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History: More than a crop, rice was an industry

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Evolution of the South Carolina Lowcountry’s rice culture can be followed in the abandoned canals and tall chimneys on former plantation land. Pieces of machinery have been left to rust for more than a century after production of rice migrated to the Southwest where it could be grown more efficiently.

Dr. Richard Porcher Jr., a botany professor who has written about South Carolina wildflowers and Sea Island cotton, and artist Billy Judd spent a decade trying to separate myth from fact about Carolina Gold, the rice that made hundreds of plantation owners wealthy. Porcher and Judd have just finished a book, “The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice,” that traces the production of rice from its beginnings in Goose Creek slave gardens to a cash crop that led to the clearing of 150,000 acres of tidal land for its production. The authors made a presentation to a group at Hobcaw Barony’s Kimbel Lodge last week.

Porcher is professor emeritus at The Citadel and adjunct professor of biological sciences at Clemson University, where he established the Wade T. Batson Endowment in field botany. He is the author of “Wildflowers of the Carolina Lowcountry and Lower Pee Dee” and the coauthor of “A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina” and “The Story of Sea Island Cotton.” Judd, a self-taught draftsman/artist, archaeologist and historian, is retired from the U.S. Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in Hanahan.

Porcher said Judd was able to look at the pieces of abandoned machinery and draw an illustration depicting how it worked. “To me,” Porcher said, “it was a bunch of junk. I’m a field botanist. Billy would sit down and take notes and come back a couple days later and say this is what I think it is. We were very fortunate that people who own these plantations allowed us to go out in the field and find these sites. Artifacts helped us understand how the machinery was put together.”

Porcher researched documents ranging from patents to slave journals for clues about rice production. His findings contradict some long-held assumptions about the Lowcountry rice culture from the trunk system that flooded and drained fields to water- and steam-powered machines that began replacing slave labor in threshing and milling rice before the Civil War.

In 1670, Porcher said, a ship brought planters from Barbados to the port of Charleston. They settled near Goose Creek, and their slaves planted rice for their own use. The owners saw the crop’s potential and created the plantation enterprise. From there it spread to form the Lowcountry “rice kingdom.”

Carolina Gold is the finest rice ever grown, Porcher said. It was introduced to the Winyah and Waccamaw regions by Hezekiah Maham, an American Revolutionary War officer who lived in Pineville. Joshua John Ward, owner of Brookgreen Plantation and more than a thousand slaves, married Maham’s granddaughter, Joanna Douglas Hasell, and gained access to the Carolina Gold seeds. “Where Maham got Carolina Gold rice,” Porcher said, “nobody has any idea. At least we’ve got a person and put a name on it.”

The first rice trunks were of African origin, Porcher said. The swing gate trunks in Jasper County were not. Porcher said they were used in the early 1700s in the English countryside. “It may have come from England,” he said, “but the rice trunk was modified and perfected here. “They took 150,000 acres of tidal freshwater swamp and turned it into rice fields. This is the system that completely changed the ecology of Lowcountry South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, and we have claimed it as our own.”

Porcher said there are three stages of rice production: harvesting, threshing and milling. When the work was done by hand, slaves used flailing sticks to beat the rice grains off the stalks after they were cut and dried in the fields. Finally, they had to shake the stalks to get the last few grains. Once the outer husks were removed from the grain, the rice was tossed in the air by use of winnowing baskets to allow wind to blow away the chaff. Later winnowing barns were built, and rice was dropped from a hole in the high structure’s floor to allow the wind to separate the chaff as the seeds fell to the ground. The last winnowing barn in existence is at Mansfield Plantation near Georgetown, the author said.

“The plantation owners grew so much rice,” Porcher said, “they had to move to mechanized threshing. Steam power turned a series of beaters that dislodged the rice seeds from the stalks. Porcher and Judd went to Chicora Wood Plantation to study a rice chimney to understand how mechanized threshing in the 1800s worked. They found a frame and some rakes in the threshing barn. “We gradually figured out the use,” Porcher said. “It’s not in any literature. A beater knocked the seed into a hopper, but some remained embedded in the straw. The rakes removed it.”

Milling involved removing the hull from the rice grain and then the bran layer. “That’s where all the minerals and vitamins are,” Porcher said. “White rice is pure starch. Why remove the bran layer? The hold of a ship was hot, and the bran would turn rancid during the long voyage to England. The whiter rice was, the higher price you got.”

Before the introduction of machinery, slaves could spend an entire winter pounding rice to rub off the bran, Porcher said. Water- and steam-powered machines had a piston that drove a series of pestles to pound the rice. He said there were 100 steam-powered rice mills in the region and a dozen in the Santee Delta alone.

The loss of slave labor and the destruction of infrastructure due to the Civil War, a series of hurricanes, competition from rice grown in the American Southwest starting in 1880 and financial restraints during Reconstruction led to the end of the South Carolina rice culture. Impoverished and unable to adapt to new technologies and market demands, rice planters left the enterprise to others. The last commercial rice crop of the era was harvested in 1911.

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