Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Middleton Place

by Nancy Moser

My husband and I were in South Carolina last week and wanted to go to a plantation. We chose Middleton Place just north of Charleston.  We were so glad we did because not only was the house and grounds memorable, but the family who lived there were inspiring. The Middleton family were definitely overachievers: 

Henry Middleton was a president of the First Continental Congress.
*  His son Arthur Middleton, signed the Declaration of Independence
*  His grandson, Henry Middleton was governor of South Carolina, a congressman, and a minister to Russia during the rein of Czars Alexander I and Nicholas I.  Note: this Henry was an avid Unionist.
* His great-grandsons, Williams and John signed South Carolina's Ordinance of Secession, siding with the South in the Civil War, while their little brother, Edward fought in the Union Navy.

The Middleton Place plantation itself is a survivor. After enduring two wars raging around it, hurricanes, an earthquake, and having its houses burned down by the Union army, it was passed through the Middleton family to a direct descendent, J.J. Pringle Smith and his wife Heningham in 1916.  

My husband standing beneath a Live Oak
Starting in 1925 they made it their life's work to restore it to its former glory and make much-needed twentieth century updates to the house. The Smiths lived there until it was declared a National Historic Landmark and was opened to the public in 1972.  Mrs. Smith even worked the gardens herself, reclaiming them from decades of neglect and turning them into the manicured masterpiece they are today. The gardens were the first landscaped gardens in the United States.  Not flower gardens like we may expect, but lawned terraces, ponds, shrubs, and enormous Live Oaks (they have leaves all four seasons of the year, distinguishing them from the more usual oak species.) Yet during their seasons, flowers are abundant: hydrangeas, magnolias, azaleas, roses, and camellias.

Surviving "flanker" building that became family home
The plantation was started in the 1730's by Henry and the main house was built with two "flanker" buildings added on either side that were assigned other uses beyond family dwelling. The buildings were burned by Union troops during the Civil War, but some of the south flanker remained and was restored as the family home. It was occupied by family until the Smiths donated it in 1975.  It is now open to the public for tours.  The ruins of the other two buildings were further leveled in an 1886 earthquake.

The gardens... what struck me was the obvious planned layout, with the view from what was the front door of the main house to the river, allowing terraces on either side, and corresponding ponds leading to rice fields along the river that could be flooded.  Yet I didn't feel like I was in a formal (uppity?) garden as at Versailles or other palaces of Europe, but was experiencing a carefully planned park, with surprises around each bend as hedged paths led further into the woods, or to a bridge, or to a dead-end opening that was home to a sculpture or a bench.  Much of it seemed planned, yet organic, a mixture of man's and nature's plans. It was utterly charming and peaceful. 

Note:  if you want to fully feel the peaceful nature of the gardens without other tourists bothering you, stay at the adjoining Inn at Middleton Place which allows you free access to the plantation grounds--whenever you want.  You simply walk down a wooded trail and voila! You are there! (see my Trip Advisor review and photos here.)

On the plantation there are stables, carriage rides, a petting zoo, alligators sunning by the ponds, slave quarters, a mill, a chapel, other outbuildings, and demonstrations of weaving, pottery, and the like. But beyond the must-sees, two words stuck with me:  family legacy. The knowledge that one family stayed here, grew here, lived and loved here, fought for their beliefs here... that's what drew me in and kept me involved. No matter what they believed, they believed it strongly and lived their convictions. 

Some interesting historical notes:
*  There is an 1842 sketch (above) of the main house and the two flankers, drawn by a daughter-in-law. It's proven to be invaluable in knowing how things looked before the Civil War. The stables are to the right, with the slave quarters behind.

*  Arthur Middleton was schooled in England.  When he came back to the colonies of America, he married a neighbor from across the river, Mary Izard.  Mary had never been out of the colonies, so Henry took her on a three-year honeymoon tour of Europe!  Their first son, Henry, was born on that trip.  A gorgeous portrait of the happy trio is in the house museum, as are many of the silver pieces, china, art, and other treasures they purchased on their trip. This lovely portrait of the family is by Benjamin West.

*  Much of the art that was in the house during the Civil War was set to be burned.  When the Union soldiers came to the plantation with orders to burn everything to the ground, a medical director, Dr. Henry Marcy, was with the troops. Realizing all the art that would be lost with the burning, he sliced the paintings out of their frames, rolled them up, took them north, and hung them in his own home.  After the war, Williams Middleton corresponded with Dr. Marcy and managed to have some (but not all) of the paintings returned--on the condition Williams reimbursed Marcy $10 for the repairs and $30 for the new frames.

*  A son of Arthur and Mary became a painter and renowned archeologist:  John Izard Middleton was proclaimed "American's First Classical Archeologist."

The first Henry Middleton

*  After the Smiths moved in, they found an old trunk in a barn, covered in rotting straw.  Inside, preserved by the camphor wood lining, were items of 18th century clothing, including a gold silk waistcoat and breeches that were worn in a portrait of the first Henry. It's rare to have both the clothing and the portrait in which it was worn survive.

*  As a man loyal to the South, Williams Middleton turned all his money into Southern script--over a million dollars.  Of course, after the war it was worthless.  The family would have lost the plantation if not for Williams' sister, Eliza Fisher who had married a wealthy Northerner.  She provided the funds to keep Middleton Place in the family, and helped it rebuild after the war.

I will share a bit about the slaves at Middleton Place in another blog.  I highly encourage you to visit the plantation and dive into its history.

NANCY MOSER is the best-selling author of 25 novels, including Love of the Summerfields, Christy Award winner, Time Lottery; Washington’s Lady, Mozart’s Sister, The Journey of Josephine Cain, and Masquerade. Nancy has been married for forty years—to the same man. They have three grown children and five grandchildren, and live in the Midwest. She’s earned a degree in architecture; run a business with her husband; traveled extensively in Europe; and has performed in various theatres and choirs. She knits voraciously, kills all her houseplants, and can wire an electrical fixture without getting shocked. She is a fan of anything antique—humans included. Author Website, Footnotes from History Blog, Author Blog/Inspirational humor, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, Good Reads  

Read my latest book Love of the Summerfields1880 England. The lives and loves of manor and village intertwine. Earl and shopkeeper, countess and clerk—all will be stunned and transformed by a secret that begs to be revealed. When the Weston family returns to Summerfield Manor at the close of the London social season, both village and manor relax into their normal existence. But for four women, turmoil awaits. Each must battle the restrictions of her position as her faith and character are tested. Each will have a choice to make between her own happiness and a truth that will turn their carefully-ordered world upside down.


  1. I live in SC and have heard great things about the Inn at Middleton Place!

  2. I put this plantation on my bucket list, especially when I saw it was a NHS! So beautiful and so much history. What an ambitious family! sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  3. Thank you for sharing your wonderful visit, Nancy. I enjoyed learning about the Middleton Place plantation and the Middleton family.

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