Middleton Place, South Carolina
Plantations and their stories seem to permeate the south. The antebellum fiction can fill you with wonder and awe of these beautiful places while ignoring how they became to be. Massive land grants, in the new world, given by the King in recognition of some service rendered. Then carved out of the wilderness, and turned into productive use providing tobacco, indigo, rice, cotton and sugarcane. This made a few men very rich. Many others the same through the transportation and sale of these products. All of it made possible by the backbreaking work of slave labor.
The average life expectancy of a slave was 21 years. In todays dollars, the price of a slave ranged from $60,000 in 1809 to $185,000 in 1859. When you dig through the mythology and adjust census figures at the time, about 25% of the citizens of the southern slave holding states were slave owners. Some owned only one, while larger plantations owned 200 or more. The Middleton family owned 19 plantations, and at one time up to 3,700 enslaved people.
The Middletons and their like were very wealthy people. One estimate reports that Bill Gates would have been the third wealthiest person in Charleston had he lived in the antebellum south.
The life as a slave was not easy. The main manor house at Middleton Place was built in 1750. The dining room was built around the “punishing tree”, a large oak to which slaves were tied and whipped as the Middleton’s and their guests enjoyed their dinner.
A few plantations have begun telling a clearer picture of this history. Notable is the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, that tells the story only through the eyes of the enslaved. We visited our first year on the road in 2017. While in Charleston we visited Boon Hall that recounts the stories of those enslaved there, as well as an overview of the Gullah Geechee culture of the Lowcountry.
Middleton Place also does a credible recounting of it’s history, particularly through their Beyond the Fields: Enslavement at Middleton Place tour. Ours was conducted by a retired history professor. We shared the hour long presentation with another couple. Here is our visit to Middleton.
The visit here begins with a tour of one of the oldest landscaped gardens in the country. First laid out in 1741 and modeled after classical french formal gardens, it has been expanded in the 19th and 20th centuries.
|The garden tour begins at the spring fed Reflection Pool|
|Follow the Camellia Allées to the Secret, and Inner Gardens. Camellia bloom in the winter, and while not at their peak, we did enjoy some blossoms.|
|The oak trees spread throughout the Garden are massive|
|The Middleton Oak Tree in the Sundial Garden is thought to be almost a thousand years old.|
|The Middleton Family Tomb is found in the natural wilderness.|
|The Parterre, Terraces and Butterfly Lakes, the view disappearing into the Ashley River, was the view from the original family residence. All designed by the landscape architect of Louis XIV’s Versailles, were constructed with slave labor.|
|The Spring House, built in 1751, was fed by spring waters and provided cool storage. The upper floor was added 100 years later served as a Chapel for the enslaved community.|
|The “South Flanker” was originally a wing of the main house, which was burned during the Civil War. It served as family home after the war. It backs to the Greensward where sheep graze today on the expansive lawn.|
|Adjacent to the Greensward are the Plantation Stockyards and Stables. Labor for Middleton Place was centered here.|
|Here you would find the Carpentry and Coopering shops|
|And the Blacksmith Shop|
|Arthur guards the Stableyards|
|Middleton was a rice plantation. The slaves coming mostly from Western Africa, who knew how to grow rice. Though they did also grow some sugar cane, processing it at this cane mill.|
|The walking tour extends across the Mill Pond Bridge, and into the Azelea Hillside, which would be ablaze with blooming Azeleas, had we visited in spring.|
|The Mill was used to grind corn at least a decade before the Civil War. It used an underwater turbine which turned a horizontal spoked wheel driving the belt attached to the mill stones.|
|The Lower Walk provides for excellent views of not only the Terraces, but also the Ashley River.|
|The walking paths, around the Reflecting Pool, Gardens and along the River are carpeted with fallen oak leaves.|
|The House also has exhibits that give an insight into the lives of the thousands of enslaved people who lived and worked on the Middleton Plantations|