Family Travel

Kerry Egan



Fascinating history (and kittens) at Walnut Grove

Posted 10/3/2013 2:40:00 PM

We stood in front of the brass bell on a tall wooden post. Our tour guide at Walnut Grove Plantation, a preserved pre-Revolutionary War farm just outside Spartanburg, explained that the bell was only rung in case of emergency, like a fire or horrible injury. The bell was the only way to let the nearest neighbors, miles away, know that the Moore family needed help.

Of course, they had no way of knowing whether any of the far-flung neighbors even heard the alarm. When the Moores and the dozen enslaved people they brought with them built this farm in this lovely part of South Carolina in 1765, they were on the frontier of colonial America. There were almost no roads, let alone hospital or police or fire department.

"So, what would happen to a kid if you rang the bell even if there was no emergency because you just really, really, really wanted to see how loud you could make it ring?" Jimmy, my eight-year-old son asked.

The tour guide raised an eyebrow and answered that a child would probably be in a lot of trouble.

"But exactly what kind of trouble would you get in? And for how long would you be in trouble? Does the bell still work today? And would you still get in trouble now, if you rang the bell?" Jimmy added.

He was clearly doing some sort of calculus in his head, so we moved onto the farmhouse. Walnut Grove Plantation gives visitors the chance to walk through an 18th century back-country farm house, furnished as it would have been at that time. We were the only family there when we took the tour, but the knowledgeable guide made the house come alive with stories of how people lived long ago.

What was really amazing, though, were all the original outbuildings that are still standing. The kids especially loved the Conestoga wagon resting under the old barn's overhang, perhaps resting there since the family arrived almost 250 years ago. There’s also a blacksmith shop filled with old tools, a smokehouse, a doctor's office that will make you grateful for modern medicine, and a kitchen.

The outbuildings are scattered through deep green grass and shaded by enormous, centuries-old trees. There's a swaying meadow and a path through the woods to two old graveyards -- one for the Moore family and one for the enslaved people who worked the farm. A geometrical herb garden is planted with the herbs they would have used for everything from seasoning to medicine to dyes for the cloth they made themselves from the thread they also made themselves. The beautiful grounds are worth their own visit.

Next we walked to the schoolhouse, one of the very first in upstate South Carolina. As the tour guide began to explain how children had to make their own ink, a kitten wandered in and curled herself around Mary Frances's ankles. We got to look at hornbooks and slates and a dunce cap in the corner. The guide asked if there were any questions.

"Where did the kitten come from? Who feeds him? Is he related to the cats who lived here during the Revolutionary War? Did the kids back then have pet cats? When did people start having kittens as pets?" she asked.

The kitten was almost as fascinating to the kids as the enormous rotting stump of a 400 year old tree in front of the farmhouse. We spent a good 10 minutes examining it from every angle.

One of the things I like best about traveling with my children are the things I learn. But they're not just the things I'd expect, like the history lessons at Walnut Grove. I love learning what's fascinating to them. It's almost never what I would have guessed.

Lovely Walnut Grove transports you to another time, and exploring it with your children brings you into their world.

Walnut Grove Plantation is located at 1200 Otts Shoals Road, Roebuck. It is open April through October from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 2 to 5 p.m. on Sundays. It’s open only on Saturday in March and November, and closed December through February. Adult admission is $6, children ages 5-17 are admitted for $3, children 4 and younger are admitted free.