March, 2011 – Charleston, South Carolina – Magnolia Plantation

Posted on November 16, 2011


March isn’t a great time for flowers, even in the South.

However, we were sure the grounds of Magnolia Plantation, located near Charleston, would be something to see regardless of the time of year.

And it was.

The history of this place is fascinating, especially for a Mid-Westerner who tends to think of built environments dating back 150 years as being REALLY old.

It all began when Thomas Drayton and his wife Anne came to Charles Towne from Barbados and established Magnolia Plantation on the Ashley River in 1679.

Life progressed through the years in the usual manner until the late 1830’s, when descendant John Grimke Drayton was studying for the ministry in England.  His older brother – who had inherited the estate from their father – was suddenly killed in a hunting accident,  and John found himself the wealthy owner of Magnolia Plantation at the age of 22.

Due to his new responsibuilities, he decided to complete his studies in New York, where he also fell in love and married.

After Mr. and Mrs. Drayton returned to Charleston, John developed tuberculosis and was advised by his doctor to get outside and “work in the soil”.

Obviously, a wealthy white plantation owner didn’t go work in the fields beside his slaves, so John began concentrating on a more befitting outdoor project – flower gardening.  Since his Philadelphia-born wife wasn’t particularly happy with life in the Low Country, he decided he’d make an “…earthly paradise so that my dear Julia may forever forget Philadelphia and her desire to return there.”

With the help of the plantation’s  gardening crew (slaves to do the actual work, of course), Drayton designed a series of informal gardens and walkways ambling through the estate, harmonizing with the natural Low County beauty of the existing grounds.  Eventually, he became somewhat famous for introducing then-foreign plants to America, including the Azalea.  He was also among the first to use the Camellia in an outdoor setting.

However, during the Civil War the plantation was burned to the ground – either by advancing Federal troops or by Drayton’s own newly-freed slaves.  After the War, a family hunting lodge north of Charleston was floated down the Ashley and remodeled into a new plantation house, and work was begun to re-build the then-famous gardens.

The end of the War meant the end of rice cultivation, and nearly the end of Magnolia Plantation.  However, in 1870 it was decided to open the grounds and gardens for public tours, and this soon became the focus rather than agriculture.

The second house was the scene of many lavish parties during the Roaring Twenties – in fact, it is thought the famous dance, the Charleston, originated there.

The home is lovely, as you might expect, but because it was lived in by family members until sometime in the late 1960’s it is not the best example of a plantation-style museum house.

Today, the estate is owned by members of the eleventh generation of the founder’s family.  (Or the fifteenth, depending on which piece of litarature you pick up).

You can easily spend half a day leisurely wandering through gardens crowded with azaleas and lined with magnificent magnolias and live oaks; walking along pathways through cypress swamps, and viewing the remains of dams and channels used when the estate was a thriving rice plantation.

Beautiful and peaceful and impressive, even in March.