…and the building of Georgetown
By Jackie R. Broach
For modern-day Georgetown, nestled along picturesque Winyah Bay, tourism is bread and butter. Visitors are drawn by the area’s beautiful beaches, wealth of history and Southern charm. But many of those visitors may not know that the name Georgetown was once synonymous with rice production.
The crop, and the enslaved African-Americans who made its production possible, were responsible for much of the grandeur that remains on land that once housed working plantations. Today, these sites are mostly private homes, bed and breakfasts and scenic backdrops for weddings and other elegant events.
“For 150 years, Georgetown anchored what was called the Rice Coast,” said Eldred “Wink” Prince, professor emeritus of Southern history and culture at Coastal Carolina University in Conway.
The Rice Coast started just south of Wilmington, North Carolina, and extended as far as Savannah, Georgia, Prince said. “But it was Georgetown that was the beating heart of the rice empire,” he added. Around the middle of the 19th century, Georgetown’s port had the distinction of shipping more rice than any other location in the world.
You can get a visual of the extent of production and shipping with a guided tour at The Rice Museum in Georgetown. A map on the front wall of the space shows every rice plantation that existed in the county, along with the surname of the family that owned it. At one point, rice fields covered approximately 40,000 acres in Georgetown County.
A number of factors aligned to make Georgetown ideal for rice production back then. The two most important were an abundance of tidewater rivers – those close enough to the sea to be affected by the rise and fall of the tides – and an ample labor supply with knowledge of rice production. Without either of those things, the industry couldn’t have existed as it did in Georgetown, Prince said.
“The land was perfect for it,” said Richard Porcher, a professional field botanist, retired professor at The Citadel and author of The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice. “The soil was good, the temperature was right and you had tens of thousands of acres of swampland.”
At the peak of the county’s rice production, 85 percent of the county’s population was comprised of enslaved African-Americans. Slaves shipped to the Carolina coast from western Africa started planting rice for their own food, using seeds they brought with them, according to Porcher. Its cultivation and growth was something they were familiar with from home. The slave owners decided it looked like a crop that could be profitable. It was. And in the course of a century, an empire was built on the knowledge, blood and sweat of enslaved African-Americans.
Georgetown’s Rice Museum houses a collection of paintings and dioramas that show both the labor that went into rice production and the vast differences in how slaves and wealthy planter families lived on the plantations. The land where the remnants of rice fields can still be seen today started out as cypress swampland. Slaves had to remove the towering cypress trees and transform the land for rice production. Trunk dock systems and levy systems then had to be constructed so the tidal waters could be manipulated to flood and drain the fields.
“I don’t think anyone is talking enough about the literal landscape change that needed to take place before rice could be grown,” said Zenobia Washington Harper, an interpreter at The Rice Museum. “They had to cut these cypress trees, 18-20 feet in diameter, touching the sky. The stumps had to be brought out. There was dredging and draining of land, and sand and dirt being brought in from places to dam up all these rice fields.”
Clearing the land and preparing the fields in many cases would have taken five to 10 years, Harper said. The life expectancy of a slave doing that kind of work would have been about three to five years.
“In most cases, it would have been 15 years before you started seeing money from this effort. It was a long-haul, wealthy man’s game,” she added.
Getting rice from field to market was also a labor-intensive process.
“There were three things you had to do to get rice ready for market,” Porcher explained. “You had to harvest, which was always done by hand with a blade called a sickle. There was no machine to harvest rice during the time it was produced here. Next was the threshing process, where you knock the seed off the plant. Early on, they used flailing sticks, then as time went on, they developed water-powered, animal-powered and finally steam-powered threshing machines with metal beaters that would whirl around and knock the seed off.”
The third step was milling. Rice seeds are covered by an inedible hull. Once the hull is removed, there is a layer called bran that must be removed to reap white rice. That was originally done with a hand-driven mortar and pestle, but that method was inefficient, leaving many of the rice grains broken. Animal and water-driven machines were later developed. Then came mill stones.
It was by no means an easy process, but the labor required was free and the potential profit was nearly limitless.
As a botanist, Porcher became interested in the machinery used in rice production because he would often come across the remains while searching for plants out in the fields. He found there were few people who could answer his questions about the machines and the chimneys.
“There weren’t many historians that would have been going out into the mosquito-infested delta to see these machines. Nothing in literature would tell you what they were,” Porcher said. “It was in the back of my mind for quite a while, and I decided it was time to do some investigating.”
The result was The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice, which tells the story of getting rice from field to market in great detail.
Through the 18th century and much of the 19th century, more and more areas were cleared for rice production.
“If we were to graph this, it would be almost like a diagonal line, going up and up and up through the years,” Porcher said. “Of course, there were some years when it dropped off, such as during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Blockades during the war would have affected rice production, plus there were natural factors, such as climate and hurricanes, that would have hurt production during some years. But overall, it was a very steady, constant increase in production.”
By 1790, “it reached a real peak. This was known as the Golden Age of rice production,” Prince said. “There were just huge amounts of rice being produced.”
In 1840, Georgetown County produced 36.4 million pounds of rice – almost half the total national product – according to The History of Georgetown County, South Carolina by George Rogers. This success resulted in vast fortunes for planter families across the county. Some of Georgetown’s rice barons were among the wealthiest people in pre-industrial America, Prince said.
“On the eve of the American Revolution, the white population of the Lowcountry was by far the richest single group in colonial America, and by extension, on average probably the wealthiest in the world,” wrote Richard Schulze in his book, Carolina Gold Rice: The Ebb and Flow History of a Lowcountry Cash Crop. “Nowhere else in America did a segment of the population live so well. Not only were they privileged to enjoy handsome residences … but they were often able to travel and vacation in the North or abroad. Education of young men in Europe was commonplace. Luxury goods of all sorts were readily available.”
As rice production and profits increased, more plantations appeared along the county’s five rivers, with the families constructing grand mansions at the end of drives dotted with moss-draped oaks. These homes showcased lavish furnishings and were proof of the enormous profit the rice industry turned in Georgetown County.
The late Alberta Lachicotte Quattlebaum, a descendant of one of these planter families, describes the individual histories of the county’s rice plantations and the families that owned them in her book, Georgetown Rice Plantations.
In a chapter on Arcadia Plantation, which belonged to the Allston family, Quattlebaum detailed its grand houses and famous gardens. The plantation was visited by President James Monroe in April 1819, and his welcome was an elaborate one. Quattlebaum wrote that a carpet was laid out for the President to walk on, stretching from the front entrance of the house to a canal 200 yards away where his party would arrive.
“The plantation gentry were fond of doing things in the grand manner,” Quattlebaum wrote.
In her description of the house at Belle Isle Plantation on the Sampit River, she noted that the “most outstanding feature of the old house,” was the parlor, which measured 25 by 40 feet.
“Extending the length of the dwelling, the room had scenic wallpaper depicting, on one side, a skirmish between two bands of Indians and, on another part, a group of young colonial couples against a background of lake, trees and flowers,” she wrote. “The figures of this delightfully quaint paper, so large as to be almost life-size, reached from the four-foot wainscoting to the ceiling. A gracefully designed stairway reached from the main floor to the garret, and 10 steps above the main level there was a landing across the hall. On the outside of each step were scroll-relief carvings, while on the base of the landing there were carvings of palm-like designs.”
At Friendfield Plantation, owner Francis Withers built a large mansion on the property in 1818 that was so grand as to be “noted over the whole countryside,” Quattlebaum wrote. “The front steps and porch were of flagstone; the banisters and stair railings were made of wrought iron. Wallpaper, described as a ‘work of art,’ is said to have been brought over from Paris. An outstanding feature … was a circular stairway extending from the basement to the attic.”
The Golden Age for Georgetown’s rice kingdom ended in the early 1860s with the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. Additionally, much of the infrastructure for rice production was destroyed during the war or fell into disrepair, and neither the capital nor the labor force remained to keep up with it.
“Rice production continued after the war, until the early 1900s, but at a much reduced rate,” Porcher said. “Many of the old mills were burned and they had to go back to mortar and pestle methods. And with the loss of a free labor supply, they had to hire people.”
Additionally, many of the African-American families no longer wanted to work in rice fields. Those who could moved to cities for better opportunities.
“Some people did continue to produce rice, but it never recovered anywhere close to what it was before the war,” Prince said.
With the fall of the rice culture, the City of Georgetown also fell into decline, in part due to rail supplanting water as a primary means of moving merchandise inland. Florence, as a rail hub, took over as the center of commerce for the Pee Dee region.
Notably, after the Civil War, a number of Georgetown’s rice planters were women – widows and daughters who inherited property and needed to make it profitable again to survive.
Ultimately, two factors finally put an end to Georgetown’s limping rice industry, according to Prince. First was a series of powerful hurricanes that came through the area around the early 20th century, including the Friday the 13th hurricane in 1893 and a powerful hurricane in 1911.
The second factor was an undercutting of the market from other parts of the United States, including Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, which had started producing rice and were able to do it more cheaply by using machines that weren’t suitable in the Carolina Lowcountry. The Lowcountry fields were too soft and muddy to support the heavy machinery that worked so well farther west.
That era also saw the start of a reshaping of the land and culture. Without slave labor, planters had to accept a diminished lifestyle from what they had known, and many ended up dividing or selling their plantations. That left plantations such as Hobcaw and Brookgreen to be purchased by new families – often wealthy families from the North. Ultimately, this resulted in these tracts being preserved and protected from development. Hobcaw and Brookgreen now are places where Georgetown’s history, including that of its former rice empire, are told for new generations.
Part of the challenge now is telling the story accurately, with no whitewashing of the uglier details.
“It was forced migration and labor that allowed those planters to achieve all they did,” said Joseph McGill, an African-American historian, Civil War re-enactor and founder of the Slave Dwelling Project. “Not only did slaves tame the land and produce the rice, but they also did everything else that needed to be done, including building the structures, cutting the trees that framed those structures, making the bricks and then planting and growing their own food. It was their labor that made the rice empire, but through the years, that has not been translated into the narrative. All the talk is about the nice beautiful homes and the greatness of the planters. Little of that success gets attributed to the slaves.”
McGill is working to change that by bringing awareness to how slaves lived. He’s doing this by sleeping in former slave cabins across the nation and documenting his trips. One of his stays was at Friendfield Village, a smattering of wooden structures at Georgetown’s Hobcaw Barony that were once occupied by the plantation’s slaves, and in which their descendants lived well into the mid-20th century.
Lee Brockington, senior interpreter at Hobcaw Barony in Georgetown, shares McGill’s vision.
At Belle Baruch’s 16,000-acre former property, Brockington said the staff uses the land to tell stories of all those who shaped it, including Native Americans, African Americans, Southerners and Northerners.
“We use a wide range of male and female employees to interpret a broader social story. History is more than wars, economics and politics; it is the study of human impact on the environment and how the environment influences the culture,” she said.
“Updated and inclusive interpretation is important, so these former rice plantations don’t remain anachronistic or simply pretty settings for weddings,” she said. “Former rice plantations can be an excellent setting for teaching and learning through context, landscape and the telling of an inclusive history.”
Clearly, though Georgetown County’s hold on the rice industry is long gone, its mark still remains. It’s there physically in the lasting changes it had on the landscape and the grand houses and properties that continue to draw interest and admiration. But it’s also in the stories of all those who were part of that history and the lessons that can be drawn from them to this day.
Jackie Broach is a former journalist who currently works in public information. She lives in Georgetown with her husband and four spoiled cats.