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Books: Author started with a shovel, finished with pen

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Christopher Boyle has been interested in the history of Mansfield Plantation near Georgetown for nearly 20 years.

He got his hands dirty as a Winthrop University graduate student during an internship at Coastal Carolina with archaeologist Jim Michie and researched the plantation’s history for a report on the dig’s findings. Little did Boyle realize that he was just getting started. After two decades of painstaking research, Boyle has written a book, “Mansfield Plantation, A Legacy on the Black River,” published by The History Press of Charleston.

Boyle, a social studies teacher at Socastee High School, said he sought historical nuggets about Mansfield to share with his students and began a yearly field trip to the plantation with the blessing of former owner Sally Smith.

He did not know that Smith had sold Mansfield to John and Sallie Parker when he called in 2004 to schedule the annual student trip. Boyle struck up a conversation with John Parker over the phone and said it was interesting that the plantation was owned by a Parker again. It was more than interesting, he soon discovered. Parker is descended from the Man-Taylor-Lance-Parker family line of ownership dating back 150 years and felt the kinship with the land the minute he set foot on the property’s Black River banks. Reclaiming the former rice plantation became his life’s ambition. The Parkers invited Boyle for a visit and asked him to become the plantation historian and join a new board of directors.

Parker said in the book’s foreword that the family sold the ancestral home after his great-grandfather, Dr. Francis S. Parker, died in 1912. “The reason Mansfield was sold at his death was never discussed within our family,” Parker said. His childhood nurse, Rebecca Golden, was born in 1900 at Mansfield, a granddaughter of slaves who lived in a plantation cabin until she moved with the Parker family to Lake City. She remembered John Parker’s great-grandfather tossing candy from his buggy to the children living on the plantation when he came through the gates. Golden’s death in 1968 severed the family’s connection to Mansfield until April 28, 2004, when John and Sallie Parker bought it back.

“Once the Parkers came on the scene,” Boyle said, “the book became a reality.” He researched slave schedules, crop transactions, census reports and read Dr. Parker’s letters, traveling to Charleston and Columbia. Old Georgetown newspapers from the 1800s were valuable sources of information too. “I knew more about what was going on in the antebellum era than my own,” Boyle said.

Sallie Parker agreed to be Boyle’s editor. “She’s a great writer herself,” he said, “and had a personal interest in seeing a good job done. She used her red pen and put me back to work.”

Boyle’s examination of Georgetown County plantation life is not an indictment of slavery or an excuse for it. It is largely an academic view of the rice culture’s economy, citing the value of plantation property that included livestock, tools and slaves and Georgetown County’s rise to prominence.

With Mansfield Plantation as a starting point, Boyle includes a wealth of detail about other plantations. Many of those are remembered now by just street names or housing developments. Planters lived like royalty in the 1840s and ’50s, leaving their plantations from late spring until fall to avoid the mysterious diseases in the hot, humid air. Many trooped over to Pawleys Island with a big entourage of servants and children for the summer, leaving the unfortunate to work the rice fields and make them rich.

It all came to an end with the state’s declaration of secession after Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Dr. Francis S. Parker was one of the South Carolinians to sign that fateful document. In 1862, he was authorized by the state Senate to remove slaves and other property from portions of the state that were in danger of invasion by Union troops. This certainly included Georgetown where Union gunboats sailed past the city and up her intricate river system. Union troops burned fields and looted houses before carrying away slaves. By the summer of 1862, over 700 had been confiscated and moved to North Island as contraband of war. The people were fed a quart of rice a day, according to the Charleston Mercury, and were sick and dying.

Remnants of the rice economy that survived the war, were wiped out by Reconstruction and natural disaster. By the turn of the 20th century, plantations were considered worthless, fallow fields. Wealthy Northerners swooped in and bought land for pennies per acre as hunting preserves. For two decades Charles W. Tuttle owned Mansfield before he sold it to Col. Robert L. and Charlotte Montgomery for $30,000. The Montgomerys restored and modernized the manor house, built a guesthouse and preserved the slave quarters. They even produced a model rice crop in 1939. Montgomery died in 1949 and his wife followed in 1970. Her executors sold the 760-acre plantation to Wilbur Stevenson Smith of Columbia for $405,500. Smith began the process of adding Mansfield to the National Register of Historic Places and donated Dr. Francis S. Parker’s plantation record books to the University of South Carolina. He left the plantation to his daughter, Sally, who opened the estate as a bed-and-breakfast.

The book concludes with a chapter of black-and-white photos from the plantation. Socastee film and photography teacher Rich Taylor shot new photographs and digitized old ones to show the restorations as well as the ravages of time.

Boyle said the book was “an easy sell” to History Press because of its balance between an academic approach and market appeal. He said the book is aimed at visitors to the Mansfield B&B so they can get a sense of its history. “The Parkers are very serious about not having tacky, tourist trinkets,” he said. His other audience includes history students and people who are drawn to the plantation by its beauty. “There’s a lot of stuff in there,” Boyle said. “The goal was to produce something a lot of people could gain something from.”

Boyle will sign books at the Georgetown Wooden Boat Show Oct. 18 and speak at a Moveable Feast presentation Jan. 9.

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