People flock to Myrtle Beach to experience the sunny beaches, world-class golf, fresh seafood, live entertainment and varied amusements. There's another worthwhile reason, however, to spend time along the shores of South Carolina: history and heritage. Come learn about the compelling past of the Grand Strand as it springs to life through the many tours, exhibits and preservation efforts being carried out at area heritage attractions.
Explore the grounds of a former plantation that survived the Revolutionary and Civil Wars at Vereen Memorial Historical Gardens. Tucked away off the beaten path, this 115-acre Little River treasure was home to the Vereen family. They once played host to George Washington himself, who arrived at the property via Kings Road, the remnants of which are still evident. See the family cemetery and other points of interest along the park's many nature trails.
About 15 miles south of Myrtle Beach is Brookgreen Gardens, where you will be ushered into the realm of local history by foot, minibus or boat. Don't let the name fool you-this 9,100-acre attraction is much more than a garden. Amidst the stately live oaks, foliage, flowers and sculptures are trails and waterways that lead to the remnants of 1800s rice plantations, historic cemeteries, Civil War sites and more. These guided tours are quite popular, so reservations are recommended.
The historic port of Georgetown is home to two of the area's oldest churches. Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church, built in the 1750s, has a tumultuous past having twice been occupied by enemy troops who are said to have quartered their horses in the pews. Though the building sustained significant damages in wartime and through weather disasters, it has been rebuilt and remains a significant historical focal point. Sanctuary tours are given regularly. Call for days and times.
Former slaves established Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the aftermath of the Civil War around 1886. To reflect their varied religious traditions, the founders melded Methodist, Episcopalian and African elements and the church soon became the center of religious life for the local African-American community. A new site was constructed in 1882 and is still used today. While all are welcome to attend services, those interested in learning more about this church's history should call to schedule a guided tour.
Prominent figures with state ties grace the halls and walls of the South Carolina Hall of Fame. Housed inside the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, this who's who of the South Carolina famous include Nobel Prize winners, astronauts, musicians, sports figures and even signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Understanding the mistakes of the past to ensure a more equitable present and future for all citizens is one of the missions of the Historic Myrtle Beach Colored School Museum and Education Center. This thought-provoking tour not only documents a tumultuous aspect of local heritage, but it honors the courage and spirit of the teachers and students who endured-and soared above-the indignations of segregation.
Georgetown's Kaminski House is a former sea captain's residence turned museum. Painstakingly preserved, this pre-Revolutionary War house features Georgian architecture and is appointed with period antiques. Visitors get an authentic feel of what life was like in 18th century Georgetown. Of particular interest is the observation deck, where the family would watch the North Santee River for their loved one's ship to return to port.
While cotton was once considered "king" throughout the South, rice was "king" in Georgetown County. The Rice Museum honors this historically significant crop and the rice farmers who cultivated and produced nearly half of the nation's supply in the 1840s. This fascinating collection features permanent and rotating exhibits that document the rise and fall of rice plantations in the region.
Plantations, Castles and Farms
Long before hotels and resorts became familiar sights along the Grand Strand, the area was home to hundreds of plantations. Some of these historic estates have been preserved, restored and renovated and still stand in testament to the agricultural glory of days past. Two Georgetown properties that offer tours to the public are Hopsewee, a circa-1700s rice plantation and birthplace of Declaration of Independence signer, Thomas Lynch, Jr.; and Mansfield Plantation, a former rice plantation that now operates as a bed and breakfast inn. The owners offer guided tours by appointment. Tip: Get a peek at plantations not normally open to the public by securing tickets to the annual plantation tours presented by Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church each March.
Another Georgetown County treasure can be found in Waccamaw Neck, just south of U.S. Highway 17. With 70 cultural sites, including 37 buildings and structures representing rice cultivation during the 18th and 19th centuries; Hobcaw Barony offers one of the richest historical experiences in the area. You'll also see the 20th century Hobcaw House, where dignitaries such as Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt once received hospitality. Of particular interest are this 16,000-acre research and historic preservation center, is an intact slave village and the stately Bellefield Plantation, which can be accessed through guided tours.
While it is not surprising to find plantations in the South, it is unusual to discover a castle. But that's just what you'll see when you visit Huntington Beach State Park, the site of the rambling fortress called Atalaya. This National Historic Landmark, once the residence of sculptor Anna Huntington and her philanthropist husband, Archer, features nearly 40,000 square feet of Moorish architectural awesomeness. For a modest fee (in addition to park admission) you can enjoy a leisurely self-guided tour through the halls and courtyard of this local wonder, which the Huntingtons donated to the state in 1960 along with the ethereal Brookgreen Gardens. For a more in depth look at the Huntingtons' legacy, opt for the guided tour conducted by one of the park's knowledgeable docents.
For a fuller, more comprehensive picture of the area's agricultural history, visit Freewoods Farm in the Burgess community near Socastee. Here, you'll learn about 19th-century life from the perspective of African-American farmers. Though their operations were much smaller than the grand plantations, they are just as historically significant to the story of coastal South Carolina. At this 40-acre, still evolving "living museum," you can volunteer to help harvest the corn, peanut, sweet potato and sugarcane crops and participate in making syrup. Call to check harvest dates before donning your overalls.