, spoken word, art and crafts about the Gullah Geechee people. Boone Hall is the only plantation in the area with a live presentation of this unique culture that I found.

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She explained that Gullah Geechee people were enslaved Africans brought to Charleston plantations. Some came up the Gullah River and some came on the Geechee River. Like people from any place, their cultures, food and dialect were a little different but also unique to South Carolina.  

Her presentation was fun, interactive and lighthearted. It was informative and engaging and worth the price of entry alone.

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In one former enslaved persons cabin, a Gullah Geechee woman was weaving sweet grass baskets and talking to visitors about her craft. Her baskets are for sale, and they’re precious with their intricacy. There are historical relics, guided conversations and various presentations at each cabin on a schedule.

THE PLANTATION HOUSE

Canadian ambassador Thomas Stone built the mansion on Boone Hall Plantation in 1936 as part of the Second Wave of Reconstruction. Guided tours of the first floor allow guests to see how this Georgian-designed home blends recovered materials and antique furnishings to recreate the atmosphere of a coastal Carolina planter’s family.

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The gardens are lovely but nowhere near as beautiful as Middleton or Magnolia. The house tour includes the main floor only, but it is an excellent reflection of the period.

Fun facts: The large, square stone block at the front of the house, which I’ve seen at other colonial homes, is a step to use when descending a high carriage. The double staircases help to separate the sexes. One is for women and the other for men to ensure men didn’t see a woman’s ankle as she ascended. Back then, our guide said, if a man saw a woman’s ankle, he might be required to propose because she’d be “compromised!” They also built furniture with mirrors at the bottom so women could double-check that their dresses were down as they entered the house.

PLANTATION TRACTOR TOUR

A significant part of your visit should include the 30-minute tractor tour around the 738 acres that make up the plantation. You will see and learn about the history of Boone Hall and experience how it remains a working farm today. Even on the plantation, farms are financially viable only because they are “you pick,” Families pay to pick it themselves as a fun afternoon event.

The cost for everything at the plantation is just $26. Picking fruits or vegetables to take home costs extra.

Despite their history, visiting plantations has been a good way to learn about a part of history I knew too little about.

Read more stories about Charleston here.

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