Friday, January 31, 2014

The Lesser Known Great Plantation Along the Ashley River Down Highway 61

Just a short drive down Highway 61 from Summerville are three of Charleston's most famous plantations--Middleton Place, Magnolia and Drayton Hall. Born from the life that was Charleston past, each has a history and enchantment unique to itself and each visited by thousands of tourists and locals every year. But likely unknown by most, there is a fourth plantation unpretentiously hidden behind the mossy covered trees common to this stretch of the Lowcountry south of the Ashley River. I was totally unaware of the plantations existence, until I happened upon it while reading stories about Lowcountry folklore.

Two avenues led to the haunting estate--one of live oaks and the other with skyline hedges of Southern Magnolias. The gardens were extraordinary. There was a walk in the garden called the Alphabet Walk because the name of each tree that bordered it began with a different letter of the alphabet. Along such magical paths, under the plantation's ancient trees along Ashley River Road, wandered Edgar Allen Poe when he lived in Charleston and one finds just such mystical woodlands in his haunting tales.

The plantation has been known by three different names during its over three hundred years of history. Its oldest name was "Greenville." Later, it was named after the wife of one of the owner's and called "Sarah Place." After a fire destroyed the original mansion, the Pringle's built a new mansion and decided another name was more appropriate. The new name was inspired by a thousand year old oak on the estate located at the center of a large meadow overlooking the Ashley River. The pastoral scene reminded the owners of a property in England with a similar setting--its name, Runnymede.

Later, Charles C. Pinckney purchased Runnymede from the Pringle's son, William Bull. Pinckney mined phosphate from the property's naturally occurring deposits. In 1865, the mansion built by the Pringles suffered the same fate as the original. It was destroyed by a fire; a fire set by Union troops--likely the same troops that burned Middleton Place.

Pinckney rebuilt the home a third time. It was rumored to be one of the only country style Victorian homes in the Lowcountry. In 1995, it was purchased by the Whitfield's. The grim specter of fire revisited Runnymede again in 2002 and destroyed the home built by Pinckney. All that's left of the mansion is a partial outline of the home's perimeter, a two story chimney from the kitchen house, and a storied history interwoven with the folklore and superstitions of plantation living as big as its onetime 1,457 acres.

One story tells of an African/American burial ground located deep within Runnymede's thick centuries old forests and an age old custom of placing personal items owned by the deceased in life on their graves--a custom with African roots. Items like plates, saucers, and drinking glasses if it was a woman or tools if it was a man, but not excluding items like a favorite chair. The removal of any of these types of personal items from the graves of a dead person would result in consequences too terrible to imagine implicating swift retribution from the offended spirit. A belief implicitly held by hundreds of people living in the Lowcountry of South Carolina--including those who lived on Runnymede Plantation.

The author who wrote about the 40 year old story chillingly connected a mischievous prank with a tragic plane crash that occurred two miles outside of a North Carolina airport--a flight with a Charleston origin. The prank involved the removal of a personal item from one of the graves in the old burial ground deep within the forests of Runnymede Plantation.

Runnymede Plantation is located between Middleton Place and Magnolia Plantation. Unlike its more popular counterparts, it is not open to the public. But it is open to scheduled weddings, private events, and concerts. It doesn't have the beautifully terraced landscape of Middleton Place, the magical gardens of Magnolia, and the masterfully preserved architecture of Drayton Hall. But it does have a thick, untouched canopy of century old trees, numerous ponds and creeks, an unobstructed view of the Ashley River, remnants of a plantation, and a unique place in Charleston's ancient and colorful plantation history.

Click on Runnymede Plantation today to see an image of the Plantation.

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