We have been to Charleston before. We have done the Market and shopped the shops and eaten crab cakes. But it’s the holiday week end, and we are staying off the water to avoid the “crazies.” There is a lot to enjoy in Charleston.
Wanting to avoid the city marina, Red Pearl is docked at Harborage at Ashley River, in the furthest slip from the gate, a quarter-mile walk. While the marina is lovely, we are disappointed to discover that the downtown area is not bike-able, and an Uber is the go-to mode of transportation—usually $20 each way, but when demand is high, as much as $36. Chalk it up to the many details that are just difficult to anticipate.
On Saturday, we warmed up our visit with the Charleston Market. The African/Gullah art of sweetgrass basket-making sang to us again, and we finally succumbed and purchased one from William Rouse, a sweet man with a guarded smile, who was beginning a new basket coil as he sat in his booth. His mother taught him the art or gathering wild sweetgrass and bulrush and of coiling and sewing. A fourth-generation craftsman, he was eager for us to understand that originally these baskets served working purposes, such as for the winnowing of rice. Many of his baskets take 3-4 days’ labor, the larger ones up to 2 weeks.
From the Market, we visited the city home of Joseph Manigault, a lucky fellow who inherited several rice plantations and over 200 enslaved people from his grandfather. He married well-twice!-and ended up with seven rice plantations north of the city. Built in 1803, the Huguenot House was served by a separate kitchen and second-floor quarters for enslaved workers, the privy, the carriage house, the livery, and a flower garden, all within less than an acre. The house was not grand, but it was architecturally “smart,” and provided escape from mosquito infestations of the swampy rice plantations. It seemed incredulous that eight children were raised in three rooms on the third floor, following the tradition of children being kept far from adult company until they were 14 years of age. After changing hands several times before and around the time of the Civil War, during which fortunes collapsed, the dilapidated house was saved from razing for a gas station in the 1930s by the Preservation Society of Charleston. In the 40s it was used hard “as a USO post and Red Cross training facility. While at the Joseph Manigault House, soldiers attended dinners, parties, played games and wrote to their families.” Now restored, it is maintained by the Charleston Museum. Our early dinner at The Ordinary was anything but; the fish was delicious, but the “zucchini carpaccio” was a divine blend of simple and fresh flavors.
On Sunday we took a historic guided tour, during which many, many dates flew in one ear and out the other. The biggest take-aways were, first, the single house style, so common here, in which 2 rooms per floor were stacked, one floor atop another, and another. Second, “Charles Town” (pronounced very particularly by our guide) certainly has a lot of old churches! After the historic tour, we ferried to Fort Sumpter, where the first shot of the Civil War was fired. So much complexity surrounds the history of Fort Sumpter, and we found the political and military strategic background information a little depressing. Perhaps it was the previous barrage of dates; or perhaps our overlaying this history with the continued racial tensions of today was the cause. Our diversion was a delightful dinner at Magnolias on East Bay. Back at the marina, a nice display of fireworks from the aft deck of Red Pearl cheered us.
Monday was spent at Magnolia Plantation, now a for-profit Romantic Gardens owned and run by 13th-generation Drayton family members. Founded in 1676, its most colorful history encompasses ownership by an Episcopal minister who designed the gardens as a gift and distraction for his wife who pined for the Philadelphia city life of her girlhood. The reverend was destitute after the war, having donated heavily to the Confederate cause, and the plantation home having been burned to the ground—one of 35 which were torched by Union troops on order from General Sherman as they marched back north. To make ends meet, he sold off 1500 acres, and he opened the beautiful gardens to tourism. Another profitable endeavor was the mining of phosphate rock, but the damage which strip mining wreaked on the beautiful land and stately trees eventually was deemed too big a price, and mining was abandoned. A tour of the four remaining quarters for the enslaved workers (housing, also, for paid gardeners until 1990) by our unflinchingly-honest and emotional African American docent was thought-provoking and dispiriting. Back aboard Red Pearl, a taste of home was a balm, as we ate a simple green salad with quinoa and chick peas, processing the uncomfortable history which we encountered again and again this week end and overwhelmed by the failure of our culture to make the shifts that are so overdue.
Our itinerary for the week is dogged with the prospect of another named storm. As we bid Charleston farewell, Hurricane Elsa is on our minds.