In this short roadtrip, we traversed America. Not in the 350 terrestrial miles we drove, but in the 350 years we time-travelled from Charles Towne, South Carolina, where our country’s European ancestors arrived in 1670 and where the old ways still dominate, to Asheville, North Carolina, where young businessmen and women work side by side with an evolving arts community to develop a new diverse and inclusive lifestyle that may ride demographic growth to define the America of the future. In a time when desires and happiness are increasingly served by being included as participants in groups we admire, and where groups seem to dictate which statements become the facts upon which people live their lives, communities appear more divided and immiscible than ever. Some communities mark past glories, seeming to reverse time; others want to emerge from a formless cocoon to become a new butterfly, beautifully busy on a warm Spring afternoon.  In this short trip we were able to visit both, sampling their respective offerings, and we wondered at their uncertain but likely co-dependent futures.  

There is a large “fleet” of horse-drawn carriages that offer tours of various parts of historic Charleston. To avoid chaos, there are pre-designed tour routes assigned to drivers who narrate their designated route, offering a delightful way to experience the deep historical roots of the City.

In 1663, England’s Charles II granted six English noblemen the new world land of “Carolina,” the name derived from “Carolus,” the monarch’s Latin honorific. The grant included all the land from the southern boundary of Virginia to the northern boundary of Spanish Florida, stretching from the Atlantic, unbounded to the west. Settlement would push the indigenous and Cherokee tribes and the French trappers west and buffered against the Spanish influence from the south. Charles Towne itself was founded by one William Sayle, with a troop of Bermudians, within a decade of the original land grant. Given the advantage of the natural harbor formed at the confluence of the Ashley, Wando and Cooper Rivers, Charleston, as it became known post-Revolution, emerged as the most important English commercial center south of Virginia. The wealth, power and status of the city developed quickly and was dominant for almost two centuries. Charleston’s legacy, including the slave trade, would fuel the development and settlement of our southern states at least through Appomattox. Today, this well-preserved heritage supports tourism as the city’s largest economic driver. In fact, for the last decade, Charleston has been Condé-Nast’s top ranked US tour destination for international travelers. And throughout, one of the top “must do’s” is a city tour in a horse drawn carriage. It was there we determined to start. 

Ironwork is a prevalent and distinct artistic feature of many historical homes and official buildings throughout Charleston. Individual artistry of local blacksmiths was highly prized.

Charleston’s traditional horse drawn carriage tours are tightly regulated by the city, with each carriage subjected to a “head tax.” To control congestion, there are actually five different tours with detailed, established routes, all touching the historic city center. Each carriage is dispatched by lot to a specific route. The lottery ball sent us off on Tour 2, west on Queen Street, then south on King, crossing Broad and along Tradd and Meeting Streets, south towards the Battery and the White Point Gardens overlooking the harbor. Josh, our carriage driver and tour guide, narrated our journey into Charleston’s yesterdays, full of politicians, pastors, pirates, and a handful of normal people. 

The doyens of the city established their homes “south of Broad,” and it is here that the mansions, with their gardens and ironwork, show off Charleston’s artistry. The houses’ styles differ by period, but there are consistent architectural elements of a distinct Lowcountry style—houses built with single rooms and attached verandas in a long row to allow harbor breezes to “air condition” the home, veranda ceilings painted a sky blue to ward off evil spirits. Mansions, whether Federal, Gothic Revival, Italianate or Victorian, were “double houses” hung off a central hall. Homes and gardens were often decorated with a blacksmith’s signature in their fences and gates. Absorbing the details of this rich tapestry is best done at a horse’s natural walking gait. The carriage tour was perfect. 

We stayed at the Governor’s House, a pre-revolutionary house once occupied by Edward Rutledge, the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence and later a Governor of South Carolina. The home, located at Broad and Orange, was actually built in an orange grove just outside the old city’s wall. Designed as a traditional Georgian double house, the home featured bedrooms on either side of a central hall. Redesigned after the Civil War by Captain Wagener in a Victorian style, the home added a spiral staircase, but the heart-of-pine floors, the slate fireplaces and the triple hung windows remained in their original state. The ironwork that once adorned the second story verandas is long gone, but the inn retains an essential sense of Charleston’s long history, and we found ourselves time-traveling deep into our collective past. 

The famous Circular church is located, appropriately, on Meeting Street. The church site and graveyard date from the late 1600’s. The first circular hall dates from 1804. What better way to feel this historic presence than in a slow carriage ride?

The collective past, of course, includes the fact that Charleston was central to the slave trade. From almost 1000 “cargos,” between one and two hundred thousand African captives survived the middle passage and quarantine at Sullivan’s Island, only to be sold here as slaves for plantation or domestic labor. Today, that history is acknowledged, but downplayed by both the whites and blacks we encountered. That is not to say white supremacist feelings do not exist here, witness the Charleston mass shooting at the AME church some five years ago, but we saw a city trying to present positive images of its past while distancing itself from the economic foundation and personal realities of its past.  

A few magnolias greeted us at the entrance to the Magnolia Plantation, a historic rice plantation just north of Charleston. The plantation was founded by the Drayton family in 1676. Despite its name, azaleas are the more common denominator in its famous gardens.

The Magnolia Plantation, sited about 6 miles northwest of downtown Charleston, is part of that past. It is now re-inventing its story as evidenced in its “From Slavery to Freedom” project. Gifted to Thomas Drayton in 1676, he and his wife Anne relocated from Barbados to occupy almost 450 acres of terra firma and marshland on a convenient bend in the Ashley River. After clearing the land, Drayton tried farming various crops including indigo, then valued in Europe as a deep blue dye. Of the several crops they tried, rice, what would become known as Carolina Gold Rice was the most lucrative and would become the staple crop at Magnolia. But rice farming is hard, and Magnolia’s success was built less by the Drayton family and more by the 250 or so slaves there engaged. Today, the Plantation is addressing its past through a restoration project which recreated four restored slave cabins dating from the 1850’s through the early 20th century. The Plantation now offers daily tours of the cabins (as distinct from its gardens or the plantation house) and areas that were used as rice fields. We signed up for both of these tours. 

The slave cabins were restored pursuant to a project plan design to show progress on “the road to freedom” as now interpreted by The Living History Group of Charleston. Per plan, the 1850 cabin was to be “cleaned, repaired and stabilized as needed to ensure the safety of guests visiting the building” which might not have been reflective of conditions for blacks in the 1850’s, let alone when the first slaves arrived in the late 1690’s. And it clearly was not reflective of conditions that would be experienced by a family (or two) trying to live together in ten or twelve square meters of space. Nor was the new freedom reflective of material changes in living conditions. With the exception of the tour presenter, a middle-aged black woman who was a college graduate trained as an actress, blacks at the plantation appeared to serve mainly in menial roles. That is not to say there has been no progress, but I am not sure descendants of slaves have either aspirational freedom or effective freedom of opportunity to pursue aspirational goals. Magnolia was both beautiful and serene. But it seemed life here was caught in a time warp, content in an unevolved past that kept basic roles intact. 

Magnolia’s slave cabin restorations, appropriate for 21st century touring, likely failed to convey the living challenges for Magnolia’s slave families.

The bend in the Ashley River, part of the original grant, was fortuitous: it allowed Drayton’s to build a system of levees and dikes to permit marsh lands to become rice fields as they were flooded and drained in a rhythm necessary for rice cultivation. Tidal rivers provided both the fresh water needed to flood the fields, and the means to get crops to market. And they left time for slaves to perform other important tasks, such as improving the main plantation house. 

Magnolia’s long bridge, perfectly mirrored in the still water, evoked feelings of a placid, peaceful Southern lifestyle.

The Carolina Gold was also fortuitous: in 1685, a distressed merchant ship paid for repairs in Charleston with a small quantity of Madagascar “rice seed.” Dr. Henry Woodward planted the seed, and it produced a savory grain with a distinct, nutty flavor. The grain grew very well in the marshy soil of tidal Carolinas. When properly finished, the rice commanded a premium price, and made wealthy men of plantation owners who could operate with very low labor costs. Of course, the product ceased to produce gold for plantation owners who lost their essentially free labor force after the Civil War. Today, plantation economics are driven more from tourism that from Carolina Gold rice. 

Magnolia Plantation, sited on a bend in the Ashley River, is ideally located to cultivate Carolina’s famous Gold Rice. The elaborate system of gates and levees that supported cultivation are preserved for visitors on the Rice Tour at Magnolia.

Aside from the troubling ghosts of the past, the Plantation and its gardens were beautiful. The azaleas, and the one magnolia I saw were vibrant. The image of the long bridge, reflected precisely in the still water, was perfect. But I left, and to this day remain, a little unsettled. Waves of underclass have come to these new world shores. Yes, they and their newness were the backs upon which industrial wealth was built. Within a few generations, however, individuals in that underclass clawed their way to respected, even preferred places in this melting pot society and became a part of an American amalgam. And in time, slowly, the amalgam redefined itself, adapting to and embracing new ways and diverse viewpoints. But the color barrier seems harder than other barriers. It seems acknowledging a past without allowing for an evolving future is to swim against the tide of history. That cannot end well. Charmed as I was by Charleston and Magnolia, they seemed a bit of a paeon to the past. I would feel better were we on a clearer path to a shared future, if I could see a respect for our past as we also embrace the future and accept the challenge to make change an agent of growth. We would touch that image as we traveled to Clemson and on to Asheville. 

But that is another story, for another day.