On one of the seven bridges at Magnolia Plantation
We have stayed for two nights at a favorite campground, Jolly Acres, in St. Georges, Ga. Jolly Acres is a very easy hop off in of the Interstate and a quiet place to catch your breath on a long journey. We stayed here last year on the Crooked Road Trip and it is the only repeat visit to any same campground that we will be making on the itinerary for this trip. The amicable owner of Jolly Acres meets arriving campers in a gracious Georgia manner with a freezer bag of his secret recipe Sweet Italian Sausages that he has his butcher make up for his customers. What a nice greeting as we check in to Jolly Acres! There was no question at all what was for dinner and we unabashedly set aside our vegetarian ethic for one night.
I sat in the gazebo at Jolly Acres to write. It was screened in and kept out the bugs! Much appreciated.
We intended to lay low for a couple of days at Jolly Acres, do some laundry in the nice facility here and generally rest up. But we had stopped off at a rest area, met a nice lady familiar with the area and she had encouraged us to be sure to take a drive down Plantation Road while we were there. She extolled the virtues of three plantations that are now on the Historic Register and told us especially about Magnolia Plantation and its extensive gardens. So much for the nap……we got up the next morning, traded the nap for the map and off we set.
THE MAIN HOUSE
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is a historic house with gardens located on 464 acres along the Ashley River. It is one of the oldest plantations in the South, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house and gardens are open to the public and we enjoyed a tour on a warm, breezy Charlotte day.
We took the trolley tour in order to see as much of the various sections of the plantation as possible. It is too large to walk in a day and we only had this one day to explore. According to our tour guide, the plantation dates to 1676, when Thomas and Ann Drayton built a house and small formal garden on the site. It is the only plantation that remains under the control of the original family after 15 generations. The main house, historic Drayton Hall. was built in 1738 by John Drayton. The original Plantation house was burned during the Civil War, likely by Union troops. In the aftermath of the Civil War and postwar economic disruption, John Drayton opened the gardens to the public to earn money as a tourist attraction. In 1870, “Magnolia-on-the-Ashley” were the first private gardens opened to the public.
ARNIE IN FRONT OF ONE OF THE FORMAL ENGLISH GARDEN AREAS; we always think about how much his Dad would have loved seeing the gardens we visit.
Magnolia was originally a rice plantation, with extensive earthworks of dams and dikes built in fields along the river for irrigating land for rice cultivation. After the civil war, the family estate was struggling to stay solvent and the solution was suggested by their African slaves from rice-growing regions. Slaves suggested the idea of cultivated rice and then created the earth works to support it, laboring in the hot, bug and snake infested reclaimed swamp land to make a viable enterprise. They cut trees, built dams to divert the water, created the rice paddies and accomplished the cultivation. The rice they grew became known as Carolina Gold. For a time, rice rescued the failing plantation economy, but after emancipation, there was no labor to sustain it. The remnants of these paddies remain in testimony to the suffering of the people who worked them. The plantation maintains one for bird habitat today.
In the lower level of the main house, is a “history room”. We were intrigued by the old artifacts and photos housed in the room. It is staffed by a congenial Southern lady who can answer any questions for visitors. She explained that Magnolia became known for its gardens after the Reverend John Grimke-Drayton inherited the property in the 1840s and developed them. Through his mother, Grimke was the grandson of Thomas Drayton, who bequeathed the plantation to him on condition that he take the Drayton surname. Through his father, John was a nephew of Sarah Grimke and Angelina Emily Grimke. There were formal photos of these sisters sitting on the baby grand piano and, believe you me, you would not want to mess with these sober two! Their pickle faced scowling stares would stop a train in its tracks. The best tidbit of history that we learn is that the sisters used their money and influence as secret abolitionists despite the fact that their family had been major slave holders. Hidden behind the white bonneted scowls were kind hearts that worked to enforce their Episcopalan principles of freedom for all!
We found some of the images of the Grimke sisters that are displayed in the History Room on line.
Grimke-Drayton, an Episcopal minister, began to have the gardens reworked in an English style; According to legend, this was done to lure his bride south from her native Philidelphia. (Maybe that’s why Arnie works so hard in our tiny garden? I do find him so alluring when he comes in all covered with dirt) The Reverend is among the first to use Camelias in an outdoor setting (1820s), and is said to have introduced the first Azalias to America. Under his supervision, the gardens of Magnolia on the Ashley became well known in the antebellum period for their azaleas and live oak trees. Some were in blossom during our visit and the Magnolias were just budding.
Another visitor to Magnolia in this period was John Audubon for whom Magnolia’s Audubon Swamp Garden is named. In the history room, there is a stunning book that measures a huge four feet x four feet and puts on display a full set of his bird prints. These are priceless prints right at eye level so that you can see the detail in the work and marvel at it. He was a frequent visitor to the gardens to observe and paint. Walking the quiet gardens in his footsteps is humbling for any artist.
IF you are interested in reading more about the Reverand Grimke-Drayton’s ministry to his “Black Roses” as he called the children of the slaves on his plantation, follow this link. We think it is a fascinating story and bit of history.
THE BRIDGE IN THE ORIENTAL BAMBOO GARDEN
Of the five cabins on site, four were built-in slavery times and one about 1900. They have been restored to differing periods: 1850 and other decades after the war, into the twentieth century, as they housed free as well as enslaved workers. The interpretive program reflects African-American history at the plantation, From Slavery to Freedom. Archeological work is revealing more about the lives of both slaves and free black workers, who were skilled gardeners and craftsmen.
Continuing our walking tour of the gardens we found them are divided into separate areas that focus on particular plantings. Our favorite was the Bamboo Garden but it would take two full days to see it all. Major garden features include:
- Barbados Tropical Garden – indoor tropical garden.
- Bamboo Garden
- Biblical Garden – plants mentioned in the Bible, with Old Testament and New Testament areas
- Camellia Collection – First Camellia plantings date from the 1820s, with current plantings containing nearly 900 varieties. Nearly 150 were bred in the gardens’ nursery.
- Cattail Wildlife Refuge – approximately 500 acres, with tower for bird observation.
- Magnolia Plantation’s famous mirroring Cypress Lake
- Cypress Lake -Bald Cypress trees, up to 100 years old, along riverbanks and wetlands.
- Flowerdale (50 acres) – Oldest sections established 1680. Formal plantings of annuals set within triangular beds enclosed by boxwood hedges.
- Long Bridge – Built in the 1840s, one of seven bridges on the grounds
- Maze – replica of England’s famous Hampton Court maze
- Nature Center and Zoo – domesticated animals typical to Southern plantations, injured or orphaned native animals, and exotic birds
- Swamp Garden – emphasizing indigenous plants and rich ecosystem.
Below are some views of Cypress Lake. Much attention is given to retaining habitat for area wildlife.
The preservation of this remarkable tract of land and history is expensive and a real challenge. We hope you get to visit someday and partake in the peace of walking the gardens in the footsteps of critical figures in the abolition movement.