Historic Brookgreen Gardens, a tour of the Lowcountry Center

The story of the land…

The Lowcountry Center at Brookgreen Gardens features drawings, maps, artifacts, pictures and stories from 1580s to present. Brookgreen Gardens is open daily and admission is $12 adults, $10 seniors, $6 children 4-12 and free for those 3 and under.

“Draw to life one of each kind of thing that is strange to us in England. . . . all strange birds, beasts, fishes, plants, herbs, trees, and fruits. . . . also the figures and shapes of men and women in their apparel, as also their manner of weapons in every place as you shall find them differing.” – Royal British instructions to John White on a 1582 exploratory voyage

16th century Native Americans lifestyle on the Carolina Coast

1590 drawings of Native Americans living in North Carolina by John White


John White’s drawings, later made famous by Theodore de Bry engraving adaptations, became the most important source of information to Europeans rulers, explorers, settlers and regular folks about the Native Americans lifestyle, social makeup and beliefs.

They showed (through the eye of the “white man”) the flora and fauna that inhabited the area, the village structure, house construction techniques, hunting, harvesting and cooking tools.

They showed the social hierarchy, the roles played by men and women, young and old; how they dressed, how they celebrated and how they dealt with death and the after life.

Learn more about John White’s drawings here.

Rice cultivation was a very complex, time consuming and labor intensive process. Fields needed to be flooded and the water lever to remain stationary. Sometimes the rice needed to be kept completely dry.

Rice flood gates system deployed at Brookgreen Plantation

The rice field trunk was invented by Egyptians more than 6,000 years ago

So ditches were dug, banks were built around the rice fields and small flood gates called “trunks” were installed. People working and maintain the gates were called “trunk menders.”

Did you know? The Egyptians invented the rice field trunk more than 6,000 years ago!

It consisted of two floodgates built to regulate the flow of water. One gate was on the river side and ran through an earthen dike, the other was on the rice field side. The openings were hollowed out from tree trunks, usually cypress (hence the name).

This model was built by Capt. Frank M. Bechkam, who also constructed the two benches in the room with timber left over from the rebuilding of a rice gate on Cane Island in North Santee.

The Lowcountry Center showcases several farming tools used in the past centuries in the rice and turpentine productions. Examples include foot adze, draw knife, broad axe, hoe, rice threshing basket, grinding stone, sap collecting bowl etc.

Rice plantation and sap collecting equipment

18th and 19th centuries farming tools used at Brookgreen Plantation

There is gold in them thar’ trees!

Demand for naval stores products in the United States began in early 1700s to supply the growing shipping industry of the colonies. Turpentine, rosin, tar and pitch were used in various applications in the ship building process.

The turpentine making process in late 19th century

1890s photograph of turpentine workers and distilleries


Tar and pitch were used for water proofing and sealing rope ends; turpentine as a preservative and solvent, and rosin for grease, water proofing and foundry work.

All naval stores were made derivatives extracted from pine trees, especially the Longleaf and Slash varieties abundant along the Carolina coast.

By the early 1800s, the “Tar Heelers” of North Carolina had expanded into the forests of Horry County. By 1850, 12 stills existed on the banks of Waccamaw River. Turpentine workers striped the bark from pine trees and collected the sticky rosin in barrels which were hauled by mule cart to turpentine distilleries for processing.

After Civil War and Reconstruction most of the Lowcountry rice plantations shattered. Ironically this ensured the preservation of extensive natural areas for future generations.

Early 20th duck hunting expedition in the Lowcountry

Waterfowl hunting bonanza on the former rice plantations in the 1920s


At the end of 19th century, real estate promoters described the local climate as beneficial for tuberculosis sufferers.

They advertised the plantations as a dreamland for recreational hunting and fishing. Rich people from the North flocked in the bought most of the plantations.

Anna and Archer Huntington vowed to provide safe havens for waterfowl birds at their properties in Virginia and South Carolina. Other owners encouraged visiting ducks and geese, but ended up harvested them for sport.

Now through August 12, you can enjoy an evening cruise down the creeks of the former rice plantation. Tickets are $7 in addition to general garden admission.

Fun things to do with kids inside Brookgreen Gardens

Play with clay, draw and pet live native animals at The Children Discovery Room

• See some wading magnificent birds at the Cypress Swamp Aviary

• Admire wild animals and rare farm breeds at the Lowcountry Zoo

• Check out the rice fields and the slave overseer’s house and kitchen ruins on the Lowcountry Trail. Beware, there several ghosts haunting the plantation and the nearby beaches.

Advertisements

Brookgreen Lowcountry Trail rice fields, historic artifacts, ghost tales and beautiful old trees

Present day Brookgreen Gardens stands on what was known as The Oaks, Brookgreen, Springfield and Laurel Hill rice plantations, powerful dynasties built on the backs of thousands of African slaves. They provided the labor, skills and technology required for rice cultivation and production and enriched the region with their traditions, crafts, and language known today as the Gullah-Geechee culture.

The Lowcountry Trail provides a glimpse of what life was like on the plantation hundreds of years ago. Admission to Brookgreen Gardens is $12.95 adults, $10 seniors and $6 children 4-12 and is valid for 7 consecutive days.

Learning about slaves life on the rice plantation

On the boardwalk overlooking the river and rice fields

You can see the remains of the overseer’s residence (on top of the hill), kitchen, smokehouse and dependency (at the edge of the rice field), uncovered during 2000-2001 archeological digs.

As you stroll the boardwalk along the Ricefield Overlook listen to the audio tour, that features a 30-minute fictional story about life on Brookgreen Plantation.

Four stainless steel figures, created by award- winning artist Babette Bloch, tell a revealing story about the specific roles of a Lowcountry plantation: the Plantation Owner, the Overseer, the Enslaved African Male and the Enslaved African Female.

The overseer’s smokehouse
The overseer’ smokehouse architectural design features an exterior firebox, only the second example of its kind to be located and excavated in the Southeast.

Old plantation artifacts Murrells Inlet antebellum history

The smokehouse replica, Lowcountry Trail historic attractions


During the antebellum period, smoked meat, primarily pork, was a staple food for everyone living in the South. The meat was preserved during the “dry salting” process before it was hung in the smokehouse.

Pieces of fresh butchered meat were rubbed with raw salt and placed in a wooden box for up to six weeks. Then the preserved meat was smoked for about a week to give it a particular flavor. Meat was either placed on shelves our hung from horizontal poles.

The smokehouse was filled preserved meat, ham and bacon. As the slaves survival and well being were directly linked to the content of the smokehouse, food allotments were often used as means of social control. The smokehouse came to symbolize the plantation self-sufficiency and the owner’s control over its workforce.

The overseer’s kitchen
By the end of the 18th century all cooking tasks were relegated outside the main residence, thus avoiding the heat, noise, odors, and fire hazards associated with the kitchen.

Brookgreen Gardens archaeological sites

Working in the kitchen at the old rice plantation

It was common for kitchens to also serve as laundry and dairy functions.

The detached kitchen provided a clear separation between masters and slaves. It was an important symbol of social boundaries with clear definitions of status, position and authority.

Archaeological discoveries suggest a typical mid 19th century rural south diet. People consumed cattle, pig, sheep, goat and to some extent chicken and geese. Additional food sources included wildlife from nearby rice fields, creeks and woodlands: gar, perch, striped bass, turtle, wild duck, deer, squirrel and opossum.

Brookgreen Gardens ghost legends
Thousands years old cypress tree trunk lines the path of the Lowcountry Trail. A silent witness to so many stories, mysteries and human struggles…

Giant trunk of a hundreds years old cypress tree

Enormous cypress tree trunk dug out at Brookgreen Gardens

There are many tales surrounding the old Brookgreen Plantation at Waccamaw Neck. My favorites are about Theodosia Burr Alston and the Crab Boy who despite warnings stuck his hand where it didn’t belong, beautifully written by Lynn Michelsohn in her book, “Tales from Brookgreen: Gardens, Folklore, Ghost Stories, and Gullah Folktales in the South Carolina Lowcountry”. All quotes are from this book.

At the turn of the 19th century, The Oaks-Brookgreen Plantation welcomed a new Mistress in Theodosia Burr Alston, the only child of Vice President Aaron Burr. She married South Carolina Governor Joseph Alston and gave up the high social life in New York for a life on the rice plantation.

“Theodosia never prospered in the South. Her health was never good, and she found the South Carolina climate depressing. The heat and humidity often left her frail and sickly. While she participated in lavish social events at The Oaks and in Charleston, she missed the sparkling company of those New York dinners, and she missed the doting father she idealized. Aaron Burr’s disastrous duel with Alexander Hamilton, later accusations of treason over his land schemes, and then his self imposed exile in Europe all left Theodosia deeply saddened.”

Resting under beautiful oak tree near the rice fields overlook

Taking in easy on the Lowcountry Trail at Brookgreen Gardens


Fortunately, little Aaron was born in 1802 and the next ten years brought joy and happiness to his parents. However, in the summer of 1812, the boy died from sickness and was buried in the family plot on the plantation.

Devastated, Theodosia planned to visit her father in New York to try lift her spirits. She departed Georgetown harbor for a six days sea voyage on a small schooner, The Patriot. The vessel never reached New York. Theodosia’s mysterious disappearance gave way to countless speculations and remains a mystery to this day.

Some believed The Patriot perished in a winter storm off Cape Hatteras, the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Others feared the boat sank due to hull damage caused by its old guns that somehow got loose. However most people, including “Kitty Hawk” poet Robert Frost, think that Outer Banks pirates “had lured the ship to its doom for the spoils they could salvage.”

Over years many have sighted her spirit either near the Georgetown warehouse where she boarded the vessel or walking the shores of Dubordieu Beach where her son died. Some have seen “floating over the waves on foggy nights at Huntington Beach, once called Theaville in her honor” or walking down the steps leading to the rice island at Brookgreen Gardens.

Amazing horse sculptures by American artists

Wild, powerful, and beautiful horses

Fun things to do with kids at Brookgreen Gardens (free with garden admission)
• Visit the Children Discovery Center arts and crafts and a live native wildlife show
• Check out interesting farm animals and native wildlife at the Lowcountry Zoo and Farm
Admire beautiful herons and egrets at the Cypress Swamp Aviary

Brookgreen Gardens’ Bloodstain Barn and Atalaya Castle’s Gold-Watcher – mystery tales at Huntington Beach Park

Art lovers, sculpture aficionados and nature enthusiasts watch out! As you stroll Brookgreen Gardens’ peaceful trails showered by a rainbow of extravagant floral arrangements, as you admire one of the most magnificent outdoor sculptures collection in the country, it’s hard to imagine the pain and suffering soaked in these grounds.

“Bloodstains of the dead…Tread them down; walk them out; cover them up. All in vain!”

Brookgreen Gardens

Brookgreen Gardens

Yes, is slavery blood and all the misery that came along with it. During the Civil War this land was part of the Brookgreen Plantation.
Most of the time the owners were out traveling, leaving the business operations to Fraser the overseer. And Fraser “never failed to draw blood”.

“When someone is in the bull pen they have to take a ride on the pony…The overseer gave my mama forty lashes with the strap…A pool of mama’s blood was on the barn floor.”

Once freedom came to Waccamaw River the people tried hunting Fraser down for payback. He was never found. Yet the blood stains in the barn were still there, a painful reminder of their ordeal.
“We didn’t want to pass through the barn…We tried to get rid of them. Tried to wash them off. Wash! Scrub! Stains came back. We walked back and forth…Stomp! Stomp! Stains came back.

Brookgreen Gardens Yellow Sea

Brookgreen Gardens Yellow Sea


We wondered for Christ’s sake why the bloodstains didn’t leave…years passed and still the blood remained”

More than 50 years later, in 1930, Archer Huntington came in, bought the plantation and transformed it into Brookgreen Gardens. “He saw the bloodstains and he tore down the barn. Yep. That was the first thing Huntington did when he bought the plantation…Until he did that, the bloodstains stayed right there.”

Joe, the gold-watcher at Atalaya

Here’s another story that sheds light into Mr. and Mrs. Huntington character and the incredible Atalaya Castle. As a young boy “Archer’s energy seemed unlimited, and his quick mind grasped everything he saw and read…He intended to spend his live giving his father fortune away.”

People in the area were enthuziastic about the jobs prospects from the start of the outdoor museum (Brookgreen Gardens) and a future house (Atalaya). It was Depression time after all. “When they earned a few dollars, they looked at them and counted them, and figure out how far they would go. They didn’t go very far.”

Joe was one of them. He got a job as loading and removing sand but he failed miserably…wrecking the truck on the first day right in front of Mr. Huntington. He was fired on the spot.

Atalaya Castle Huntington Beach

Atalaya Castle Huntington Beach

Joe persisted and few weeks later got a second chance. He split logs, stacked the wood and kept the fire burning at the more than 30 fireplaces inside Atalaya. There were rumors the Huntington hoarded large quantities of money at Atalaya, but Joe saw none of it, for a while at least…

Few weeks later Anna Huntington needed a “scrawny horse” to carve the statue of Don Quixote. Joe found a “nag with bones showing through its rough coat and a head hung nearly to its knees”. Mrs. Huntington was delighted and she pledged to nurse the horse back to health. Joe volunteered for the task. Things looked much rosier with his employers.

Indeed, at Christmas night his trustworthiness was put to the test. Archer Huntington asked Joe to help him move a heavy oak table into the master bathroom. “As the glowing fire reflected on the table, the table itself seemed about to burst into flame. For there, on the table, were stacks of gold, real gold, coins…varying in size from a watermelon seed to a silver dollar”

“Joe, I want you to remain here in the bathroom and keep an eye on it. I will come for it in the morning”. And so he did. To this day, Joe doesn’t know where the gold came from or where it went. He only knows that Huntington trusted him with his fortune that night. “A job that started out so badly ended with each man respecting, and even liking, each other.”

Come to Brookgreen Gardens and Atalaya at Huntington Beach State Park for a once in a lifetime inspirational vacation!

Disclaimer: All the quotes in this post are from Nancy Rhine’s riveting book “Tales of the South Carolina Lowcountry”, an engaging collection of folklore, ghost haunts, and real stories from remote Lowcountry lanes old-timers.