Tuesday, September 18, 2012
The rice was flying Thursday at Middleton Place as schoolchildren attempted to replicate the precise wrist movement needed to flip a flat basket of Carolina Gold and remove the chaff.
Their novice attempts were a bonanza for the chickens.
The first and second year Montessori students from Mitchell Elementary School in downtown Charleston were the first to experience a new interpretive center at Middleton that shows visitors how rice was produced here.
MeadWestvaco funded the center with a $15,000 grant. It’s a great way for people to see firsthand how our forefathers had to sustain themselves through their agriculture, rather than heading to the grocery store, said Kenneth Seeger, senior vice president and president of Community Development and Land Management at MWV.
It’s also a reminder that in the Lowcountry it was rice, not cotton, that reigned.
Bob Sherman, an interpreter who works in historical agriculture, said visitors to Middleton often expect a Tara-like vista of cotton fields.
Instead, they learn that fortunes were built in the rice fields. Shortly before the Civil War, South Carolina was exporting 140 million pounds of rice per year, Sherman said.
Rice production, however, was labor intensive. A rice plantation required more slaves than a cotton plantation, Sherman said.
Records transcribed by Tom Blake, founder of the Large Slaveholder Project, show that of the 18 slave owners with more than 500 slaves recorded in the 1860 U.S. Census, eight were from the Lowcountry.
Charleston County slaveholders had the most slaves of any county in the nation in 1860, according to Blake’s research.
Middleton ran on a task system, Sherman said. Female slaves had to fan – that basket-flipping process – 35 pounds of rice per day, he said.
“I fan out maybe a handful and I’m ready for the air conditioning or the pool,” he said.
Middleton began growing Carolina Gold again 10 years ago, after the rice was all but lost to history.
No one knows for sure how rice came to the Lowcountry, said interpreter Jeff Neale, though there are lots of theories, each with a healthy dose of legend in them.
But it seems certain that in the early days the planters relied heavily on the expertise of the Africans, who grew rice back home, Neale said.
The Mitchell schoolchildren will be studying all things rice-related this year. Thursday, they went out to the rice field to see the rice ready to be harvested.
Sherman gave their teacher, Esta Musarra, a bag of rice to take back to the classroom and plant.
Musarra, who co-teaches the class with Kim Larson, said the rice will be a jumping-off point for the children to learn about geography, history, transportation, historical clothing, botany and more.
They’ll return to Middleton in the spring when workers are ready to plant the next rice crop.
Although the Mitchell children will enjoy a year-long relationship with Middletown, they’re not the only ones to benefit from the MeadWestvaco gift.
The interpretive center is open to other school groups and regular visitors; Sherman talked in detail to some adult visitors who happened upon the school presentation and lingered after the children went off to lunch.
Because the equipment is small and portable, the historical center will also be able to send interpreters to schools that can’t transport students to Middleton.