Friday, February 17, 2017

The One And Only Charleston Tea Plantation--The Tea's Intriguing History From Summerville To Wadmalaw Island

All the tea in China can't measure up to the tea grown in South Carolina. 哦啦啦 (translation: ooh la la). No, it's Oolong. Camellia sinensis is the scientific name for this tea and it came to South Carolina in 1799 by way of a French botanist named Andre Michaux. He planted the cuttings near Charleston at Middleton Barony for Henry Middleton's gardens, which is known as Middleton Place today, but they didn't stay there. Before the tea found a permanent home at the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island, it traveled around the state for a time.

In 1848, some tea plants traveled to Greenville, South Carolina. Dr. Junius Smith, a retired London physician, attempted to produce it commercially on his plantation called Golden Grove and his little venture was successful. On July 4, 1851 he declared, "Now I have before me a pot of fresh tea from my own plantation, the first I have enjoyed." He didn't enjoy it for very long. A year later Junius Smith was attacked at his home in Grove Station and seriously injured. He died from his injuries a month later. And so, that was that.

The next attempt to grow tea commercially came in 1874. Dr. Alexis Forster planted a crop of the tea plants on his Georgetown plantation called Friendfield. Unfortunately, the daring undertaking was stopped in its tracks. In 1879, Dr. Forster died when his buggy flipped while trying to outrun a group of bandits trying to rob him.

In 1884, the U.S. Department of Agriculture planted an experimental tea farm outside Summerville, South Carolina. The program ran for four years to 1888, until the government scraped it because it wasn't cost effective to harvest the tea. It was that same year Dr. Charles Shepard entered the picture and established the Pinehurst Tea Plantation close to where the government's farm had been located and ironically near the site of Michaux's original planting on Middleton Place.

Dr. Charles Shepard successfully produced a variety of high quality Oolong tea. His tea even won first prize at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. To cover costs for labor, Shepard opened a school, making tea picking part of the curriculum, giving him cost free child labor, while offering an education that may have not been available to them otherwise.

Meanwhile, in the early 1900s, Major Roswell Trimble and Colonel Augustus C. Tyler transplanted thousands of tea bushes from Summerville to nearby Rantowles in South Carolina's Lowcountry, now known as Hollywood. This venture, called the American Tea Growing Company, failed due to two possible reasons. Some believe it was because of a quarrel between Trimble and Tyler's son, while others believe its failure was because of Colonel Tyler's death in 1903 compounded by repeal of the Spanish-American War import tax of ten cents per pound of tea. The company dissolved by 1907.

Sadly, Pinehurst Plantation remained prosperous only until the death of Dr. Shepard in 1915. The tea plants were no longer harvested, but continued unattended and wild for the next 45 years.

Dr. Shepard's accomplishments laid the groundwork for the success to come. In 1963, a 127 acre potato farm located on Wadmalaw Island in the Lowcountry of South Carolina was purchased. The Thomas J. Lipton company established a research station. Shepard's tea plants were transplanted from Pinehurst to the farm. The research station operated for 24 years and proved that a high-quality tea could indeed be grown commercially in South Carolina.

In 1987, William Barclay Hall, a third-generation tea taster trained in England, purchased the land. Thanks to Hall's vision the Charleston Tea Plantation was founded. During his seventeen year tenure, his original "American Classic" tea became the first tea ever to be made with 100% tea grown in America. For almost thirty years, American Classic has been immensely popular with tea lovers in the Carolinas.

In 2003, seeking additional financing, Hall reached out to his longtime friends, the Bigelow family. A partnership arrangement was worked out and the Bigelow Tea Company bought the plantation. The Bigelows brought sixty-five years of experience in the specialty tea business to the Plantation and the American Classic brand. Since 2003, the Charleston Tea Plantation has transformed into a true American icon.

Considered one of Charleston's most unspoiled islands, the drive along Maybank Highway on Wadmalaw Island to the tea plantation's entrance marked by three brick pillars is a pleasant one, although it doesn't seem like you are on an island. As soon as you pass the entrance, you are immediately treated to a sea of lush, green tea fields. After a short drive into the trees, you arrive at the welcome center parking.

The welcome center has a long porch with plenty of outdoor seating where Waddy the Frog, a tea-loving metal amphibian custom made for the plantation by Charles “Frog” Smith of John's Island, greets plantation visitors. Inside the center is a spacious gift shop where you can choose from over several hundred tea related items including a selection of the delicious specialty teas that are produced on the plantation. There is a Tea Bar where you can sample the teas. It is also home to the "Green Giant", a custom made tea harvesting machine exclusive to the Charleston Tea Plantation.

A map of the world hangs above the check out counter with lights identifying other locations tea is grown. You can purchase a $10 ticket for a 35-40 minute trolley ride where you'll get to see the plantation's 127 acres of tea bushes and listen to a narration. You can take a complimentary tour of the tea production building designed with a glassed in, air conditioned gallery that runs the entire length of the facility. As you walk along the gallery, you will be looking out onto our factory floor at all the equipment it takes to make tea. Three large TV screens explain in great detail each and every tea making process.

The Charleston Tea Plantation is unique. It is the only place in North America where tea is grown. The historical story leading up to its establishment on pristine Wadmalaw Island, recounted in this article, is an illustrious one with deep Lowcountry roots first planted along the Ashley River in Summerville. It is worth your time to visit this Charleston landmark. While you are on the island, other historic attractions such as Deep Water Vineyard, the only domestic winery in Charleston, South Carolina as well as the Angel Oak tree are nearby.

6617 Maybank Highway
Wadmalaw Island

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