South Carolina plantations conjure images of "Gone with the Wind," hoop skirts, moonlight and magnolias. Of course, the reality was much less romantic.
While the plantation owners were some of the wealthiest and most prominent South Carolina residents of the day, they gained their wealth from grants of land from the king of England or well-arranged marriages, and grew their fortunes through the enslavement and know-how of Africans.
And even though their homes were the finest of the day, there was no running water inside the house and, I don't know about you, but I can't picture glamour and romance without indoor plumbing.
So setting the unpleasant realities aside, let's talk about some of South Carolina's finest plantations as they exist today, three in particular: Magnolia, Drayton Hall and Middleton Place.
All three are located within just a few miles of each other on S.C. 61 - Ashley River Road - just outside Charleston.
They all began as rice plantations made successful by the know-how of West African slaves. Carolina Gold rice was born during this time. Each faced dangers during the Revolutionary War, and they all were burned during the Civil War. But each was resurrected and restored, if not entirely to their former glory, at least to some stately condition.
For Magnolia Plantation, rebirth came as the descendants of the original owners returned to revive its beautiful gardens, both wild and tame, to a state that tourists began visiting soon after the war, making the gardens the state's first tourist attraction. Travelers would come up the Ashley River from Charleston, disembark at Magnolia, walk around the gardens then return to Charleston at the end of the day.
You can walk these same trails today.
The gardens were built by the Rev. John Drayton and plantation overseer Adam Bennett. John Drayton was not expecting to inherit the plantation. He was put in charge after his older brother died in a hunting accident.
The stresses of running the place led to a bout of tuberculosis for the young minister, and his doctor suggested working outdoors in the soil as a treatment.
That's when he and Bennett began building the more untamed gardens to complement the very European structured gardens already on the plantation.
But, then came the war and the Drayton family had to abandon the plantation and headed for higher ground, literally, in the mountains of North Carolina as U.S. troops came up the Ashley River, burning plantations and destroying everything in their path.
After the war, Drayton and Bennett returned to the business of creating the gardens, which opened to the public in the 1860s.
When you go to Magnolia, I recommend buying the whole package, which is $47 for adults and $42 for children 6-12 years old. This allows you to go everywhere and see everything. The all-inclusive package includes everything you would get with the basic admission - the historic gardens, petting zoo, conservatory, orientation theater, peacock café, African-American cabin and gift shop - plus the plantation house tour, nature tram ride, boat ride, slave cabin tour and the Audubon swamp garden.
I recommend starting at the appropriately named orientation theater. It is a great 30-minute film that runs on a loop so you can join it at any time and tells you the story of the Drayton family from the beginning till today. Magnolia is unique in that it is still owned by descendants of the original family and is operated as a for-profit business.
Magnolia Plantation, 3550 Ashley River Road, opens at 9 a.m. November-February, and 8 a.m. otherwise. Call (800) 367-3517 for more information.
Built between 1738 and 1742 (when George Washington was a boy,) this is the oldest preserved plantation house in the U.S. that is open to the public.
Drayton Hall is as it was when it was built, with no electricity, heating, air or plumbing. Unlike other plantation homes, Drayton Hall survived the American Revolution, Civil War, earthquakes, hurricanes and numerous other hazards. It remains intact today, and is a National Trust Historic Site.
Drayton Hall meticulously tells the story of the Drayton family and the generations of African-Americans who lived there.
Admission is $18 for adults, $8 for teens, $6 for children 6-11 and free for younger children, and includes the guided house tour, the African-American experience tour and a self-guided river tour. Drayton Hall also offers a discount on combo tickets with Magnolia and a discounted family admission pass.
Drayton Hall, 3380 Ashley River Road, opens at 9 a.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m. on Sundays. House tours are offered every half hour, with the last tour starting at 3:30 both days. Call (843) 769-2600 for more information.
Middleton Place Plantation Middleton Place was granted to Jacob Waight in 1675. The land passed through daughters until Mary Williams married Henry Middleton and began laying out the garden in 1741.
The family home, outbuildings and garden were burned just months before the end of the Civil War and more damage was done in the 1886 Charleston earthquake. It would be early in the 20th century before restoration began.
In 1952, the gardens were opened to visitors year-round and, in 1970, the home became a museum of plantation life. Today, Middleton Place has a hotel and restaurant on the property, giving visitors a real feel for living on a plantation. It is a popular wedding destination.
Middleton Place also tells the story of African-Americans on the plantation through Eliza's House, a relic of the freedmen housing built after the Civil War. Artisans put on craft demonstrations dressed in period costumes as a weaver, cooper, carpenter and blacksmith.
The stable yards also are home to the same breeds of water buffalo, sheep, goats, hogs and chickens that were raised at Middleton Place two centuries ago.
Admission is $28 for adults, $15 for students; and $10 for children ages 6-13. Admission to the house museum is an additional $15. There is a discount for buying your tickets online. Package deals are available, including one with a two-hour guided tour of the whole property.
Middleton Place, 4300 Ashley River Road, opens daily at 9 a.m. Call (843) 556-6020 for more information