Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Day At Majestic Drayton Hall By The Ashley River--Preservation At Its Best

We entered the old, narrow gate off of Highway 61--the main road the Drayton's used on their trips to Charleston. Shortly after, we came to the small ticket shack, presented our ticket, received instructions and assigned tour time. In the distance, straight up the narrow, dirt driveway beyond a large pond on the left and a reflecting pond on the right stood the resilient and impressive Drayton Hall flanked by weatherworn, hundreds centuries old oak trees--a survivor of two wars, phosphate mining, a devastating earthquake and a category 3 hurricane.

Originally a fruit orchard, Drayton Hall was built somewhere around 1738, thus making it over 265 years old. Considered one of the earliest and finest examples of Georgian-Palladian architecture in the United States, it is part of the most significant, undisturbed historic landscapes in America. Inside, the amazing, undisturbed wood and plaster carvings are a testimony to the artful skills of the master craftsmen of the day.

To us, the house is a surviving relic to look at in curiosity and wonderment, but to the people of the era, every nuance incorporated into its design had a very special meaning. Guests, upon arrival, could tell where the party was going to be held just by looking at the tops of the columns on the portico. Just some of the finer points highlighted by our knowledgeable tour guide, Tara, who riced up her narrative with a balanced touch of humor. One amusing fact you will learn about was the Drayton's innovative version of flushed toilets.

There are no furnishings in the home. All the surviving furniture and rugs have been stored away over the years for safe keeping. Arrangements have been made recently to display for viewing the furnishings of Drayton Hall in Williamsburg, Virginia. There is a plan to build a museum on sight to house the furnishings when the needed money becomes available.

Due to the fragile nature of the decor, some sections of the house are off limits, but can be observed within marked-off areas. In those 265 years, the interior walls have been painted only twice. At the beginning of the tour, while sitting under one of the massive oaks in full view of Drayton Hall, the guide requested that we be careful not to touch the painted walls or to inadvertently bump into them. The aged paint could crumble at the slightest touch and be lost forever--difficult for me because I like to touch everything.

Years ago, Charlotta Drayton, the last of the Drayton's to use the estate, made a decision to preserve Drayton Hall and not restore it. For the weeks she stayed at the house, the only modern conveniences she had installed were a wood-burning stove and an icebox that was later replaced by a refrigerator, powered through an extension cord plugged in at the Victorian caretaker’s cottage. She called it "camping out." In 1974, the National Trust for Historic Preservation purchased the house and 125 acres from the Drayton's with the mission to fulfill Charlotta's wishes and keep it in near-original condition.

A trip to Charleston would not be complete without a visit to majestic Drayton Hall, if you are looking for the complete southern experience. From the moment you enter the gate and drive up the narrow causeway toward the columned porticos of the front entrance, you sense a change in time, a transference of today into yesterday. And when you climb the stone stairs facing the Ashley River and step through the door, the sudden rush of air carries you back to the era of English gardens, rice fields and plantation living. You will treasure the tour and the pictures.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Scarlett O'Hara of Summerville Past And Her Tara--An Epic Story

Scarlett O'Hara is the protagonist in Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind"--the 1936 novel that became an epic film in 1939. In the original drafts, Mitchell named her character Pansy, but just before going to print she changed it to Scarlett; a more fitting name for the fiery, shrewd, opportunistic character who had no qualms about doing what was necessary to survive and succeed. Years before Mitchell created her character, an early Summerville resident by the name of Sara Woodruff in many ways embodied those characteristics, but in a delightful way. She is the Scarlett O'Hara of Summerville and her Tara was White Gables.

White Gables was built by the Peake Family somewhere between the 1830's and early 1850's. A three-story house with 12 rooms, three halls, five baths and three porches, it was designed in the Classic Greek Revival architecture with a southern flavor. The first floor structure is formidable with double brick walls over 18 inches thick, 9 foot ceilings, plastered walls, pegged solid shutters, wainscoting and molded chair rail throughout the rooms. The second floor has 14-foot ceilings featuring wide cornices and carved medallions. The original house had double piazzas front and back; the back piazzas were altered later in its history. A conservatory was also later added to the property. It was once chosen by the Preservation Society as an outstanding representation of period architecture.

In the early 1900's, Sara developed a fondness for the near 65 year old house located on the corner of Richardson Ave and Palmetto Street. What happened next gave birth to her distinguished story and White Gables fame. Both fascinating and amusing, it is a story unlike any other in Summerville history.

Sara was married to Harry Woodruff, a Charleston station master who was somewhat of a big spender and had a weakness for gambling. A family story reported he lost downtown Houston in a card game in Texas. A constant concern for Sara, she worried about their finances and because Harry was 10 years older than herself, she worried about being left with no income and children to raise. To ensure the families success and survival, she put in motion a shrewd plan.

Harry had returned to town from business for the railroad and as usual, was met at the Summerville train station by the family retainer with his horse and carriage. But to Harry's bewilderment, upon leaving the station, they did not take the customary route home. Puzzled, he asked the driver, "Where are you taking me?" Unknown to Mr. Woodruff his home address had changed while he was away. Sara had purchased White Gables.

The Woodruff's were a very traditional Southern family. Always respectful of her husband, this was certainly a bold move on Sara's part. Still, she had no qualms about buying the house and property without her husband's knowledge. Despite the deception, Mr. Woodruff appreciated Sara's resourcefulness and all the family came to love their new home.

It was the Golden Years for the Inns of Summerville. Sara watched with curious interest as the influx of visitors from Charleston and places beyond stimulated the local businesses and potentially profitable opportunities. The Pine Forest Inn, Carolina Inn, the Halcyon Inn, and others were all thriving. She envisioned White Gables with its three servants cottages as a potential source of income for the future. Then one unsuspecting day, opportunity came rocking on her porch.

One day, coming out her front door, she found a man sitting on the porch swing. He had been walking around town looking for a place to stay, got tired and sat on the porch. He introduced himself as Henry Clay and related how he had been sent to Summerville by his doctor for the turpentine rich air, being an asthmatic. Sara left Mr. Clay with a glass of lemonade and an invitation to talk when she got back, which they did, and Mr. Clay became her first boarder.

The story does not end there. It seems Mr. Clay was a paying guest on the third floor of White Gables for almost four years without Mr. Woodruff ever knowing it. You see, Mr. Woodruff was a very regimented man and did things to a particular schedule. Except for his own rooms and the first floor parlor, he never went in any other part of the house or showed an interest in what else went on. On the other hand, as part of the strict terms laid out by Sara, Mr. Clay agreed to stay in his room during the evening hours, only venturing to the downstairs during the day.

From 1914 to 1939, Sara's White Gables was famous for Summerville hospitality. Ten months out of the year visitors, many from Charleston and some nationally famous people, rented the three cottages on the property and boarded rooms in the house. It became the financial success she envisioned and the security she scrupulously and shrewdly planned for. Considering all of this narrative, she is the Scarlett O'Hara of Summerville.

White Gables is presently for sale. If you would love to own a famous piece of Summerville's glorious history, this is an the opportunity. You can purchase it for $649,000. The day I visited the property, I sat on what quite possibly was the swing Mr. Clay sat on over a hundred years previous and talked about its history with a gentleman who lived in the conservatory.

A historical note: During the Civil War, Mr. Peake was away on business in Columbia. With the home vacant, he was concerned the Yankees would occupy it. To prevent this, he asked the Jamison Family to live in the house until his return.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Seven Unforgettable And Unusual Charleston Lowcountry Sights Worth Experiencing

From the majestic surf-laden skeleton forest of Boneyard Beach on Cape Romain's Bulls Island to the shell-laden fallen timbers of sun soaked Botany Bay Beach on Edisto Island and from every iron gated, cobblestoned alley way and oak draped byway in-between, unforgettable estuaries and landmarks are a hallmark of Charleston's Lowcountry. Many of these unforgettable sights are natural wonders. Some of them are long standing, man-made constructions. And a few of them are audaciously imaginative fabrications that leave you amusingly scratching your head.

One strange and unusual spectacle that left you scratching your head was the sight of an old mattress hanging by four ropes from a large oak tree located on Edisto Island. At first glance, I thought it to be repulsive, but reflecting back on it I found the contrivance posing as a double-wide hammock to be amusingly uncanny, and so did many others. An ingenious invention of practicality and southern comfort, it was enterprising. So enterprising, the maker and owner of the swinging quilted pad, Frank Gadsden, charged drive-bys $10 to take pictures. The "Mattress Swing" no longer hangs from the old oak tree standing at the bend in the road on Highway 174. Time and unforeseen circumstances have vanquished it.

With that tidbit of Lowcountry trivia in mind, I have selected seven of the more unforgettable and unusual sights located around Charleston's Lowcountry for your consideration and amusement. Some of the them are associated with various notable restaurants and establishments, and others stand alone. You will want to make specific plans to visit some of them and a few of them you may unsuspectingly happen upon while traveling the highways and byways of the Lowcountry. Armed with the necessary background information, you will enjoy them all the more--"To be prepared is half the victory."

1) At the entrance of the Shem Creek Park boardwalk, you are greeted by Pete the Pelican; a 9-foot tall sculpture covered with marine debris collected from Charleston waterways during the 2011 Beach Sweep. The boardwalk extends 2,200 feet from the park's entrance on Coleman Blvd to near the mouth of Shem Creek. The $2.5 million park and boardwalk were built and inaugurated in 2011. It includes a 250 foot floating dock where visitors can tie their boats. Pete the Pelican has been there since April of 2012.

2) In the middle of a grassy marsh on Edisto Island where Botany Bay Road intersects Highway 174 stands a solitary, ragged tree covered not by the assumed green foliage one would expect for that species of topiary, but by pink inflatables and a ship's wheel--at least on the day I saw it. This peculiar sight is called the "Mystery Tree" by Edisto locals. Stories suggest nobody knows who started the tradition--thus the mystery. Throughout the year for generations, it’s been adorned with beach chairs, flip-flops, seasonal decorations and a host of other things by locals and vacationers alike. The original tree was sadly up-rooted by an unknown group of pranksters, but happily replaced with another to carry on the tradition--once again by an unknown party. One story insinuates it is a bottle tree.

3) This retired tractor can be seen on your approach to Freshfields Village, which sits at the crossroads of Kiawah, Seabrook and John's Island. Quaint and walkable, it is a perfect mix of shops, businesses and restaurants. Nostalgic murals, sidewalks integrated with oyster shells and lush landscaping are some of its features. It is also a venue for cultural events like outdoor concerts, art exhibits and festivals. The new Andell Inn opened in the spring of this year--named after the Andell family, who settled in the region in 1876 and once owned all of Seabrook Island. It has 100 rooms with rates beginning at $250 a night.

4) Pirates and Shem Creek go together like oyster festivals and Charleston. This knife wielding scallywag can be seen on the Tiki level of RB's Seafood Restaurant. The original restaurant, a 35-seat eatery located in an old fish shed next to Red's Ice House, was reduced to ashes and rubble by an accidental fire. Rebuilt, RB's now seats more than 300 guests and has been nominated "the number one waterfront restaurant" several times. On your visit, request seating on the Tiki level where table arrangements are a wooden swing with a grass-thatched top--very relaxing. Read the review.

5) Infamous Hurricane Hugo indelibly left its mark on the Lowcountry and in the psyche of its residents. Another Shem Creek restaurant established in 1994, this eatery was named after a shrimp troller victimized by the storm to commemorate the occasion. Its name is the Wreck of the Richard and Charlene or quite simply The Wreck. The vanquished troller was lifted from where it was moored and impaled onto the pilings of a nearby dock. The wreckage was eventually removed. Displayed on the restaurant's property is the wreckage of another boat called Great Aunt Margaret, shown in the photo. An interesting side point about the restaurant: You mark menu selections with a crayon instead of the waitress writing them on a pad. Read the review.

6) This compilation of metal pieces and parts has no apparent significance that I know of--it just simply is. I came across it driving on Bears Bluff Road to the Irvin House Vineyards on Wadmalaw Island. Irvin House is a 48-acre winery and vineyard. It is the only domestic winery in Charleston, South Carolina. Some of its other amenities are walking trails, a petting zoo, a garden, large pond, winery, gift shop and the Firefly Distillery--home of the world's first hand-crafted sweet tea flavored vodka. The Lowcountry Trolley features a tour of the vineyard called Island "Sip n See." When you take the tour and are heading down Bears Bluff Road, look out the windows on the right side. You will see this Lowcountry oddity featured in the photo. Be sure to say hello to the white Brahma bull that roams freely among the vines.

7) Another boat made famous by Hurricane Hugo is The Folly Boat. Carried off on the storm's surging waters, it came to rest on the edge of Folly Road. You will pass it on your way to Folly Beach--known for Charleston's only full-service oceanfront hotel; Tides Hotel, a famous pier; the Edwin S. Taylor Folly Beach Fishing Pier, and surfing area; the Washout. Amateur graffiti artists cover the boat with their inspirational creations with the permission of the city of Folly Beach. Not far from this landmark is the locally loved Bowen's Island Restaurant, made famous by a movie and oysters. Read the review.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Summerville's Sister To The West--Aiken, South Carolina--Thoroughbred Horses And Beautiful Parkways

I have been a passionate disciple of the Lowcountry since my pilgrimage from Ohio to South Carolina nine years ago. During those years, I have traveled up and down the coastline from the Outer Banks to Amelia Island immersing myself in some of the oldest colonial history in the Americas and some of the prettiest estuarial bionomics on the east coast--I am hopelessly enchanted with the soft sand and salty waters of the barrier islands.

As a result, I have sparingly ventured into the interior of South Carolina. Only on one occasion, while traveling State Route 78 on my way to Atlanta via Augusta, do I vaguely recall the town of Aiken--having only passed through it briefly, until January of this year.

It was a brisk morning in Aiken. I hesitate to use the word cold to describe a South Carolina winter day, but it was chilly enough to freeze the ink in my pen, which made it difficult to jot down points of interest I would use for later reference. My scribblings began the day resembling Morse code--more dashes than dots, but improved as the day progressed due to the warming southern sun.

Up until this day, my knowledge of Aiken was based partly on information gleaned from articles I had read about the Southern Railway System originating in Charleston and partly from conversations with a friend who had been there--conversations that further heightened my longing to finally see the South Carolina town known for thoroughbred horses and beautiful broadways.

In fact, I was standing in the grassy middle of the horse districts thoroughbred racing track that nippy January morning by way of an invitation from Azalea Magazine to join them on this one day trip and write about it for the upcoming Spring issue. The resulting experience far exceeded my expectations. You can read the complete article on page 84 of the 2014 March issue entitled Roadtrip: "Where The Horse Reigns Supreme."

The article is accompanied by a beautifully arranged photo-spread taken from photographs by photographer Dottie Rizzo. For later viewing, to assist in jogging my memory of the days sights, I also took many photographs, which is the main reason for this article. I would like to share with you some of the photos taken from the day's collection showing the many fascinating and amusing points of interest that would have taken a thousand more words to describe--reminding me of the old adage, "a picture paints a thousand words."

Horse district thoroughbreds--the Darcy Stables owned by Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai

Gravestone of Blue Peter--a champion thoroughbred and sire of War Admiral

A fiery thoroughbred at the Legacy Stables

The story about an exercise rider nicknamed Pockets at the Thoroughbred Hall of Fame and Museum

A buggy washer used by the Iselins of Hopelands Gardens located in the ceiling of the Thoroughbred Hall of Fame

Hopelands Gardens--the original foundation of the main home turned into an elevated brick courtyard with fountains

Main lobby of the Willcox Inn decorated with curly pine paneling
Old phone booth in the Willcox Inn

MacKenzie "Mack" Miller's chair in the Thoroughbred Hall of Fame. He trained four champions.

Painted horse statue in the center of the downtown district; the painted horse statues are located throughout Aiken

Painted horse statue in front of the Thoroughbred Hall of Fame
11th Annual Aiken Horsepower Association's Spring Fling Show & Shine
Saturday, April 12, 9:00 am-4:00 pm
2441 Whiskey Road, Aiken, SC

Run United 2014
Apr 26, 8:00am-10:00am
Downtown Aiken
Aiken, SC

Aiken Strawberry Festival
May 10, 2014
Mead Hall School - Aiken, SC

Aiken Jazz Festival
Jun 20, 2014
Perry Park - Aiken, SC