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Discover Plantations Along Charleston's River Road

Page Ivey Page Ivey
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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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.

Magnolia Plantation

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.

Please note that while this tour is included with admission, spaces must be reserved when you purchase your admission ticket and is subject to availability. To ensure each guest has an optimal experience, tour size is limited; therefore, your reservation indicates a commitment to attend.

Adult admission is $29.  Children 6-12 years old is $15.   To add the historic house tour, nature tram, nature boat tour or the Audubon swamp garden is an additional $10 for each of these per person.

General admission includes access to Magnolia's historic gardens along the Ashley River, the Children's Educational Garden, our petting zoo and nature center, the Tropical Conservatory, the horticultural maze, and our hiking and biking trails through the woods, swamp, and around the former rice impoundments.

Admission also includes our award-winning guided "From Slavery to Freedom" tour. The cabins featured on this tour have been preserved and restored, each representing a time period significant to both African-American and Lowcountry history. No visit can be complete without an understanding of the families who have lived here—first as enslaved workers, and then as paid garden staff—throughout Magnolia’s 350 year history.

Please note that while this tour is included with admission, spaces must be reserved when you purchase your admission ticket and is subject to availability. To ensure each guest has an optimal experience, tour size is limited; therefore, your reservation indicates a commitment to attend.

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.

Drayton Hall

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.

All-inclusive admission is $24 for adults, $10 for youth ages 8-14  and free for children 7 and under.  All-inclusive admission includes a self-paced audio tour, a self-guided landscape tour, access to two museum galleries, the Orientation video, African-American Cemetery and The Shop at Drayton Hall.

Drayton Hall, 3380 Ashley River Road, opens at 9 a.m. Wednesday through Monday and is closed on Tuesdays. Entrance gates close promptly at 2:30pm and the property closes at 3:30pm.  Call (843) 769-2600 or visit draytonhall.org for more information.

Middleton Place

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 $26 for adults, $15 for students; and $10 for children ages 6-13.

Also included in General Admission:

General Admission currently includes access to 65 acres of formal landscaped Gardens, a look at 18th and 19th century plantation life with exhibits, displays, artisans and historic animal breeds in the Plantation Stableyards. A digital self-guided tour map is available for viewing on your mobile device.

Guided Garden Tours

Discover more about the contributions of Europeans and enslaved Africans and African Americans to Middleton Place on a guided garden walk of American Oldest Landscape Gardens. Learn about the land, the flora, and stories of the people who designed, created and maintained them.

Beyond the Fields: Enslavement at Middleton Place

Daily 11:00am, 12:00pm, 2:00pm, 3:00pm
(duration: 40 minutes)

Learn about the experiences of the generations of enslaved who lived and worked at Middleton Place. The “Beyond the Fields: Enslavement at Middleton Place” program facilitates a conversation about slavery in American history with stories of brutality, survival, contribution, and perseverance. History once lost is found and brought to life in a relevant way that connects us as Americans.

Meet the Historic Livestock Breeds Tours

1:30 pm Daily.
(duration: 30 minutes)

A guided tour takes a closer look at the historic livestock breeds at Middleton Place. Learn why the breeds were originally brought here in the 18th and 19th centuries, how each breed contributed to the plantation, and stories about the people who owned and cared for them.

Middleton Place, 4300 Ashley River Road, opens daily at 9 a.m. Call (843) 556-6020 for more information

Page Ivey
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.