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Live Oaks

The huge oaks stand on the South Carolina coast, from Brookgreen Gardens at Murrell’s Inlet south to the plantations of the Ashepoo-Combahee-Edisto Basin—oaks that have inspired generations of painters, the oaks that populated Edward King’s “broad and carefully cultivated acres and inspiring vistas.” From this rich earth grew the rice that would bring fortune to the land owners of this watershed of tidal rivers and marshes. Wealth that would educate their children. Wealth that would nurture the economy and aesthetic that produced the material culture expressed through the fine and decorative arts so vibrant in Charleston and Savannah. Wealth that sustained an entire way of life—so long as the slaves made the crop. The War and hurricanes put a stop to it all until the turn-of-the-century return of northerners. Only this time, the Yankees weren’t angry or aggressive. They were, instead, sportsman industrialists, enthusiastic and eager to again claim and divide the conquered plantation South in pursuit of recreation.

Sherman left Savannah in 1865 and marched toward Charleston, but at the Combahee River, equidistant between the two cities, he turned north toward the capital of Columbia which then suffered his indignation, as my mother might have said. The place where he crossed the river is the site of the present-day Harriet Tubman Bridge, bordering Nieuport Plantation. Nieuport was, as were many of its neighboring plantations, owned by Charlestonian Thomas Heyward. In an earlier day, I owned the 1793 folio atlas by the surveyor John Goddard—all in manuscript with the maps in original wash color—which showed these and the other plantations of the Combahee. In some cosmic way, that may have foretold my later stewardship of this land. That atlas today is just down River Road, the owner humbly appreciative of the great treasure entrusted to his care.

In Sherman’s wake, Savannah and the Lowcountry were left, quite literally, in shambles. There were but three houses—and those closer to Charleston—standing in what is now the ACE Basin. The second wave of northerners, those who came for true sport, built new houses on ancient sites, often on the ruins of places laid waste by Mr. Sherman—locations selected for their equally ancient views and seemingly timeless oaks. In the twentieth century, E. F. Hutton had Laurel Springs, Eugene DuPont had Nemours, and Rhode Island’s Chace family owned Twickenham. These landed magnates and others set about turning the once-lush rice fields, now receded to marsh, back to impoundments where rice was grown again—not as cash crop, but as bait for native ducks and imported guns. A different plantation society took hold, a culture which produced its own art as Aiden Lassell Ripley and Ogden Pleissner painted the owners engaged in noble field sports.

The house at Bonny Hall was built in 1897 and by the 1930s was owned by publisher Nelson Doubleday. Bonny Hall was bounded by Ho Bonny, Twickenham, and Nemours (though when Sherman came through it was part and parcel of Nieuport). The advent of the Second World War had driven Somerset Maugham, the English novelist and playwright whom Doubleday published to both profit and acclaim, from his long-time home on the French Riviera. In response, Doubleday built a farm house on the Bonny Hall grounds to serve as the author’s wartime retreat and guest quarters.

My friend Dan Blalock is from Bradenton, Florida, but has always loved the Lowcountry. He’s owned a plantation or two, and his tales of life on the land never failed to leave me wistful—and a little bit green. On a Sunday morning in January 2008, I read the fateful ad in the real estate section of our Charleston paper and, church hour aside, made the call. I got Bill Sanford, someone Dan had mentioned with respect, and told him I wanted a plantation. In hindsight, perhaps I was too direct. Bill had Twickenham for sale, and I could only admit my inability to play when he quoted the price.

Maybe he sensed in me that “no” meant “yes” or that my interest was genuine, even if I couldn’t write the check. He agreed to meet us, and Jane and I soon found ourselves on River Road. (Doesn’t every Southern state have one of these? Charleston’s River Road and the one shadowing the Mississippi in St. Francisville, Louisiana even share the same highway number, 61.) We made one turn and pulled down a long drive through an allee of oaks to Parker’s Ferry Plantation, a small haven carved from the larger Bonny Hall next door after Doubleday sold the place.

Parker’s is rooted in the big bend of the Combahee, where the river runs fast. Here we see Catesby’s eagle, alligator, and all else named in his catalogue of New World species, each strange and exotic to his Old World audience. Some are exotic to us, as well, as is the entirety of it all. We have fifty-two live oaks, many of elephantine proportion, in the yard around the house and many in the fields. Many more march single file down both sides of our drive, each alive with a Disney-esque sway of the draping Spanish moss. Bill Sanford opined that there were those who thought Parker’s too small. As a rule, quail hunters value lots of land—big land—with open woods of long leaf pine and loblolly, maybe thirty sticks to the acre as Michael Thomas, manager at Bonny Hall today, would say. Two hundred acres is plenty, I think, a lot to walk behind a dog in a day.

There are many things about this new endeavor that I think I know, but my ignorance tells on me at times. Thankfully, the local fellows, managers on these neighboring plantations, are unfailingly helpful and generous in teaching me. Sometimes they let me think what they tell me is my idea, and I understand that psychology; all successful salesmen know it. I do know that I am fortunate to have their counsel. I am still more fortunate to know Frank Fields—born on the place and baptized in the creek—who keeps a watchful eye and bails me out when there is trouble with a tractor, always caused by me. Generous with a tale and a smile, Frank is Gullah and speaks Southern with a different voice. Frank was but a boy when the famous first inhabitant of the house was there, but can tell you stories about Cap’n Maum and Parker’s. The continuity of his recollections—first resident to last—is other-worldly. Tony Brown lives on the place, and we see his love for it, too, in the grounds and garden he keeps. Tony, though, has been to town, so to speak, and tells tales of a different sort.

Best known for his critically acclaimed, semi-autobiographical novel, Of Human Bondage, Maugham lived out the war in the farm house, the place where Jane and I now spend every possible weekend hour. Because Maugham required a separate space for his writing, Doubleday constructed a small writer’s cottage on the grounds—just the sort of out-building every plantation would have had, as office for owner or overseer. It was in this cottage that Maugham penned his last major work, The Razor’s Edge. He became part of the place and, in Frank’s telling, lives here still. I’ve adopted his writer’s cottage as my own. Shadowed by live oaks, it is my perch on the Combahee, the spot from which I communicate with others who know the South and its art—and value each in turn.

Hermann Herzog (1832-1932)
Southern Hardwood Swamp Scene ()
Oil on canvas
22 x 26 inches
Signature Details: H-Herzog
Owner: Private Collection, Jacksonville, Florida
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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