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South Carolina

Reliving the Lowcountry's Golden Age

In Georgetown, exploring an era when rice--and slaves--made colonials rich

October 06, 2002|MARSHALL S. BERDAN

GEORGETOWN, S.C. — To hear Zella Mae Wilt, the silver-haired volunteer at the Rice Museum, tell it, the Civil War happened only yesterday. And with all the sweet grace of Andy Griffith's Aunt Bee, Zella Mae was now politely referring to it as "the late unpleasantness."

As an Ohioan and a descendant of Union Army soldiers, I appreciated her polite hospitality. Even more, I appreciated her time and effort: I was the only visitor in the upstairs of the 1842 Greek Revival Old Market Building, and I was still getting the complete $5 tour. That was good because there are lots of fascinating things to be told about this small, unpretentious town of 10,000 that makes regular appearances on lists of America's most charming small towns.

"Back in 1850," Zella Mae explained with obvious pride, "Georgetown County accounted for half of the rice production in the U.S.--more than 1 million pounds. And at an average price of 32 cents a pound, that made some people very, very wealthy. In fact, Georgetown was the wealthiest city in the state, and South Carolina was the wealthiest state in the country--except for Massachusetts." She hesitated before the next line: "Of course, this was all made possible only by slave labor, and that came to a screeching halt after the late unpleasantness."

Now schooled in polite Southern conversation, I refrained from pointing out the even more recent unpleasantness: the ongoing NAACP boycott of South Carolina because of its refusal to remove the Confederate battle flag from state property. If you come looking for remnants of the Old South, you shouldn't be surprised to find them.

My wife, Stacie, our 2 1/2-year-old twin daughters, their nanny and I had found Georgetown, which is thick with such remnants, almost by accident in May. We wanted a beach vacation in the historically evocative South but without shelling out big bucks at the gated resort islands south of Charleston.

So nearby Pawleys Island, which prides itself on being "arrogantly shabby," got the nod, and Georgetown became our second base. At 14 miles away, it was the farthest we would wander from our four-bedroom rented beach house over the next week.

It turned out to be an enlightened choice. Not only is Pawleys Island one of America's oldest beach resorts, established in the 1790s, but its strict no-rise edifice complex makes it the only place in the Myrtle Beach area where you can watch the sun rise over the green Atlantic from your back porch and set over the brown-black tidal estuary from your front porch. And we had all of Georgetown County to explore.

Founded in the early 1700s by the scions of well-connected English families from Charleston, Georgetown, both city and county, was named for King George II. For the next 30 years, Georgetown was true blue in name and deed: Its original cash crop, indigo, was essential for the dyes for royal and navy blue. But when the Colonies revolted against those same bluebloods, the dye trade dried up.

Georgetown's first reconstruction was therefore purely economic. According to local legend, rice had been introduced to South Carolina in 1685, when an itinerant ship captain from Madagascar paid for repairs with a bag of seed rice. Whatever its origins, the confluence of five rivers--the Black, Pee Dee, Waccamaw, Santee and Sampit--and the 4-foot tidal surge at Winyah Bay made the appropriately nicknamed Lowcountry ideal for cultivating "Carolina gold."

Ideal, that is, if you overlooked 46,000 acres of thick cypress cover. The narrator of the 15-minute video shown in the Rice Museum annex equated the task of clearing the land with the building of the Pyramids. The work was done by slaves brought specifically from Senegal and Gambia for their rice-cultivation skills, and it benefited only a dozen extended families, the owners of Georgetown's 150 rice plantations. Nowhere in the antebellum South was the numerical discrepancy between white owners and slaves more pronounced: In 1850, Georgetown County's population was 85% black. On Georgetown's streets, shaded by live oaks, it was apparent how easy life had been for the landed gentry. A total of 63 homes in the town's 40-block historic district are on the National Register of Historic Places. Among the most impressive 18th century manors--and one of the few open to the public--is the white, porticoed Kaminski House, named for the Polish-born merchant who supplied lumber and hardware to rebuild Georgetown after the Civil War. Built in 1760 with a commanding view of the Sampit River, the house is now a museum laden with 17th and 18th century furnishings.

The Rice Paddy Restaurant, a converted Victorian in vibrant coral and rich brown wood, is redolent of Georgetown's golden age, especially if you order their old-time rice purleau (pilaf).

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