outh Carolina’s coastal Georgetown County, located along the Grand Strand approximately 60 miles north of Charleston, is a gem waiting to be discovered by visitors interested in stepping back in time to catch a glimpse of the rich history that helped define our country and distinguish the lifestyle of the South.
Although traces of the first inhabitants in Georgetown County date back more than 11,000 years, the first successful European colonization did not take place until English planters and traders arrived by ship to “George Towne” in the 1700s to take over land granted to them by Prince George — later King George II — of England.
Today, many historic sites remain that allow visitors to grasp a sense of what it must have been like to live in Georgetown County more than 300 years ago.
Huntington Beach State Park and Atalaya, the Hopsewee and Hampton Plantations, the Kaminski House and Rice Museum, and beautiful Brookgreen Gardens, all take visitors back to a time when wealthy plantation owners would move to the beaches of Georgetown County to escape the sweltering summer heat and when rice produced in Georgetown County was the economic backbone of the state.
Huntington Beach State Park is one destination that you won’t want to miss. Located within the Park grounds you’ll find Atalaya Castle, a grand structure which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
In 1930, industrialist/philanthropist Archer Huntington and his wife, sculptress Anna Hyatt Huntington, purchased three plantations, including an extensive beachfront area, where they made their winter home. Archer Huntington was a noted scholar of Spanish culture and art, and designed the residence in the Moorish Revival and Mediterranean Revival architecture styles from Spanish Andalusian coast models. Generally called simply “Atalaya”, the word is Spanish for “Watchtower” and refers to a square tower rising nearly 40 feet from a covered walkway and housed a 3,000 gallon water tank. The 55-room winter mansion is built as a large, square building enveloping a large, open interior courtyard filled with peaceful palm trees.
After Archer Huntington’s death the estate was donated and today it is a pristine 2,500-acre coastal preserve and state park with a large sandy beach and few beachgoers. Huntington Beach State Park now welcomes the public year round, and with a fresh water lagoon and winding nature trail, observers can also catch a glimpse of the coast’s diverse natural environment. The Education Center features natural history displays and live animals, including a saltwater touch tank and a live baby alligator among its exhibits. Park naturalists offer free programs about the park’s wildlife and habitat. The center is open Tuesday through Sunday year-round, and is located at the marsh boardwalk. Other park features includes the beach, jetty, campground, trails and gift shop.
Two of the most significant historic homes available to tour in Georgetown County are Hopsewee Plantation, birthplace of Thomas Lynch Jr., signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Hampton Plantation, a beautiful home built by French Huguenots circa 1735, visited by George Washington in 1791, and last home to Archibald Rutledge, author and state poet laureate.
Hopsewee Plantation (pictured at top left), a South Carolina National Historic Landmark, is a preservation rather than a restoration and has never been allowed to fall into decay as it has always been cherished. Only five families have owned it, although it was built almost 40 years before the Revolutionary War. The house, still a private residence, is a typical low country rice plantation dwelling of the early eighteenth century with four rooms opening into a wide center hall on each floor, a full brick cellar and attic rooms. According to the National Park Service, “the frame building, a fine example of a Carolina “low country” plantation house, shows West Indian influence, with its double-tiered piazza and dormered hip roof.”
The house has a lovely staircase and there is hand carved molding in each room and random width heart pine floors are almost one and one half inches thick. Constructed on a brick foundation which is covered by scored tabby, the house is built of black cypress, which probably accounts for the fact that it is basically the same house the Lynches originally built. It is furnished in eighteenth and nineteenth century furniture. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1971. The house and grounds are open to the public Tues thru Fri, March through October.
Hampton Plantation is a quiet and serene state historic site, but in the 18th and 19th centuries it was a bustling working rice plantation. Tour the mansion and enjoy interpretive programs that focus on the Lowcountry rice culture and plantation system that shaped the lives of Hampton residents. Tucked away in the remote last vestiges of a colonial-era rice plantation, Hampton Plantation State Historic Site is both bucolic and evocative. Visitors can explore the mansion, wander the plantation grounds or just look out upon Wambaw Creek at the remains of rice fields that once stretched as far as the eye could see. It is “South Carolina’s finest example of a large two-and-a-half frame Georgian plantation house.” It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970.
The Kaminski House, another historic area home, was built circa 1769 and today holds a noteworthy collection of 18th- and 19th-century American and European antiques, including several interesting examples from cabinet makers of the 1800s. Of the more than 60 antebellum homes in Georgetown, the Kaminski House Museum stands out as one of the most representative of the Georgian style architecture of the era. Built on a bluff overlooking the Sampit River, the house is typical of the “single house” construction of the time. The narrow end of the home faced the street with the entry way located midway down one side of the building. There is an observation deck overlooking the river and a gift shop in the old butler’s quarters.
Interesting examples of the work of Charleston’s cabinetmakers of the 1800s are featured here. The last owner, Julia Kaminski, gave the house and its contents to the City of Georgetown in 1972 to be used as a house museum in memory of her husband, Harold Kaminski, and his mother, Rose Kaminski. The Museum offers a number of programs, such as a decorative arts lecture series and the popular “Made in the Shade” concert series.
Brookgreen Gardens is a beautifully landscaped garden of centuries-old live oaks and more than 2,000 species of plants native and adapted to the Southeastern United States. The gardens boast the largest outdoor display of American figurative sculpture in the world — more than 550 works by over 300 artists. Located along a 300-acre parcel in the heart of a 9,100-acre preserve along Georgetown County’s coast, the property stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the historic rice fields bordering the Waccamaw River — called “the Waccamaw Neck” — the area where early plantation owners grew rice.
Originally, what is now Brookgreen Gardens was four rice plantations. The plantations from south to north were The Oaks, Brookgreen, Springfield, and Laurel Hill. The current gardens and surrounding facilities lie completely on the former Brookgreen Plantation, which was owned by Joshua John Ward, the largest American slaveholder.
Only a handful of relics survive on the former plantations. The Alston (or Allston) cemetery survives on the grounds of The Oaks plantation. Gov. James Alston and his child are buried in the cemetery. The same grave is a memorial to the governor’s wife Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of Vice President Aaron Burr, who was lost at sea. Her ghost reportedly haunts the Grand Strand, looking for her father. The rice mill at Laurel Hill is all that remains of the plantation today. During the American Civil War, Confederates built an earthen structure on the grounds to block Union ships from coming into the tidal rivers.
Georgetown County’s Rice Museum portrays the history of the rice industry in the United States and includes a cross-section scale model of a rice mill. Following the Revolution, Georgetown County became the leading rice producer in the New World. Its many black-water rivers once flooded and nurtured the fields that made the commercial production of rice possible in the early 1800s. These rivers also formed a seaport that opened the market for slaves brought from West Africa to work the rice fields.
Georgetown County, the oldest family resort area in the nation, is a peaceful alternative to the hustle and bustle of its northern neighbor, Myrtle Beach. The county extends from Garden City Beach south to the Santee River at the Charleston County line and offers visitors an array of opportunities — from fishing and boating to historical tours, a variety of dining experiences, 15 public golf courses, quaint inns and upscale resort accommodations, meeting facilities and more.
For further historical information on Georgetown County, please visit the website at http://hammockcoastsc.com/
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