American Landmark: A visit to Middleton Place
“Oh, Rhett…” I heard in my head as we approached Charleston, South Carolina. Passing by the city, we ventured upon Ashley River Road on our way to my first getaway in a long time. We were staying at the Inn at Middleton Place and visiting Middleton Place for a few days.
Middleton Place is a former rice plantation that was established in colonial Charleston in the early 1700s. This area is also known as the Carolina Lowcountry because its topography is near sea level. It had been held in private ownership by the Middleton family and their descendants when Charles Duell inherited it in 1969.
The property was in need of extensive renovations and improvements, and Charles relocated there with his family to the property, taking on the task and setting up the Middleton Place Foundation to manage it in perpetuity.
Today, Middleton Place is a National Historic Landmark with an educational focus on Lowcountry life from the late 1600s to the 2000s. There are interpretive displays and live actors and animals that were part of this historic lifestyle. Volunteers take guests on tours, provide guidance, and give talks to help visitors understand what was involved in creating and maintaining this living diorama of American history.
The Inn at Middleton Place is an award-winning modernist group of structures that offer unique and inclusive accommodations to those who seek a different experience than the chain hotel/motel or the historic bed and breakfast homes throughout Charleston and North Charleston.
The experience was refreshing and relaxing, but at the same time, it has caused me to think more deeply and empathetically about the African, African American, and slavery experience in North America than I have ever done previously.
Why am I writing about Middleton Place in a magazine devoted to Florida’s Nature Coast?
There are lots of lessons for all of us at Middleton Place, and I believe the natural beauty and connection to the land, as well as the building of a community provides value to, and perhaps lessons for us NatureCoasters. We have a plantation home in the Chinsegut Hill Manor House that was built for slave owners, so a lot of what I learned at Middleton Place may have been duplicated here. You may want to visit and experience Middleton Place yourself to learn more and see its magnificent gardens.
Middleton Place provides a representation of American History
Since not everyone wants a primer on American History, let me give you my take on Middleton Place. The energy there is wonderful. This is a place that has stood the test of time and inspired generations to keep coming back and repair what has been harmed.
The wide-open vistas, formal garden (recognized by The Garden Club of America as the oldest and “the most interesting and important in America”), wandering herd of Gulf sheep, historic buildings, and costumed interpreters make this a wonderful outdoor experience.
I mostly did self-guided tours and enjoyed eating at the onsite Middleton Place Restaurant multiple times with very satisfactory results. They were kind enough to fit us in when we didn’t have a reservation although this is unusual. The food is Lowcountry style and whether you order the lunch buffet or plated dinner entrees, everything was fresh and delicious. Don’t skip the pecan pie.
I joined a garden tour and learned about plants being imported from overseas and the restoration from their overgrown, neglected state in the early 1900s, when the prosperous families that developed Middleton Place plantation went through hard times. Some of these exotic plants have survived centuries and our tour guide was kind enough to show us some. We saw a Reign de Fleur camelia from King Louis the 16th that was planted here in the 1700s and still flowers.
I joined the slavery at Middleton Place talk, called Beyond the Fields, and was impressed with the information presented, as well as the candor of the speaker. This was held outside on benches near the northern flank ruins.
I visited the gift shop and garden center. Wow! Pottery, ironwork, and woodwork items made by onsite interpreters and demonstrators was available, as were books, drinks, plants, Carolina gold rice and many interesting and unusual gift items. Additionally, there were sandwiches and chips for a quick lunch break from enjoying the grounds. And my sandwich was great!
On the first day, I didn’t take time to visit the Middleton House Museum (an upcharge from the Middleton Place admission), but the second day my husband and I took the time to do this, and I am glad we did. The artifacts, furniture, and the presence of being in this building that was occupied by so many generations of a family that fought to hold onto their inheritance through so much change was worthwhile to me.
History on Horseback at Middleton Place
I also enjoyed a guided horseback tour through the Middleton Place woods along the Ashley River and the plantation. History of Middleton Place was shared, questions were answered, and the horses were well-behaved, providing an opportunity to relive life before automobiles.
Staying at The Inn at Middleton Place enhances the Experience
Best of all, we stayed at the Middleton Inn, a unique property built along the Ashley River with a walking path through the woods to the plantation. The architecture reminded me of modernist but was so well-blended into the environment that the concrete and floor to ceiling windows worked. Inside, the room was ensconced in wood – each window had wooden plantation shutters and there was a beautiful fireplace. The bathroom was tiled and followed the clean lines. The shower was marvelous, and the toiletries were locally crafted and enjoyable to the body. The only thing that was missing was a dresser. I never asked why. There was a closet and open shelving, so we were comfortable.
Included with our stay at the Middleton Inn is admission to the Middleton Place plantation, and an excellent breakfast buffet in the Lake House. Now, I have become a little jaded at breakfast buffet offerings, but this was stellar. The bacon was thick, cooked well and flavorful. The pastries were made daily in house. The coffee was good. Juice and milk available. Potatoes and eggs, sausage, fruit and cereal were part of the daily delights.
In the late afternoon to early evening is happy hour in the Lodge, with complimentary cheese tray. The Lodge contained games and puzzles to entertain without video. I met other guests of the Inn over these amenities, and it added to the fun of staying here. There were outdoor games too, like horseshoes, although we did not partake.
Additionally, there is a pool right along the river, but alas, I was too cold to take a dip.
History that includes All of Us
One of things that most impressed me at Middleton Place was their attempt to record black history in the creation and maintenance of this impressive piece of engineering and agricultural accomplishment. It was refreshing to learn that people of African descent, who were sold into slavery in the New World brought skills and trades with them.
Because erasing history doesn’t serve to teach us, it was good to learn about how generations worked together. No one should ever own another human being. The slave trade was wrong and the thought of how the plantation owners took these valuable people for granted as chattel is disgusting.
Today we can read the names of each enslaved person that lived at Middleton Plantation in Eliza’s House. There is some dignity to that. These were people. They had names and families and skills.
There is a monetary value next to each name. It is heartbreaking. Still, this place is a tribute to their work, and it was good to hear credit given to the enslaved people that built and maintained Middleton Place until their emancipation.
How Middleton Place relates to Chinsegut Hill in Brooksville
There is a place in north Brooksville called Chinsegut Hill, where enslaved people built a plantation. Colonel Byrd Pearson came here with 700 slaves from South Carolina to grow sugar cane. Another South Carolinian, Francis Ederington, purchased the land from Colonel Pearson a few years later, bringing his family, livestock, and his enslaved people to work it. He called it Mount Airy. The main initial production at Mount Airy was sugar cane, cotton, and corn. They expanded into citrus and livestock and harvesting timber. Today you can tour the Manor House with costumed docents and learn more about American history in the Nature Coast.
Please note that the book, American Landmark, Charles Duell and the Rebirth of Middleton Place was used as a source in this story. You can get a copy here: American Landmark: Charles Duell and the Rebirth of Middleton Place