Rounding out our tour of the Charleston area, we spent the afternoon at the Magnolia Plantation, which was founded in 1676 by the Drayton family and continues to be held by the family. It is the oldest public tourist facility in the low country and the oldest public gardens in America, having opened to the public in 1870 as a way to raise funds to maintain the plantation after it was ransacked by Union troops at the end of the Civil War.
The Plantation started out at 2000 acres along the Ashley River where it grew a number of different crops, finally becoming very prosperous growing rice. It is now down to 500 acres and provides an extensive tour showing you the grounds, the slave houses, the gardens, the house and a small petting zoo that they have developed. The Plantation is also very bike friendly with bike and walking trails throughout.
We started our visit with the movie and then moved onto the petting zoo. The animals were incredibly friendly and very well cared for. Tim was intrigued with the peacocks (as you can see from the photos) and Hunter enjoyed all of the animals.
We then took a stroll through the gardens. They had started out as a 3 season garden but were gradually turned into a 4 season garden. At this time of year, there should be an abundance of camellia’s, azaleas, daffodils, pansies and other flowers. Unfortunately, due to the freezing cold weather, most of the blooms had died off or not bloomed at all. We were able to see some orchids and other plants in the solarium.
Slaves played a big role in the economic success of Magnolia over the years, both in the fields and in the gardens. These houses were occupied from the 1850’s through to the late 1990’s. Many of the slaves stayed with the plantation after the civil war and shifted from being slaves to “servants” or “field workers” – doing the same work but now having their freedom. The neatest thing for me was that the overseeing of the Gardens has been in the same 1-2 families for the last 200 years, having started with the first slave gardener in the 1840’s.
Our next stop was a train tour of the property to see the breadth of the property and some of the local flora and fauna. A number of the old rice fields have turned into swamps and are covered in duck weed – a murky green substance that is on the surface and the ducks just love to eat. Other fields are definitely havens for wildlife but you can see where the rice would have grown. Although the weather was quite cool, were were lucky to see 2 alligators out on the banks trying to soak up what little sun there was.
The last stop on our tour was to check out the house. They do scheduled tours of the house every 30 minutes to limit the number of people in the house and provide you with a historic overview. There is no aimless wandering allowed. The house has an interesting story as it is actually the 3rd house in this spot on the property. The 1st was burned down due to nature and the 2nd was burned down by Union forces at the end of the Civil War. This house was built in sections as the family could afford to rebuild over the last 100 years. It was lived in by the family until 1975, when they decided to open it to the public and move out to a house in Charleston.
Overall it was a worthwhile experience. We chose to do the tour as a package with a guide from Historic Tours of Charleston. The plus side was that this is slow season and there was no one else on our tour so we basically had a private tour (same thing happened with the pirate tour in the morning). The downside was that it felt quite scheduled and rushed and we weren’t really able to wander where our interests took us. It would be a great place to spend the day and either walk or bike ride around. They have a small cafe on site so lunch and snacks are available.