Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Majestic Medway--Another Lowcountry Antebellum Plantation With A Summerville Link

In 1930's Summerville, only one solitary building stood in tack amongst the rubble of what was once the block of buildings adjacent to the Town Square on the east side of South Main Street. Ominously destructive, the stormy winds of progress was the tempest of purpose. Among the debris of strewn bricks and tattered beams was the skeletal remains of the tunneled pathway that led to the old Arcade Theater. The silent movies accompanied by piano and violin had become reticent. The solitary building was its replacement. Known by the town's residents as "The Show," the new theater was built by the Legendres.

Sidney Legendre, a member of a prominent New Orleans family, owned a house near Golf Rd on South Main Street. He and his brother, Morris, owned a string of theaters throughout the South. Their headquarters was in Summerville. Shortly after exploring Abyssinia for the American Museum of Natural History as part of the Sanford-Legendre Abyssinia Expedition in 1929, Sidney married the expedition's co-leader Gertrude Sanford. Many of the big-game heads she collected from 1923 to 1929 traveling the world as a big-game hunter in South Africa, Canada, and Alaska lined the auditorium walls of the new theater.


Gertrude became famous for her work as a spy in World War II and was the first American woman captured by the Germans, but pulled off a daring escape of which she tells about in a book she wrote entitled "The Time of My Life." Gertrude once said, "I don't contemplate life. I live it," and she did. In time, Gertrude and her husband amassed a large estate called Medway Plantation located in Mount Holly within Berkeley County. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Medway's imprint on the illustrious history of the Lowcountry is far reaching. Considered the oldest masonry residence in the Carolinas, the plantation's first home was built in the late 1600's on the Back River, a tributary of the Cooper River, by a settler from Holland named Johan van Arsens-- married to Sabrina de Vignon.

After his death, his widow married Landgrave Thomas Smith around 1687, who was appointed governor of the Province of Carolina in 1693 and was one of the wealthiest men in the Province.--It is believed the plantation was named "Medway" after the Medway River that flows near Exeter, England, the home of Thomas Smith. Then, it was sold in 1701 to Edward Hyrne, but went back to the Smith family when Hyrne defaulted on the mortgage. Despite this misfortune, Hyrne is credited with playing a role in the building of the original house. In 1984, the Hyrne family seal was discovered to be impressed into some of the bricks around a doorframe.

The property changed hands numerous times since until it ended up in the ownership of Peter Gaillard Stoney in the mid 1830's. During this time, it grew rice, but after abolition, growing labor-intensive crops like rice ceased to be economical. It also provided timber and produced the famous "Carolina Grey" bricks made from the local clay along the river bank. Much of the brick used in the construction of Fort Sumter came from Medway. As time passed, the rundown estate was used for recreational hunting.

While visiting the Lowcountry and horseback riding one day, the Legendres stumbled upon the neglected Medway. Speaking about their discovery, Gertrude later wrote, "Something about it haunted us both." In 1929, the Legendre's purchased the plantation for $100,000, restored the house and expanded the estate to cover 6,695 acres. Medway also has four guest houses, three staff houses, a lakefront lodge, a riverside boat landing, formal gardens and a stable. The plantation has served as a retreat for writers and artists in recent times. As an environmentalist, Gertrude turned it into a nature preserve before her death in 2000.


Medway Plantation is one of ten haunted places in Berkeley County. It is believed to be haunted by a grieving young bride whose husband died on a hunting trip. According to legend, the young hunter was mistaken for a deer and killed. His young bride reportedly cried herself to death inside the historic home.

After returning to Medway for the first time in years, Bokara Legendre recounts the first night she spent in her redone bedroom. "There was a problem with the fireplace, and the chamber filled with thick black smoke. As a member of the plantation staff put out the fire, he glimpsed an apparition." In her redecoration of the antebellum mansion, Bokara added abstract paintings and a pastel color scheme. Horrified by the notion of killing animals for sport, she also took down her parents' trophy heads and put up her own impressionistic paintings of wolves.

Image by Katherine Wolkoff
Medway Plantation is another historic landmark with a Summerville connection. Shaded by giant oaks and climbing ivy, it is absolutely enchanting and beautifully haunting. Gertrude Legendre often quoted a sentimental poem written about Medway describing it as a place where "restless Time himself has come to rest." Bokara believes the apparition seen in her chamber and haunting the estate was her mother. Unhappy about some of the changes to the old house, it would appear to her daughter Gertrude has joined restless Time.

I wonder what she thinks of the removal of the big game heads from the theater her and her husband built on Hutchinson Square in Summerville?

Timber was the main source of revenue for Medway Plantation, but had never fully recovered from damage inflicted by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The costs of running the plantation were enormous--more than $800,000 a year on average. Bokara wrote:
The money master came to lunch
It's always fun we laughed a bunch.
He said it's time to make a choice,
I heard a slight change in his voice —
"In seven years you will be
Dead or in penury."
Bokara made the decision to sell the plantation asking $15 million. A foreign buyer was expected to close.

In 2012, it was purchased by Tradeland Investors Inc., owned by Gregory Callimanopulos and his family. It is not open to the public.

For more about Summerville go to Visiting Summerville.

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