Charleston, South Carolina is a beautiful city in the deep south, full of history, color, and friendly people. All three of these things can be found at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Located just a short drive from downtown Charleston and up scenic highway 61, the grounds of this historic site is both breathtaking and inviting. From the wide-open garden paths and wildlife to the hedge maze and petting zoo, there is something for ever member of the family.
Magnolia Plantation: A Brief History
Originally a rice plantation owned by Thomas and Ann Drayton, the house was surrounded by a small English-style garden. The plantation itself did not become internationally known until the property was inherited by the Reverend John Drayton, who took the advise of the African-American slaves and created the largest English style gardens in North America.
According to DJ Tucker, Magnolia Plantation’s director of African-American History, the slave labor force was brought over from areas that extended from the Niger River Delta to the Senegal areas of Africa. Rev. Drayton realized the strong history and extensive knowledge that was brought over from Africa. Africans had been cultivating rice and other agricultural goods for several years, and it is commonly believed that the rice – known as Carolina Gold – was actually a rice that was brought with the slave labor into the colonies. Carolina Gold was grown exclusively at Magnolia Plantation, and considered to be the best grain cereal of the time.
Once Magnolia Plantation was a self-sustaining, profitable business, Rev Drayton was free to pursue his love of horticulture. Again, relying on the knowledge of his African-American labor support, Drayton created one of the most large and recognizable gardens in the world.
As the Civil war ripped it’s angry path through the south, very little was spared and Magnolia Plantation was no exception. The original plantation house was burned to the ground and the rice fields and a large area of the gardens were destroyed. With the profitability of the plantation gone, in 1870 Rev Drayton was forced to open the remaining gardens to the public as a tourist attraction. This was the only way to maintain procession and the financial ability to run the plantation and it’s grounds. It was the first man-made attraction in the United States and was operated under the name “Magnolia-On-The-Ashley” because of the plantation’s location along the Ashley River.
Not only did Magnolia Plantation bring in high-profile visitors such as: Eleanor Roosevelt, Orson Wells, and Henry Ford, but large numbers of the general public flocked to see the unique expression of southern beauty.
Magnolia Plantation – The Modern Attraction
Magnolia Plantation remains owned by the decedents of the Rev. John Drayton, and they remain dedicated to the upkeep of the grounds. While the beauty and allure of the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens has endured for centuries, the grounds have undergone some transformations. Along with the magnificent and brightly colored plants, an outdoor café, petting zoo and English inspired hedge maze present guests of the plantation the opportunity to relax as a family before or after experiencing some of the other attractions of the plantation and gardens.
Main Plantation House at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens:
The main plantation house on Magnolia Plantation is the second on that has been built. The original house was burned by Union troop during the civil war. The current house was erected in 1873 and served as the family home until recent years.
Magnolia Plantation offers tours of the main house for a small price. Each room in the house reflects the changes that the home has experienced over the last almost 200 years, and yet retains the simplicity and beauty of the 1800’s.
Magnolia Plantations Gardens:
Nestled along the shore of the Ashley River, the 70 acres of garden space at Magnolia Plantation dare anyone to leave unimpressed. With hundreds of indigenous plants and flowers, the wide and winding paths allow visitors to get lost in their own adventure as they discover the hidden natural treasures. Perhaps one of the most well known treasures of Magnolia Plantation’s gardens is the Long Bridge. Built in the 1840’s the bridge has sustained fire, natural disasters, and time. It continues to bring thousands to people to take pictures and enjoy the view, as well as entice lovers to take their vows atop it’s whitewashed boards.
In addition the vast natural landscapes of Magnolia Plantation’s gardens, there is a 50 acre spread of triangular flowerscapes lovingly referred to as “flowerdale”. This beautiful area is the oldest section of the gardens having been planted in the 1680’s long before Magnolia was a family home and working plantation.
Smaller, but still worthy of a visit, are: The Barbados Tropical Garden – an indoor tropical garden, The Biblical Garden – a selection of plants that represents books of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and The Camellia Collection – almost one thousand types of Camellias, many of which were created on the plantation grounds.
Tours at Magnolia Plantations and Gardens:
Other than the tour offered of the main plantation house, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens offers guest a unique look into the wildlife and history of the grounds.
The Nature Train is a comfortable 45-minute ride around some of the most well known areas of the gardens. Guests have an opportunity to seen many of the wildlife that inhabits the park, such as alligators, herons, and egrets all from the safety of the train. Likewise, the he Marsh Boat tours, another 45-minute tour, allows guests to get an up close view of the animals that live in the warm waters of the marsh lands that are a part of Magnolia Plantation. Each tour is guided and explained by a trained park representative that takes pride in the historical and environmental aspects of the plantation and gardens.
From Slavery to Freedom is a tour offered by Magnolia Plantation that presents guest with a unique look into the lives, work, and living situations of the men and women that helped to build Magnolia Plantation into the profitable rice producer and magnificent gardens. Displayed just off one of the main roads leading into the gardens, sit 4 restored white washed cabins. Starting in 2009, the trust that helps to fund the plantation and gardens began a project to restore and promote the history of the labor force, and each cabin represents a different time in the African-American history of Magnolia Plantation.
In the first cabin guests can experience how the men and women that were brought over from Africa and sold into slave labor would have lived with their families. As times changed, so did the labor force. Once slavery was abolished, many freedmen continued to work on the plantation, and the second cabin shows the upgrades in living situations made by the newly free people and their desire to improve their situations. The additional cabins continue to show the evolution of the proud unsung heroes of the plantation and ends with the cabin that was lived in by plantations workers as late as the 1970’s. This tour will provide not only a look into the past, but better allow guest to learn the history of the plantation from the ground up.
Audubon Swamp Garden and Cattail Wildlife Refuge:
The Audubon Swamp Garden is the fresh water reserve that was once the plantations’ rice fields. A maze of bridged paths wind around the dark and mysterious waters allowing guests an in depth look at the plants and animals that reside in a southeastern swamp. Due to the expansive area of the Audubon Swamp Garden guests should allow an additional hour to hour-and-a-half to explore this area situation outside of the main property of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.
The Cattail Wildlife Refuge is an amazing opportunity to view the majestic flight of the bird life that resides in and around Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. From high atop the observations tower, a person may almost feel as if they are a part of the skyline and can enjoy watching as the many of the birds dance along the water, diving in quickly to retrieve fish.
With all the attractions that Magnolia Plantation and Gardens has to offer, it may not be possible to get in all the sites before the park closes. If guests find themselves in this situation, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens offer readmission the plantation and main gardens without any additional price for a week from the original date of purchase. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is a worthy stop on anyone’s tour of the southeast and Charleston area. The plantation and gardens offer much more than just history, but a display of beauty that can be respected by people of all ages, races and genders.
Magnolia Plantation and Garden. magnoliaplantation.com
Tucker, DJ. Director of African-American History at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Personal Interview