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Rose Hill Gives a Glimpse of Life on Cotton Plantation

Marie McAden Marie McAden
A former staffer with The Miami Herald, Marie moved to SC in 1992. She is passionate about the outdoors, and enjoys exploring the state’s many natural treasures from the Lowcountry to the Upstate.
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Facade of mansion at Rose Hill among the magnolias
Life at Rose Hill Plantation relied upon the labor of enslaved African Americans.

As one might expect from a home that once served as the governor's mansion, Rose Hill Plantation in Union has all the accoutrements of a posh estate: inlaid woodwork, a gilded fireplace mantel, a handcrafted spiral staircase and a large ballroom.

What you won't find in the 4,000-square-foot house is a single commode. Built in the 1830s, the 2.5-story residence has no running water or indoor plumbing. For more than a century, it had no electricity.

Think it's a hassle when your cable goes out or your smartphone can't connect to a wireless network? Imagine living in the South without air conditioning or even a ceiling fan.

Such was life on the cotton plantation owned by William Henry Gist, the 68th governor of South Carolina. As many as 178 enslaved people labored here - one of the largest enslaved communities in Union District.


A Bygone Way of Life

Rusted bathtub and washing basin in old bathroom
No plumbing meant austere bathroom conditions at Rose Hill Plantation.

Visitors to Rose Hill Plantation, now a state historic site, can tour the antebellum estate and get a glimpse of life back when homes were lit by candles and the bathroom "en suite" meant a chamber pot, washbowl and pitcher.

The plantation, encompassing some 5,000 acres overlooking the Tyger River, was used to grow cotton, corn and oats. Gist inherited the property from his father and built a Georgian-style brick house for his family.

Over time, he added 20 cabins for his 100-plus slaves, a smokehouse, blacksmith shop, dye house, cold storage building, brick kiln, loom house and shed for his carriages. While the location of the cabins is not known, a post-emancipation tenant house and the ruins of other houses where descendants of former slaves lived as tenant farmers in the early 1900s remain on the grounds.


Rose Hill Remodeling

Interior of antebellum kitchen with hearth, wood table, antique cooking tools
The kitchen at Rose Hill was housed in separate quarters to reduce the risk of fire destroying the mansion.

Elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1840, Gist went on to serve as a senator for three terms before being elected governor in 1858. Believing South Carolina could protect slavery only by withdrawing from the Union, he came to be known as the "Secession Governor."

Upon his election to the state's top post, Gist began remodeling the home, transforming the exterior into the more fashionable Greek revival style. The 18-inch brick walls were stuccoed, and double porches were added to the front and back of the house.

He also built a brick kitchen behind the home. It is the only other antebellum structure remaining on the property. Among the furnishings you will see in the mansion are items belonging to the family: a bible, a pianoforte, a four-poster bed, an armoire, a leather trunk, several items of clothing and a quilt made by Gist's wife.


Historic Gardens and Grounds

Garden with flowers and foliage surrounded by boxwoods with white clapboard outbuilding
The gardens of Rose Hill contain original elements and a variety of heirloom roses.

Named after the many varieties of roses planted in the formal gardens, Rose Hill Plantation still features hundreds of the original plantings, including two 150-year-old magnolias.

The 44-acre historic site also includes a half-mile loop trail through the woods surrounding the property. A 1-mile spur trail takes you down to the Tyger River.

You can walk the grounds from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, or take a guided grounds tour at 11 a.m. Saturday, Monday and Wednesday. House tours are given at 1 and 3 p.m. daily. Additional house tours are offered at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. The museum store is open from 4 to 5 p.m. daily and 10 minutes before and after each tour.

For more information, contact Rose Hill Plantation

Marie McAden
A former staffer with The Miami Herald, Marie moved to SC in 1992. She is passionate about the outdoors, and enjoys exploring the state’s many natural treasures from the Lowcountry to the Upstate.