Lowcountry Time and Tide: The Fall of the South Carolina Rice Kingdom

Lowcountry Time and Tide: The Fall of the South Carolina Rice Kingdom

Lowcountry Time and Tide: The Fall of the South Carolina Rice Kingdom

Lowcountry Time and Tide: The Fall of the South Carolina Rice Kingdom

Synopsis

In mapping the slow decline of the rice kingdom across the half-century following the Civil War, James H. Tuten offers a provocative new vision of the forces--agricultural, environmental, economic, cultural, and climatic--stacked against planters, laborers, and millers struggling to perpetuate their once-lucrative industry through the challenging postbellum years and into the hardscrabble twentieth century.
Concentrating his study on the vast rice plantations of the Heyward, Middleton, and Elliott families of South Carolina, Tuten narrates the ways in which rice producers--both the former grandees of the antebellum period and their newly freed slaves--sought to revive rice production. Both groups had much invested in the economic recovery of rice culture during Reconstruction and the beginning decades of the twentieth century. Despite all disadvantages, rice planting retained a perceived cultural mystique that led many to struggle with its farming long after the profits withered away. Planters tried a host of innovations, including labor contracts with former slaves, experiments in mechanization, consolidation of rice fields, and marketing cooperatives in their efforts to rekindle profits, but these attempts were thwarted by the insurmountable challenges of the postwar economy and a series of hurricanes that destroyed crops and the infrastructure necessary to sustain planting. Taken together, these obstacles ultimately sounded the death knell for the rice kingdom.
The study opens with an overview of the history of rice culture in South Carolina through the Reconstruction era and then focuses on the industry's manifestations and decline from 1877 to 1930. Tuten offers a close study of changes in agricultural techniques and tools during the period and demonstrates how adaptive and progressive rice planters became despite their conservative reputations. He also explores the cultural history of rice both as a foodway and a symbol of wealth in the lowcountry, used on currency and bedposts. Tuten concludes with a thorough treatment of the lasting legacy of rice culture, especially in terms of the environment, the continuation of rice foodways and iconography, and the role of rice and rice plantations in the modern tourism industry.

Excerpt

This is a haunted region, for there is no earthly loneliness like that created by man’s
abandonment of what he once loved, enjoyed and considered secure and perma
nent.

Archibald Rutledge, Home by the River, p. 20

The closest I have come to knowing rice plantation mud work was in July 1988 on Hobonny Plantation. Hobonny, a good example of the typical low country rice plantation, totaled around a thousand acres on the south bank of the Combahee River in the southeastern corner of South Carolina. Slaves started carving Hobonny into being 250 years before I set foot on that land. Like most plantations it had wet rice fields abutting the river and wooded acreage and dry fields further from the creeks and canals. The plantation big house, rebuilt in the late nineteenth century, though handsome in its way, would put no one in mind of Tara. The ruins of several tabby houses and barns bore testimony to the long human experience and the slaves who first lived there. July temperatures in Beaufort County, where Hobonny sits, average a high of ninety degrees with the humidity hovering near ninety percent in the mornings. You can work up a sweat standing still in one of those rice fields. The land at first appears to be flat, but the rice fields themselves are set lower than the surrounding earthen dikes, or banks, as rice people called them. The old rice fields are too wet for most trees, so the vista, even today, remains open, and you can see for a mile, mostly to other plantations’ abandoned rice fields.

My father, Henry Tuten, managed Hobonny at that time for its owner, Savannah businessman T. W. Ericson, who, like many of his plantationowning contemporaries, had a passion for duck hunting. On that sunbaked July day, my father and I planned to go through one of the few still-arable rice fields to rid it of sesbania, a tall-growing invasive shrub that thrives in wet terrain like old rice fields. In 1988, as in 1888 or 1788, merely walking through a rice field in that climate would leave you gasping for . . .

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