Middleton Place, a Colonial and Antebellum plantation near Charleston, SC on SC Highway 61 is now a National Historic Landmark District. It features the oldest landscaped gardens in the United States, a house that now serves as a museum, and a stable yard and workshops. Middleton Place aims to tell not just the story of the plantation owners, but of the slaves and subsequently freed slaves that who built and worked the plantation. The Middleton Place Foundation that operates the site, in their words, “uses historic preservation, documented research, and interpretation as a force for education, understanding, and positive change.” This, I think, they do well. The landscaped gardens and stately house are there, front and center, but Middleton Place uses exhibits within the house and at the stable yard and workshops to show that the plantation would have existed as it did and does now without the labor of slaves before the Civil War and freed slaves as tenants after the Civil War. It was the last stop on my recent Colonial Lowcountry Road Trip and a place that I should have visited a long time ago.
When we stand on the same land as generations of the enslaved and the free, take in its exquisite beauty and its inherent brutality, we understand that the stories of Middleton Place are American stories. Black stories. White stories. Essential, life-changing human stories.https://www.middletonplace.org/about/
Middleton Place was the home of an influential family in colonial South Carolina and Patriot politics. It was originally owned by John Williams, who probably started building the house in the late 1730s. It passed to the Middleton family when Henry Middleton married Williams’ daughter Mary; the house and land that would become Middleton Place were part of Mary’s dowry. Henry completed the house and began the gardens. Henry Middleton was influential in South Carolina politics, but in 1770 he resigned his position with the royal colonial government and became one of the leaders of those opposed to British policy in the colonies. He was not just a delegate to the First Continental Congress, but it’s second President as well. Middleton Place passed on to his son Arthur Middleton, who was a Patriot leader in South Carolina and was elected to the Continental Congress, where he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. At this point, Middleton Place was more like a country house, but future generations would turn it into a rice plantation. One of those was Arthur’s son Henry Middleton, who was governor of South Carolina from 1810-1812, a South Carolina representative in Congress from 1815-1819, and Minister to Russia from 1820-1830. Henry’s son Williams Middleton was a signer of the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession in in 1860, which helped lead to the Civil War.
The self-guided tour of Middleton Place begins with the reflecting pool and classical style garden north of the house. I’m by no means an expert on gardens, but the Middleton Place garden is beautiful. I visited during the first week of spring and the camellias and azaleas in the classical style garden and the rest of the grounds were already blooming. It’s believed that a friend of Arthur Middleton, French botanist Andre Michaux, introduced the first Camellias in the United States to the gardens at Middleton Place. In addition to the classical style garden, there are azaleas throughout the grounds, ornamental ponds, and the Middleton Oak, a 900-1000 year old Live Oak tree.
The self-guided tour then leads to the Middleton Place house, the Springhouse/Chapel, and the Rice Mill. Entry to the house, which serves as a museum, is by guided tour only with an added admission fee, but I highly recommend it (photography is not allowed inside the museum). The museum is full of antique furniture, china, silver, and paintings, some of which are rare. One of the paintings is of Czar Nicholas I of Russia, a gift to Henry Middleton when he departed as Minister to Russia. While the exhibits are mostly about the Middleton Plantation, slavery is not forgotten. Standing out among the finery on display is a slave badge, which slaves allowed to work or be off of the plantation had to have or otherwise be arrested and punished. An emotionally poignant display is Ashley’s Sack, a cotton sack from the mid-1800s with embroidery added later that tells the story of a young female slave of the Middletons who owned it; it relates the pain at her sale and separation from her family.
The house at Middleton Place was originally composed of a three story main house with a north flanking building and a south flanking building, both of which were two stories. All three buildings were brick; the main house was the Middleton home, the north flanker contained a library and ballroom, and the south flanker was used as a guest house. During the American Revolution, the British looted Middleton Place, but the main house and flankers survived the war. During the Civil War, they would not be so lucky. In February 1865, Union troops captured the plantation and torched all three buildings. The main house and north flanker were burned beyond repair, but the family was able to rebuild the south flanker after the war and make it their house. The Charleston earthquake of 1886 reduced what was left of the main house and north flanker to piles of brick. During the early 1900s, the family would restore the gardens and open them to the public in the 1920s. In the 1930s, they began restoring the house (south flanker) and other buildings. In 1971, Middleton Place was designated a National Historic Landmark District and 1974, the Middleton Place Foundation, which now operates the plantation as an historic site was founded. In 1975, the foundation opened the house as a museum. Near the house are two other structures next to the millpond; the first is a combination springhouse and chapel (springhouse on the bottom floor and chapel on the top floor) and a rice mill. The first two photos in the slideshow below show the house (formerly the south flanker); the third photo shows the house and the springhouse/chapel as seen from across the mill pond; the fourth and fifth photos show the springhouse/chapel and rice mill respectively; and the last two photos show the brick piles that remain of the main house (next to last photo) and the north flanker (last photo).
In addition to the house and gardens, Middleton Place has a stable yard and freedman’s cabin. The stable yard and its workshops are where slaves would have labored during the plantation’s colonial and antebellum eras and where freed slaves would have continued to work during and after reconstruction. The freedman’s cabin, known as Eliza’s House, is dedicated to exhibits about slavery at Middleton Place.
The stable yard and its associated workshops show what the working side of the plantation would have been like. There are a number of workshops, including a carpenter/cooper’s shop, blacksmith’s shop, textile shop, and pottery shop. On the day I visited, they were giving living history demonstrations at the carpenter/cooper’s shop and I got to see how barrels and buckets were made. Barrels were important at rice plantations in the Lowcountry because that’s what the rice was shipped from the plantations in. Livestock such as sheep, cattle, and Belgian horses are kept at the stable yard (the sheep are used to keep the grass at the entrance to the house trimmed!). Adjacent to the stable yard is Eliza’s House, a post-Civil War freedman’s cabin that was occupied until the 1980’s, when its last resident, Eliza Leach passed away. After her death, the cabin was returned to how it would have been during the Reconstruction era and it houses a permanent exhibit on slavery at Middleton Place – “Beyond the Fields.” There is also a presentation on “Beyond the Fields” given several times a day in which a guide describes the life of slaves at the plantation. I highly recommend taking in one of the presentations when you visit and not bypassing Eliza’s house. They both set the finery you’ve experienced before in the context of the southern slave economy.
It’s also worth mentioning that the guide who gave the “Beyond the Fields” presentation I was at said that the Middleton Place Foundation has begun offering scholarships to the descendants of Middleton Place slaves. One of the reasons that that they are able to do that is through the research the foundation has been conducting on the lives and families of the plantation’s slaves. I have to admit that I was surprised to find that Middleton Place is putting in the effort to find out as much as the can about the slaves who built and worked at the plantation. Usually when you visit places like this, you see a lot about the plantation owners but very little about the slaves. I’m glad that part of my admission fee went into funding research and scholarships like this.
I spent over four hours at Middleton Place, so I was glad that they have a restaurant where I could get some lunch. I’ll admit that it’s more upscale and expensive than I’m used to, but the food was excellent and the view from the restaurant is beautiful. The menu changes seasonally, and much of the produce that they use comes from the Middleton Plantation farm; I had the the shrimp and grits with Tasso gravy (the shrimp were South Carolina-caught) and it was absolutely delicious (I wish the photo above could give off the aroma).
I can’t recommend Middleton Place enough. the grounds are beautiful, the exhibits are interesting, and as a History buff (and holder of a degree in US History), I really appreciate what the Middleton Place Foundation is doing research-wise. The stories of the Middleton Place slaves hold the same importance as the stories of the Middleton family and the tours and exhibits stress that. If you’re touring Lowcountry South Carolina historic sites, Middleton Place has to be one of your stops.