Friday, November 2, 2012

Lowcountry History: Brookgreen Gardens

South Carolina's rich heritage of history and culture dates back centuries to the days of colonial America.  Beautiful Brookgreen Gardens, situated just a few miles south of Myrtle Beach on the site of former rice plantations, offers the largest outdoor exhibition of American figurative sculpture in the world.  It's the perfect place to satisfy your interest in art, local culture, history and botanical beauty.

At the turn of the 18th century, the region south of Myrtle Beach to Georgetown was the site of many prosperous rice plantations.  These plantations and the fabled Carolina Gold rice that they harvested produced an aristocracy of incredible wealth and power.  At this time, what is now known as Brookgreen Gardens was four separate rice plantations: The Oaks, Springfield, Brookgreen and Laurel Hill.

Theodosia Burr Alston
The history of Brookgreen and The Oaks are interlaced in the lives of prominent American figures. The Oaks Plantation was once owned by Joseph Alston, a wealthy planter who served several terms as Governor of South Carolina. While enjoying great success as a politician and gentleman farmer, Alston suffered great tragedy in his personal life. In 1801, he married Theodosia Burr, daughter of the famous Aaron Burr who fought in the Revolutionary War, was elected as a US Senator, served as Vice President to Thomas Jefferson and infamously killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Theodosia gave birth to a much beloved son in 1802 but tragically lost him to malaria in 1812. After his death, Theodosia chose to go visit her father in New York; the Governor was unable to accompany her as the nation was in the midst of the War of 1812.  Theodosia's ship was lost at sea, and she was never seen again. Lowcountry legends says that her tragic ghost can still be seen haunting the shores looking for her father.

John Joshua Ward
Brookgreen Plantation was owned by Joshua John Ward, one of the largest American slaveholders of his time and known as "King of the Rice Planters." Continually expanding his empire, Ward at one time owned as many as six plantations producing nearly 4 million pounds of rice. He even developed his own version of the long-grain rice called "Carolina Gold." After 1860, his slave population was said to have reached over 1,100.

The histories of Laurel Hill and Springfield Plantation are not quite as well documented. Laurel Hill was once owned by Gabriel Marion, nephew of Revolutionary war hero, Francis "The Swamp Fox" Marion. Springfield Plantation is believed to have been owned by the Alston family at one time.

Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington
Brookgreen Gardens as we know it today was conceived by philanthropists Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington. He was the heir to a railroad fortune, and she was a famous sculptor raised by parents who instilled in her a love for art and nature. They married in 1923, when she was already an established sculptor.  In the late 1920s, Anna was taken ill by tuberculosis and they traveled to South Carolina in search of a warmer climate to aid her recovery. Here, they fell deeply in love with the beauty of the lowcountry; they purchased the nearly 10,000 acres from the Waccamaw River to the Atlantic Ocean that once made up the four plantations to create their winter retreat.

Atalaya Castle at Huntington Beach State Park
The Huntingtons built a Moorish-style castle right at the ocean's edge.  Named "Atalaya", Spanish for "The Watchtower," the home was built by local laborers, in an effort to bring work to this isolated area during the Great Depression. The home included a studio for Anna to sculpt, as well as habitats for several wild animals that she used for her models.  Today "Atalaya" is managed as part of Huntington Beach State Park and is open for tours.

They soon developed the idea of using a large portion of their land to showcase Anna's work and Brookgreen Gardens was born.  Anna personally designed many of the gardens you see today, with the first garden designed with walkways in the shape of a butterfly. The Huntingtons decided to turn Brookgreen into a public garden that preserved the natural beauty of the lowcountry and displayed Anna's sculptures and eventually works from many other acclaimed American artists. Huntington stated that their ultimate goal was to make the gardens "a quiet joining of hands between science and art." 

Today, Brookgreen Gardens continues to honor their legacy; 500 acres of beautifully cultivated gardens are home to over 1,400 sculptures and 2,000 species of plants. It is the country's first public sculpture garden and has the largest collection of figurative sculpture by American artists in an outdoor setting in the world. 

The gardens also pay homage to the land's early history.  Visitors can visit the Alston family cemetery, the famous allée of oak trees planted in the 1700s, the remains of The Oaks' slave village, and enjoy interpretive tours that examine what 18th-century plantation life might have been like for the many different peoples who experienced it.

Brookgreen offers a boat ride along the Waccamaw river to see the former sites of the rice fields and learn about the lives of the slaves who worked them. Additionally, the Brookgreen zoo features native wildlife as well as heritage breeds of farm animals similar to those that would have existed during plantation times.  The newest addition is a a gorgeous butterfly pavilion featuring more than 100 species of butterflies!

When you're vacationing in Myrtle Beach, don't miss your opportunity to experience the rich history and natural beauty of the lowcountry. Plantation Resort is conveniently located just a few miles north of Brookgreen Gardens. Be sure to stop by our Front Desk to purchase discounted tickets! Free daily park passes are available at the Front Desk to visit to Huntington Beach State Park, home of Atalaya castle and the beautiful beaches and scenery.  Come see why the Huntingtons loved the area so much. But be warned...  You just may fall under the lowcountry's spell too!

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