Naturally, as part of my trip to Charleston, I wanted to visit a plantation. Though there were several to choose from, I chose Middleton Place for a nice little getaway. But before we delved into Middleton Place’s history and before we wandered its immaculate grounds, my mother and I spent the night at The Inn at Middleton Place, in a cozy room with a working fireplace, shuttered windows, and cozy blankets on the bed.
We enjoyed our evening there, resting after a long car ride and excited about the following day when we’d explore Middleton Place Gardens after a scrumptious hot breakfast. Both the breakfast and the admission to Middleton Place were included in our stay. But the best part was that we could walk along a beautifully-maintained path to the pristine plantation grounds. The views were gorgeous!
The History of Middleton Place
Middleton Place was originally home to a three-building residence along with 500+ acres that was part of the dowry presented by Mary Williams’ family upon her marriage to Henry Middleton in 1741. The main house is now in ruins, but there is a house still standing which visitors can tour.
As lavish as it is, what remains is nothing compared to what once was. The library at Middleton Place once housed 10,000 volumes. There was a music conservatory and numerous pieces of fine art adorning its walls. But in 1865, Union troops set fire to Middleton Place, burning down the main house and one its flankers. What you see here is the flanker that remained and was restored to be the family’s home.
Four generations of Middletons have remained stewards of the property since Henry and Mary married. The family’s role in American heritage is even more impressive than the grounds themselves. Heny Middleton was the second president of the First Continental Congress. His son Arthur succeeded his father in the next Continental Congress and was one of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
The second Henry Middleton became the Governor of South Carolina and served as the Minister to Russia. His son William was one of the signers of the Ordinance of Secession in 1860. Five years later, both the Civil War and a large part of Middleton Place came to an end.
Though Middleton Place plays down its slave history, the place was always a working plantation. I found it interesting that when the staff talked about life on the plantation and the intense labor that was required of everyone there, they now refer to the slaves as “enslaved persons.” It’s a subtle, but very distinct difference, and one that gives more dignity to the Africans who worked there.
In the Plantation Stableyards, one of the docents gave us intricate instruction on how some of the antique tools of the time were used. For instance, she showed us how the enslaved workers who were tasked with making coffee had to first roast the coffee beans, then grind them and then brew the coffee in an old pot over fire.
She showed us the crimping iron that the enslaved staff used to press the pleated collars and cuffs worn back in the day. We saw how they manufactured indigo dyes from the locust-like plants native to the lowcountry area. First, they soaked and steeped the green branches in tubs. Then they drained them off and mixed the sediment with stale urine which was acidic. The sediment dried into claylike clumps that were then shipped off to England where they were boiled to make indigo dye. As gross as the process was, it was big commerce in South Carolina.
There were continuous chores required for plantation life: candle-making, milling, blacksmithing, etc. The staff onsite were eager to share all the fascinating facets and laborious chores of the time.
We also met Henry and Arthur Middleton in the Stableyards. Not the men, but the fat cats who make Middleton Place their home. They definitely wander around as if they own the place. 🙂
Another part of Middleton’s slave history is Eliza’s House. The Middleton Place Foundation did extensive research to uncover the names and stories of 2,800 enslaved people whom the Middletons once owned. It’s an ugly part of history, for sure, but one that needs to be told. The “Beyond the Fields” tour introduces visitors to the lives lived by enslaved Africans and African Americans – both slave and free – who labored at Middleton Place and other plantations throughout the South. Inside Eliza’s House, all 2,800 names are memorialized.
From its inception, gardens were to be an integral part of Middleton Place. Henry Middleton employed a landscape architect to design a classical garden. Andre le Notre, who also did the landscape at Louis XIV’s Versailles, combined rational order, symmetry, focal points and balance in the gardens. He also incorporated sunken gardens and secret gardens, along with hidden surprises, like this exquisite sculpture “Wood Nymph.”
The estate is beautifully maintained and drew me in so much that my mother and I spent the entire day there — wandering through the gardens, sitting beneath gigantic oak trees to read and write, strolling through the stableyards and past the grazing sheep. It was so peaceful and serene that I felt immediately transported to a slower pace; a place where a person might spend a lazy day under the shade of Spanish-moss-draped oaks.
These gardens, laid out in 1741, are America’s oldest landscaped gardens. They were recognized by the Garden Club of America as “the most interesting and important garden in America” in 1941 — 200 years after they were first laid.
Visiting Middleton Place
In 1972 Middleton Place was declared a National Historic Landmark. What was once ravaged by war and an earthquake in 1886 has been restored to much of its original beauty. The gardens are a stunning place to spend the day relaxing in between touring the Stableyards, Eliza’s House, the Sugarcane Mill, Middleton House, and the rice field. You can get a glimpse of American history around every turn — both during Revolutionary times and the Civil War. And the restaurant onsite is not to be missed.
I highly recommend visiting the plantation and encourage visitors to stay at the Inn at Middleton Place to get an early start on absorbing the lush surroundings. My mother and I both agreed that our day at Middleton was the most relaxing day of our trip. It was a step back in time to a lavish estate dedicated to preserving its remarkable history.
Are plantations something you would include on a southern state itinerary?
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