Because RV Life circulates primarily in the West, most of our travel articles involve destinations in the West. That’s also true of most of the travel blogs at RVLife.com, but not all.
One of our bloggers, Arline Chandler, lives in a little town in Arkansas, and while she includes the West in her travels, she is liable to write about attractions anywhere in the country. One of her trips took her to South Carolina and a visit to a plantation. For the whole report, you’ll have to go to her blog, “RV Travel Tales” at RVLife.com, but here is a shortened version:
RV Travel Tales: Magnolia Plantation
By Arline Chandler
Magnolia Plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, was once known for its extensive earthworks of dams and dikes built in fields along the Ashley River for irrigating crops of rice—South Carolina Gold, as it was often called in the Colonial Period. Open daily to visitors, Magnolia Plantation today is a house museum with a petting zoo and tours through gardens and marshlands. Dating back to 1676 when Thomas and Ann Drayton built a house and a small formal garden on the site, Magnolia Plantation is one of the oldest in the South and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The generation living on the plantation in the years prior to the Civil War had two sons—Thomas and John. All his life the older brother, Thomas, was groomed to take over the management of the plantation. The family owned numerous cotton and rice fields, a summer home 14 miles up the Ashley River and a downtown mansion in Charleston. John understood that as the second son, he would never be a master of the plantation, or even have a large inheritance. He felt called to be a Christian minister, so he went away to seminary and met and married his wife, Julia.
One day while studying in England, John received a message that his older brother had been injured in a hunting accident and had bled to death on the steps of their plantation home. His mother left the house, never to return. In this unexpected turn of events, John Drayton had to take over all of the family’s holdings. Suddenly at age 22, he had the responsibilities of a wealthy planter. Despite the fact that his Philadelphia-born wife did not like bugs, snakes, or anything about life along the Ashley River, he returned to his home on the Magnolia Plantation.
In hopes that his Julia would not be homesick, John set to work on expanding the gardens of the plantation. Working alongside his slaves, he took the gardens into a more informal style, focusing on the natural beauty of the plantation, the river, and its marshes. More than anyone else, John Drayton is credited with the internationally acclaimed informal beauty of the gardens today. He introduced the first azaleas to America, and he was among the first to use camellia japonica in an outdoor setting
Following his calling, he also entered the ministry as rector of nearby Saint Andrews Church, which had served plantation owners since 1706 and still stands two miles down the highway toward Charleston. Before the Civil War, Drayton devoted the bulk of his ministerial work to the enslaved African-American community. After the war, his focus remained on the newly freed African-Americans. He called his family’s slaves his “black roses.”
After the Civil War, the South’s economy lay in ruins. The original plantation covered 2,000 acres. Drayton sold off 1,500 acres to a phosphate mining company and in 1870, he opened the gardens for tours to bring income to the family. He saved the plantation from ruin. Today, the gardens that Drayton created to God’s glory remain the focal point of tours. An open-air shuttle, called the nature train, takes guests along the river road, through the wooded areas, and around the marshes and ponds. A guide helped us spot alligators sunning their leathery bodies on tilted ramps in the water. In the Audubon Swamp Garden thousands of plants and wild creatures exist in the black water surrounding the cypress and tupelo gum trees.
Guests also have the option to explore on foot, walking on boardwalks, over seven bridges, and along dikes. Each year, hundreds of egrets, herons, and other waterfowl nest within feet of the walking path. The front of the old house faces the Ashley River. In the plantation’s heyday, everyone arrived via the river. Parties typically lasted till dawn when the invited guests climbed aboard a boat to return them to Charleston.
From a wide front porch that wraps three sides of the old home, guests today can look out on the plantation’s first formal gardens surrounded by box hedge. Horses nibble grass in a green pasture beyond the lawn. Peacocks strut—and occasionally fan their jewel-colored tails. Barnyard animals live in an enclosed area where anyone can go through the gate and pet or take photos.