"They harnessed the moon," one writer wrote of Carolina Low Country rice planters, "and turned the marshes into fields of gold."
South Carolina rice planters used the power of the moon through the action of the tide to irrigate fields where they grew Carolina Gold rice. This variety derived its name from the color of its outer hull, but also brings to mind the "gold" it brought to South Carolina.
Rice cultivation began in the state in the late-seventeenth century. For more than a hundred years it brought great wealth
and power to Low Country plantation owners.
From the clearing of the cypress swamps to the planting and flooding of the fields to the harvesting, rice required intensive labor. African slaves are due most of the credit for the successful rice production in South Carolina.
The Civil War changed this economy dramatically. No where is the rice story and this change recorded more succinctly than in the history of Chicora Wood Plantation. The house is still standing majestically on the Pee Dee River between Myrtle Beach and Georgetown, South Carolina. I toured its grounds in March during a downpour.
In the 1730's an early settler of Georgetown, John Allston, received land grants of 4,000 acres that made up this estate. A later owner, Robert F.W. Allston turned it into one of the most productive rice plantations in the South, and he also served as Governor of South Carolina for a time.
But it was his daughter, Elizabeth Allston Pringle, who gave us the most vivid picture of rice plantation life following the Civil War.
She wrote a book, actually a diary of her day to day duties as A Woman Rice Planter.
Elizabeth grew up in the era of massive slave holdings over the South, but also when the patriarchal system was firmly entrenched in southern families. Women were expected to exemplify feminine virtues of nurturing and self-sacrifice and to accept male domination and opinions without question.
But after her father's death, and later, her husband John Pringle's death from malaria after only six years of a happy marriage, widow Elizabeth took on the mammoth and "unwomanly" task of managing Chicora Wood plantation and growing rice with a greatly reduced labor force that must now be paid. Her story is one of courage, compassion for the freed slaves and tenacity to keep holding on to a "man's job" when times grew very hard indeed.
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