A Carolina Plantation Remembered

Friendfield Plantation House (HARRY TOWER)

by Frances Cheston Train

 

Every evening I could hear the long wailing whistle of the Black Diamond freight train warning of its approach to the crossing near our house in Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania. At that time, in the early 1930s, I thought every train, even the freights, went to Maine or to South Carolina, the two places to which my family traveled regularly. Our destination in South Carolina, Kingstree, was a flag stop on the Atlantic Coastline Railroad. After the overnight train ride from Philadelphia, we had a fifty-mile drive from the railroad station at Kingstree to our plantation in Georgetown, South Carolina.


James Withers, Friendfield Plantation’s first owner, purchased the core lands in 1734 and early on became a wealthy indigo planter, then a brick maker in Charles Town and rice planter along the Sampit River. The slaves who accompanied his family from Barbados to South Carolina were experienced in the methods and knowledge of wet-field rice cultivation from their past heritage in West Africa—probably today’s Sierra Leone and Senegal. In 1840, the Georgetown area produced almost half of all the rice grown in the United States. To make this possible, hundreds of slaves were imported each year. In 1740 there were 40 thousand slaves in South Carolina—two-thirds of its total population. At the height of successful rice growing in the 19th century, Friendfield on the Sampit, under the ownership of James Withers’ son Francis, encompassed five plantations. The planted rice fields along the Sampit were the source of great wealth, and each section was named. Friendfield, Mount Pleasant (now called Silver Hill), Midway, Harmony (across the Sampit) and Northampton, which then included Bonny Neck and Westfield.


James’ son Francis built a new Friendfield house in 1818, which featured decorative wrought-iron railings and elaborate 19th-century French scenic wallpaper in the parlor. A grand circular staircase extended from the ground floor to the attic. There were doorknobs of silver and ceramic, fine oil paintings and an excellent library.


Robert Francis Withers, Francis’ cousin, was the original owner of the Mount Pleasant Plantation house, an older mansion on the edge of the rice field about one half mile away. It was built in the vernacular in 1790 by slave labor. The cornices, mantelpiece and chair rails from this old house were transferred to the parlor at Friendfield when my father recreated the house in 1930. Robert’s wife and five children were drowned in 1822 when a tremendous hurricane swept their North Island beach house into the ocean, and he died in 1827.


After 1848 Mount Pleasant was neither occupied nor altered in any way; that is, until Daniel Thorne, in 1989 my co-owner, meticulously restored it to its previous splendor. It has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places along with the rest of Friendfield. The old house was so well built that it withstood all the fierce hurricanes of the 18th and 19th centuries—even 1989 hurricane Hugo, a category 5 storm, whose horrific blast drove a steel tugboat all the way across the Sampit, across the rice fields and right up to the front door. The old chimneys never lost a brick.

After Francis Withers’ death, His son-in-law Dr. Alexis Forster ran the plantation, but because there was no money after the Civil War the two houses fell into sad disrepair. The property passed though various owners until Friendfield was purchased by Mr. Patrick C. McClary Sr., who ran it as a duck hunting club until my father bought it in 1930. His son and namesake, our beloved “Pat,” would remain with us as resident manager for 42 years, 1930-1972. He was a grandfather figure to me and later to my own children. He had a thick Carolina accent, was fluent in the local Gullah dialect, and delighted everyone with a never-ending repertoire of jokes and funny stories. 

19th-century cabin on Friendfield Plantation.

He was a large man, big of girth and big of heart, who lived for hunting and shooting, family and country, and for the care of Friendfield Plantation.

​The original Friendfield house burned to the ground in 1926. My father sternly warned us that the house burned because the men got drunk and didn’t tend to the log fire. It was a scary lesson for us in a house where every room had an open fireplace. My father gradually pieced together numerous small farm holdings that brought the property back to its former antebellum size of 3300 acres. The land was a typical Lowcountry mixture of rice fields, marsh, swamp and upland forests of loblolly and longleaf pine, sweet gum, cypress, tupelo, water oak and live oak. It was home to game of all sorts, and was—and is—a hunter’s paradise.

Our 1932 Friendfield House was built under the direction of architect Arthur Meigs of the Philadelphia firm of Mellor and Meigs on the original floor plan, with the exception of one less wing. Pillars two stories tall support the front porch in classical fashion. A new addition to the original plan is the graceful Italianate arcade that leads up from the sandy driveway in the back and creates a new entrance. The slave street with its original cabins has been restored, and the old barn and kennels remain just as I remember them from my childhood. 

Rice fields. (HARRY TOWER)

The rooms are big and square with 13-foot ceilings and tall windows. A charming floral needlepoint rug brightens up the parlor along with the antique furniture and an ornate gilt pier mirror reaches from floor to ceiling. My great-great-grandfather Francis Martin Drexel’s lovely portrait of a serious little girl hangs over the mantel. She is wearing a floor-length red velvet dress, tiny black slippers, a white ruffled cap over her curls and is forever pulling her little toy wooden wagon over the oriental carpet. A fine portrait of Alexander Hamilton, attributed to Robert Fulton, hangs on the far wall. The children were not allowed to play in the parlor, although we always managed to sneak in and raid the enticing purple tin of Camée chocolates at their accustomed place on the round mahogany table.

The library is a cozy room, paneled in cypress, with one semicircular wall with shelves still filled with well-thumbed novels old and new, wildlife reference books, mysteries and nonfiction tales of adventure. A unique collection of oil paintings by the French painter Raymond Desvarreux of World War I allies in their regimental uniforms hang on the opposite wall over the fireplace. The room is hospitably shabby—a place where hunters plop down in their old clothes to enjoy drinks or tea by the fire, and where dogs are always welcome.

The house parties in those days when I was little were great fun and I could hear the grown-ups’ laughter echoing from the dining room all the way back to my nursery wing. Many guests came from Philadelphia and New York. The men were all quail and duck hunters, and their wives were sporty types who enjoyed the life. Looking through the guest book I see the signatures of many perennials like the Watson Webbs. Mr. Webb was sour and grumpy, and his wife Electra was a dedicated, pioneering collector of American folk art. They were both wonderful shots. Mrs. Webb even held the record for a giant Kodiak bear. Cousin Livingston Biddle wrote long complimentary verses in the guest book. My family’s best friend, Mr. Mahlon Kline, president of the pharmaceutical firm of Smith Kline and French Laboratories, was a yearly visitor. We children loved Mr. Francis Richmond—a bachelor with a loud, jolly haw-haw laugh—who used to get down on the floor and play raucous games of “Pit” with us, luring us into the forbidden parlor.

Mr. Charlie Cadwalader came every year. He was supposed to be on the wagon but managed to pour half a decanter of sherry in his turtle soup. Mr. Robert Goelet got tipsy and wrote suggestive remarks to my mother in the guest book. Tall, awkward Mr. Joe Lippincott, the Philadelphia publisher, collected tree snail shells at his home on Casey Key, and kept pet crows at his home in Philadelphia. He gave me one named Joe Crow and told me a funny story about how one of his crows hated his mother-in-law and used to glide silently down behind her when she was drinking iced tea on the porch and peck her ankles.

My family had many friends who owned neighboring plantations, but they would usually only visit for lunch or cookouts in the woods before the quail hunts, as the driving distances were too great for dinner parties. At that time, in the 1930s, Yankees like Mr. and Mrs. DuPont of Kinlaw Plantation; our cousins Paul and Lalla Mills of Windsor Plantation; Colonel and Mrs. Robert Montgomery of Mansfield; Mr. and Mrs. Robert Goelet of Wedgefield; Mr. and Mrs. Billy Beach of Rice Hope; the Oliver Iselins of Venture; Mrs. Isaac Emerson, from Clifton; George Vanderbilt of Arcadia; Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Legendre from Medway; and the Harry Guggenheims of Cain Hoy had bought up many of the old places, rescuing them from decrepitude. My parents’ great friends the Nick Roosevelts, owners of Gippy Plantation, were an exception—after all she was a Sinkler from Charleston and not an arriviste Northerner!

The proud Southerners didn’t resent these newcomers as deeply as you might think. They loved their homeland and were pleased that the old places were being saved because it was impossible in those hard times for the original owners to keep them up. Of course they laughed at the Yankees behind their backs and made fun of their curious habits, but the Yankee presence brought in new money and created jobs in that depressed rural community. Now, 50 years later, the situation is reversed and the plantations are once more owned and enjoyed by Southerners, or have been made into golf courses and gated communities.

In 1932, Winston Churchill visited his old friend Bernard Baruch at nearby Hobcaw Barony, and a luncheon was given for him at which the champagne flowed. My parents were invited and Mummy was seated next to Churchill. He was at his amusing best, and she was entranced. She avoided Daddy’s eye and his broad hints that it was time to go home. The brandy made its rounds, prolonging the lunch—to the annoyance of my teetotal father. Afterwards he remained personally skeptical about Churchill until World War II changed his opinion.

The author’s parents, Mr. and Mrs Radcliffe Cheston Jr. (Frances Drexel Fell), after a very successful turkey hunt. (FRANCES CHESTON TRAIN)

Another famous visitor to Hobcaw was President Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to local gossip, on one of his trips Mr. Roosevelt brought along a guest, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, who was officially Mrs. Roosevelt’s secretary at the White House, but also President Roosevelt’s mistress in her spare time. A few days later, Eleanor Roosevelt paid a surprise visit. Supposedly, Mrs. Rutherford was rushed out the back door just as the first lady arrived at the front, and scandal was averted.

​​Up until the late 1950s the plantation workers and tenant farmers lived in small, whitewashed cabins scattered throughout the property. We knew all of the families, cared about them and visited them often. They raised many children, tended small gardens and kept a few pigs, chickens and a plowing mule. We thought they were happy and carefree, and they greeted us with unfailing courtesy and frequent smiles. Other cabins were scattered throughout the property, and eight of the old slave quarters where many families lived during the 1930s and ’40s still exist on each side of the “street”—a white sand road leading out back from the “Big House” to the barnyard and Silver Hill.

I used to walk there almost every day to play marbles and skip rope with the children. I didn’t go inside the cabins for some reason—perhaps it wasn’t allowed—but I remember peeking into the dark rooms whose walls were covered with newspapers for insulation. Typically there were three rooms: two small bedrooms and one bigger room for eating, sitting and cooking over an open hearth. Sometimes there was a loft that could be reached by a homemade ladder, and some cabins were double, lived in by two families.

Actor Fred Gwynne, one of the many house guests at Friendfield, with a group of local citizens. (FRANCES CHESTON TRAIN)

The light came from kerosene lanterns, but everyone turned in as soon as it grew dark, carefully closing the shutters against the dreaded spirit known as “the Platt Eye.” There was an outhouse about 20 yards in the back, and an outdoor hand pump at the well. The washing was done in the yard in a big cast-iron three-legged pot, and a hot pinewood fire heated the water.

Small gardens were planted with early collard greens in the winter months. In the spring and summer, larger communal gardens grew yams, watermelons, peas and beans. The men were keen hunters of deer, possum, squirrel, raccoon and rabbit, and there were always catfish, flounder, bream, mullet, turtles, blue crabs and shrimp to be caught or trapped in the rice field ponds and ditches. I’m sure more than a few ducks were bagged when the boss was up North.

I had no understanding back then about the harsh rules of segregation, except when I wasn’t allowed to have one of my “colored” friends from the street to the “Big House” for a meal. I could invite a girlfriend in to play jacks, but when lunch came she would slip away to the kitchen, where I would join her after eating in the dining room. We both accepted this as normal. Much more puzzling was when I wasn’t allowed to bring a black playmate with me to the beach at Pawley’s Island. I learned later that “colored” people were actually banned from that beach in the mid-1930s. I made a big fuss, because this directly affected my own plans to have a friend to play with, but to no avail. Why? It didn’t make sense to me, but again, my little friend accepted the decision without argument and we drove off without her. I remember once a Northern guest made a disparaging racial remark about the house servants. I blushed furiously and ducked my head to hide hot, quick tears, so afraid that our dear butler, Drayton, or Miss Liza, the waitress, might have overheard and had their feelings hurt. These and other incidents started me off on a lifelong resentment of racism and snobbery.

There is a burial ground for the house slaves near the “Big House,” and although most of the wooden grave markers have rotted away, the many depressions in the earth tell of multiple burials. When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, we discovered that Michelle Obama’s great-grandfather Jim Robinson was born a slave on Friendfield Plantation in 1850, and is buried there. Another burial ground is a half mile beyond the street “back of the Big House” where the cabins of the outside workers stood, and families whose people had lived at Friendfield still come from cities like Buffalo, New York, to bury their dead near their ancestors. Until recently, personal items like spectacles, shaving mugs, and toys were left on the graves for the use of their owners in the Promised Land, and many names are the same as those of the cabin dwellers from my early days at the plantation.

Timber harvesting—now the chief source of our plantation revenue—has always been carefully controlled, and areas are selectively cut each summer. The entire upland property is burned over each spring to keep down the undergrowth and litter; fire lines are ploughed; and the land is managed for quail and wildlife propagation. If the litter and brush were left unchecked, hunting dogs and shooting ponies couldn’t travel through the woods, the lespedeza and millet patches that attract the wild quail could not be planted, and the potential danger from wildfires increased.

It is much harder to manage a large hunting preserve today than it was in the past—in spite of the use of modern agricultural machinery—and it has become vastly more expensive. There are myriad regulations to contend with concerning pesticides and endangered species—no more shooting the blue darter when he swoops down on a plump quail or killing that gator when you catch him on the lawn trying to hypnotize the puppy. Now, bald eagles and red-cockaded woodpeckers are also making a big comeback. We have had a nesting pair of eagles for years and monitor about nine colonies of the valuable woodpeckers, whose territory is shrinking due to the progressive loss of suitable pine forests.

Wild quail have declined on Friendfield due to their loss of habitat—those small farms where they used to forage on the fringes of orchards and planted fields. Hurricane Hugo devastated the natural population of wild birds, and on our plantation they never quite recovered. My family’s life on the plantation was centered on hunting quail, ducks, deer and turkey within their respective seasons. Often, in earlier days, fox hunts started before dawn. It was believed to be necessary to get rid of the foxes and bobcats that were supposedly prime quail predators. They were tricky, those gray foxes, and often climbed a tree to escape the relentless pursuit of the hounds. There was also coon hunting, wild boar hunting and, of course, deer hunting. Everyone loved to hunt, and watching the expert skinning process after the requisite hanging period was something that always fascinated me. The anxious wait in the blind for the first rushing flight of ducks that appears from nowhere brings the same excitement today as it did in my own now distant youth, and the ducks are still just as hard to hit—harder really—because there are far fewer in our area. Along the Atlantic flyway the construction boom has compromised the migration routes and the solid string of towns with night illumination confuses their traditional migratory paths. The federal limit has been greatly reduced—and rightly so—and today we no longer hunt duck at Friendfield. We would rather preserve them than eat them. The rice fields are now rest areas for the ever fewer migrating ducks.

We children were brought up with, and around, sporting shotguns and rifles (.22 caliber) and held accountable for strict rules of safety and game conservation.  I remember once my father telling a guest he was no longer welcome to shoot quail because he used a “damn 12-gauge shotgun, and tried long shots that left pellets in the birds that wounded them but didn’t kill dead.”

By about 1900, rice was no longer grown commercially in the area. The crop had created enormous wealth for the Carolina planters in the days when they counted on intensive slave labor to plant and harvest.  The rice culture is no more—killed off by the hurricanes at the beginning of the 20th century, the end of slave labor and the unsuitability of machines to cope with the sticky, black pluff mud. In the Lowcountry, rice has been replaced by the valuable timber crop, but now almost all of the old rice plantations have been consumed by condominiums, gated communities and golf courses. Traces of the old sweetness of life remain, but the flood of newcomers has diluted the essential South.

In my day, the men from that part of the South were all hunters, born and bred, brought up with a gun from the earliest age. Hunting and fishing were a way of life. The wives baked feather-light biscuits and cakes, participated in the church events and taught their daughters to be Southern ladies. It was all part of my childhood and I loved it—although I was much more of a tomboy than a “little lady.”  On vacations, when I was watching a coon being skinned and learning not to be scared of snakes, my friends at home were going to parties, to museums and on ski trips.

Looking back, I wouldn’t trade my experiences at Friendfield for anything, though when I was a teenager I remember staying awake on New Year’s Eve, enviously listening to the countdown from Times Square on my radio and waiting for the ball to drop that traditionally ushered in the New Year. My mother and father had gone up to bed at nine-thirty, as usual. “When you wake up, you’ll be a whole year older,” they said annually. This was no comfort at all for missing the fun I was sure that my friends were having at their parties.

As a youngster I was virtually unaware of the harsh realities emphasized by Charles Joyner in his book, Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community, about the Gullah people of Johns Island, South Carolina:​

The Policy was called segregation, or Jim Crow. It was very thoroughgoing, and behind the mask of civility our harsh racial caste system branded all Black South Carolinians as inferior. Segregation was characterized by two sets of almost everything: one set of churches, stores, funeral homes, toilets, drinking fountains for black Carolinians, and another for white Carolinians. Black students were relegated to Jim Crow schools, black travelers to the back of the Jim Crow bus, black moviegoers to the Jim Crow balcony, and there were separate neighborhoods for blacks and whites. It was not difficult to tell which were which: the pavement ended where the black neighborhoods began. But not everything came in pairs. Some things such as parks, libraries and swimming pools were rarely available to black Carolinians at all.

My own opinion, however, after much reflection, is that the hardships of reconstruction, which gravely affected both blacks and whites, forged a common bond between the races in spite of these abuses. In the rural South today there still exists a courtesy and understanding between blacks and whites, which is rarely found in the Northern cities. The shared heritage of farming and hunting, the armed services and strong religious faith brought the races closer together. Although the civil rights movement created legal equality, and the problems of the past are lessening, troubles are by no means over. Education and jobs are the key to true racial equality. There is still de facto segregation today, although in the Georgetown Historical District, homes belonging to both races have shared the same streets since post-Civil War days.

​Friendfield Plantation, its Southern culture and Lowcountry environment, has created a lasting influence on me and my children and grandchildren. My family understands and deeply appreciates this powerful attachment. Country wisdom and colorful humor, the importance of family ties, courtesy, patriotism, the rewards of hard work and the love of nature have been its enduring gifts.

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