Magnolia Plantation & Gardens - Charleston
Apr 11, 2012
|Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
Today, we visited the magnificent Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Magnolia Plantation has been the original ancestral home of the Drayton family since 1676. Today, the plantation is home to the eleventh generation of Draytons, and it is believed that no other plantation in this state is still under original family ownership from such an early date. Amazing!
Thomas Drayton and his wife Ann arrived from Barbados to the new English colony of Charles Towne and established Magnolia Plantation along the Ashley River in 1679. Thomas and Ann were the first in a direct line of Magnolia family ownership that has lasted more than 300 years and continues to this day.
Magnolia Plantation saw immense wealth and growth through the cultivation of rice during the Colonial era. Later, British and American troops would occupy its grounds during the American Revolution, while the Drayton sons would become both statesmen and soldiers fighting against British rule.
The establishment of the early gardens at Magnolia Plantation in the late 17th century would see an explosion of beauty and expansion throughout the 18th century, but it was not until the early 19th century did the gardens at Magnolia truly begin to expand on a grand scale.
Upon his death in 1825, Thomas Drayton, the great grandson of Magnolia’s first Drayton, willed the estate successively to his daughter’s sons, Thomas and John Grimké. As he had no male heirs to leave it to, he made the condition in the will that they assume their mother’s maiden name of Drayton. Some time later, while in England preparing for the ministry, young John Grimké Drayton received word that his older brother Thomas had died on the steps of the plantation house of a gunshot wound received while riding down the oak avenue during a deer hunt. Thus, having expected to inherit little or nothing as a second son, young John found himself a wealthy plantation owner at the age of 22.
Despite the prestige and wealth inherent in ownership of Magnolia and other plantations, he resolved still to pursue his ministerial career, and in 1838 he entered the Episcopal seminary in New York. While there, he fell in love with, and married, Julia Ewing, daughter of a prominent Philadelphia attorney. Returning to Charleston with his bride, he strove to complete his clerical studies while bearing the burden of managing his large estate. The pressure took its toll, and his fatigue resulted in tuberculosis. His own cure for the illness was working outside in the gardens he loved. He also wanted to create a series of romantic gardens for his wife to make her feel more at home in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
A few years later, as though by a miracle, his health returned, allowing him to enter the ministry as rector of nearby Saint Andrews Church, which had served plantation owners since 1706 and still stands just two miles down the highway towards Charleston. But until his death a half-century later, along with his ministry, Rev. Drayton continued to devote himself to the enhancement of the plantation garden, expressing his desire to a fellow minister in Philadelphia, "...to create an earthly paradise in which my dear Julia may forever forget Philadelphia and her desire to return there."
In tune with the changes he had seen taking place in English gardening away from the very formal design earlier borrowed from the French, John Grimké Drayton moved towards greater emphasis on embellishing the soft natural beauty of the site. More than anyone else he can be credited with the internationally acclaimed informal beauty of the garden today. He introduced the first azaleas to America, and he was among the first to utilize Camellia Japonica in an outdoor setting. A great deal of Magnolia’s horticultural fame today is based on the large and varied collection of varieties of these two species—not the abundant and lovely Southern Magnolia for which the plantation just happened to have been named.
The outbreak of the American Civil War would threaten the welfare of the family, the house, and the gardens themselves. But the plantation would recover from the war to see additional growth of the gardens as they became the focus of the plantation over agriculture when the gardens opened to the public for the first time in 1870 and saved the plantation from ruin. Since that time, the plantation and gardens have evolved and grown into one of the greatest public gardens in America with a rich history.
The Plantation House
We toured the Drayton family home, the third to grace the site in more than three centuries of Drayton family occupation. The current main House – the core of which was built prior to the Revolutionary War near Summerville, South Carolina and floated down the Ashley River to Magnolia after the Civil War — gives a glimpse of plantation life in the 19th century and beyond. We toured ten rooms that were furnished with early-American antiques, porcelain, quilts, and other Drayton family heirlooms. Our guide described life in the 19th century, using furniture and household objects to bring plantation culture alive.
The gardens at Magnolia Plantation are of such beauty and variety that they have brought tourists from around the world to view them since they were open to the public in the early 1870s, but many parts of the gardens are much older, some sections more than 325 years old, making them the oldest unrestored gardens in America. As the plantation has stayed within the ownership of the same family for more than three centuries, each generation has added their own personal touch to the gardens, expanding and adding to their variety. Today there are various varieties of flowers from camellias, daffodils, to azalea’s and countless other species in bloom year round.
We experienced how one family’s vision of creating order and beauty in an untamed new world, evolved over the centuries into the magnificent sprawling gardens that we enjoyed today.
From Slavery To Freedom
This unique street of slave cabins, occupied well into the 20th century, has been carefully preserved and restored to document the full arc of African-American life at Magnolia. Each cabin reflects a different period of the African-American experience at Magnolia – from slavery to the Civil Rights era, providing an extraordinary perspective.
(See Our Photos)
Cabin A – 1850’s Slave Cabin - Built some time in the early 1850’s, this pine-framed duplex was designed to hold two separate families with as many as six people per room. Enslaved African-Americans lived here until Charleston fell to Union forces in Feb. 1865.
Cabin B – 1926 Gardener’s Home - Built in the 1850’s, this cabin was restored to reflect the mid 1920’s era when it was the home of one of Magnolia’s gardeners. The Hastie Family often brought newspapers with them from Charleston and New York which was used for cabin insulation and are recreated here.
Cabin C – 1969 Leach Family Home – Also erected in the 1850’s, this cabin was later inhabited by free African-Americans working at Magnolia. The Leach family boasted a long lineage of prestigious gardeners dating back to the early 1930's, and Johnnie Leach resided here from 1946 until 1969.
Cabin D – 1870 Freedman’s House - African-American workers resided in this cabin off and on into the 1980's, making extensive alterations over the years. Magnolia Plantation restored this 1850's structure to its 1870's condition to illustrate a time when many former slaves became gardeners, porters and guides to the many visitors who traveled to Charleston aboard steamboats once tourism began its rise after the Civil War.
Cabin E – 1900 Gardener’s Home - This is the only cabin on this street not built during slavery. All indicators point to the building's completion occurring around 1900, and would have provided shelter for an individual or couple without children. The last person to inhabit this cabin was groundskeeper Allen Hinge, who left in 1999.
The Nature Train Ride
We boarded the nature train for a history and wildlife tour of the plantation’s wetlands, lakes, forests, and marshes. A Naturalist guide helped us spot alligators, turtles, egrets, and herons in native habitats. The tour brought to life the true landscape and culture of the old South. With more than 600 acres of wildlife habitats and gardens, it can be difficult to see everything there is to see on foot, but the nature train allowed us to view a large portion of these wonderful areas in a relaxing and educational way. It was a great way to give our feet a rest and still enjoy Magnolia’s wildlife experience.
The Nature Boat Ride
We took a boat ride through Magnolia’s old flooded ricefield along the Ashley River, where we saw alligators, frogs, egrets, wood ducks, grackles and cattail-fringed canals.
The boat tour was, again, a perfect way to take a break from walking and enjoy the breeze of the Ashley River as we glided through the water. What a great way to see the wild wetlands.
Petting Zoo and Nature Center
This was so fun. We just love animals and got to see the Great Horned Owl, white-tailed deer running around, not caged, gray fox, bob cat, birds of prey, peacocks all over the plantation, potbelly pigs and much more!
What a great and new experience. The Audubon Swamp Garden is a unique world where trees grow from the water, islands float, and everywhere wild creatures go about their secret lives. It boasts a diversity of living things almost unequaled anywhere else in America. Thousands of plant and animal species coexist amongst the cypress and tupelo gum trees, surrounded by blackwater. The swamp is covered with a green coating called duckweed. You couldn’t see the water move at all. Very interesting. Each year, hundreds of egrets, herons, and other waterfowl nest within feet of the walking path. We explored this wild and otherwise inaccessible landscape on boardwalks, bridges and dikes. We were able to get up close and personal (about two feet) with a seven foot alligator who was sleeping (I think!) on the bank.
And, yes, we saw all this in about 7 ½ hours. We burned major calories today!