Discovering the mysteries of Bonny Hall Plantation – a time of endless wonder and fascination.
It was early March when Andrew and I received an invitation to come to Bonny Hall Plantation deep in the heart of the ACE Basin, just below Charleston where the Ashepoo, Colleton, and Edisto rivers merge together.
Once a thriving rice plantation before the Civil War, Bonny Hall embodied the grandiose lifestyle of the times. Today the mansion sits serenely along the banks of the Combahee River, its mysteries never to be unveiled, many lost forever over time, and the tides of change.
Majesty envelops us once inside the gates, from endless longleaf pine forests to breathtaking vistas and a persimmon sunset at the end of the day. Miles of waterways curl through the calming marshlands. All this natural beauty cannot help but enrich the lives of those who experience it – a place for patient viewing. A great horned owl swoops by on silent wings, so quiet the only clue is a slight breeze from her wake.
In the years since the “Wah of unpleasantness,” as some describe it, the property has changed hands several times to a list of northerners.
Bonny Hall’s Days as a Rice Plantation
Once the Civil war ended, Bonny Hall’s days as a rice plantation were pretty much over. Without slave labor, there could be no more rice. Carolina Gold rice had made Charleston the wealthiest city in the country during the 1800s then along came the Civil war bringing the entire South to its knees.
But history lives on – a rich culinary history took place in the kitchens of this era. It was a time when dark hands stirred the pots, teaching plantation owners how to cook. These dishes have been passed down through the many decades to become the very foundation of what we know today as Southern cuisine. Many have become classics such as their one-pot soups and stews, and Pilau, sometimes called Perloo or Purlieu. Consider Pilau one of today’s great one-pot meals of the South.
Not only did the slaves teach their owners how to cook but they taught them how to grow and harvest Carolina Gold rice. Their homeland, Sierra Leone, has a similar climate to that of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Their skills were easily transferred to the salt marshes of Colleton County and the entire region extending up through Georgetown.
Then Came Northern Money in Exchange for Southern Land
In the early 1900s, Northern sportsmen began buying up all kinds of land, islands, and old run-down, overgrown plantations. Captains of industry and finance, Henry Food, Bernard Baruch, Andrew Carnegie, the Guggenheims – they all came and purchased land for pennies on the dollar. There was nearly a total changeover of Northern money for Southern land.
Bonny Hall Plantation in the ACE Basin just below Charleston, South Carolina
By 1920 hardly an estate anywhere along the South Carolina and Georgia coast remained in local hands. With them, the Yankees brought redemption. Entire fortunes were squandered for the love of sport; dikes were repaired, canals and ditches re-dug, gamebirds brooded and released, and shotguns were ordered custom made, only the finest were found acceptable.
Walking in the footsteps of history through acres of camellias and azaleas, we discovered this garden gate. As we walked the grounds a light fog began to roll in and engulf the pecan grove off in the distance – those mighty trees have stood tall where soldiers fought battles beneath their limbs. Secrets they hold we will never know – secrets of the many wealthy sportsmen who arrived on this land from the North long after that war was fought and over. They came for the love of sport. Lives of opulence and luxury were lived out on this land. Their secrets are safe – many mysteries are yet to be told.
Bonny Hall stands shrouded in mystery and majesty along the banks of the Combahee River. The current Victorian structure replaced a Federal-style plantation house burned in 1875. Under the ownership of publisher Nelson Doubleday and his wife Ellen, the house underwent significant alterations and nearly doubled in size. Doubleday altered the interior layout and converted the style to colonial revival.
Bonny Hall – Once Home to Nelson Doubleday
I tried to imagine what life was like when the renowned publisher, Nelson Doubleday owned the land. Somerset Maughan had once lived here and wrote The Razor’s Edge. A small home remains down on the river where he lived and worked. Congressmen and elites from around the world once gathered here, hunted ducks, wild turkeys, and deer. It’s possible this tree stood tall during the Revolutionary War, provided shade for men who fought battles here and for slaves coming in from the rice fields beyond. Surely they protected generations of young children who played and grew up beneath these branches.
Once a thriving rice plantation, now a treasured landmark.
“Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” George Bernard Shaw
I also believe a fine photograph is one that allows us to see what is invisible to others. It transports us to another time, another place, and restores the soul.
STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN Andrew Branning http://wwwbranningfineart.com/
“Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.” Leonardo de Vinci
Andrew felt a huge responsibility to capture the majesty of this tree in one single image. After waiting for the afternoon light to fade, he approached and angle that turned each limb of the oak into a rung of what appeared as a staircase. In the days that followed that afternoon, he decided to name this image Stairway to Heaven in honor of those we have lost to COVID-19. It is his hope that each victim will climb the rungs of this ladder into the arms of a loving God. As generations come and go, this mighty oak with roots running deep will remain to tell our story.
From The Roots of Southern Cooking – Shrimp, Collards and Grits, Volume IV., honoring the spirit, history, people, and tastes of the classic Southern table.