long-abandoned banks and canals that dot the landscape. But, do we really know the story of Lowcountry rice?For all the evidence that remains to tell future generations about Lowcountry rice, the story of this crop remains obscured. Lowcountry rice, a crop that built beautiful and wealthy existences for some while causing suffering and death for many more, remains a mystery to most visitors and residents of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Even the untrained eye can spot the
The authors do not think so. Speaking of other scholarly research on slave society and economy and the plantation economy of the south: "Most of these works, however, contain only brief sections on market preparation of Carolina rice, and those discussions rely on earlier historians whose accounts were often erroneous and inadequate, or at best superficial and lacking detail." (Porcher & Judd, 2014, p. xxi). If the story of rice has been told from other angles, why is this approach so important? Again, the authors: "One cannot fully understand the role Carolina rice played in the South and the Lowcountry without knowing how it was prepared for market." (Porcher & Judd, xxi).
Much separates this volume from previous attempts to tell the story of rice in the Carolina Lowcountry, but two areas are crucial. First, Porcher, through his years of field work in biology, has access to sites, tools, and machines that simply do not exist any more. Drawing on his personal photo archive, Porcher has access to images of places long since developed and buildings long since destroyed. Second, William Robert Judd's illustrations are exquisite. Bringing an artist's hand and an engineer's mind, Judd's contribution to this work is, in some ways, the most important part of the book. Without the images, many created from vague descriptions and incomplete recollection, this book would be a exhausting exploration of rice culture that only the most creative and mechanically inclined readers could decipher.
The authors approach Lowcountry Rice systematically, beginning with a history of rice as a crop (there are two strains), moving to the need to find a commercially successful crop in the colonies and then exploring the biological record of the rices that came to the Lowcountry. Of greatest interest to those living in the South Carolina Lowcountry may be the third chapter, where the authors explore the story of the rice fields. The chapter includes a history of two approaches to rice culture and then delves into the work of creating and maintaining the fields. For those who find themselves surrounded by the physical memories of Lowcountry rice, this chapter will increase your appreciation for the hard and deadly work that created the vistas and views you now enjoy.
The book follows the path of rice: preparing fields, harvesting, threshing, and milling. Much attention is paid to milling operations. In fact, nearly half the book is dedicated to exploring the milling operations that turned rice into a marketable and profitable crop. This section of the book also contains a plethora of drawings of each machine and a detailed explanation of their operation. However, for the average reader, the detail is overwhelming. While incremental improvement from one machine to the other was vital to squeezing out every bit of profit from this crop, it is difficult to follow at times.
In fact, if there is one universal critique for this work it is this: There is more detail here than is possible to process at once. Porcher and Judd, through their hard work, their personal connections, and private access to archives, have enough information for a series on Lowcountry Rice, not simply a single book. But, the historian must start somewhere. It is for later authors to further explore, to find other hidden gems of the history of Lowcountry rice, to tell another story of the grain that shaped the South and the nation.
Harriet Tubman Bridge that crosses the Combahee River in Beaufort County. Instead of waiting on the bridge, we headed over to the boat landing beside the bridge and down to the dock to hope for a breeze to keep the mosquitoes at bay. That mostly worked and as I was sitting on the dock, I realized where I was: just across the Combahee from a former rice plantation. I've been interested in the rice plantations in Beaufort County for a bit, but even more lately since I've spent a great deal of time driving between Beaufort and Charleston on Highway 17, passing by the remnants of the old Newberry Plantation rice fields. The plantation is currently owned by the Nemours Wildlife Foundation, but it's been years since rice was grown in this land. One of the first things you notice when you spend a little time in nature is there are no straight lines. If you come across straight lines, you're looking at the influence of humans. Take a look at the Google Maps satellite imagery of the area: View Larger Map Pretty impressive, huh? Can you see the different channels and irrigation features? Unfortunately, much of the interesting details is only visible from the ground, and I'm sorry to report that Google Streetview cars haven't made it across the dikes of the old fields. Maybe I need to make a trip out there to check it out... The SC Lowcountry was uniquely situated to produce rice. The land was naturally flat, meaning it didn't require as much work to bring it into cultivation for rice. The abundance of slave labor made it profitable and rice, specifically Carolina Gold rice, grew as a cash crop and soon displaced indigo as one of the main economic drivers of the lowcountry economy. Rice was originally grown with little specific planning; plantation owners planted the rice in wet ground and did the best they could. As the market for rice increased, planters started to experiment with reclaiming swamp land, as seen in the above picture and map, and improved the yield of the land. In the pictures above, you can see the embankments used to delineate the fields. As the market continued to grow, larger operations were created and these required larger sources of water, thus the large canals visible in the pictures above. Most rice production was curtailed during the Civil War and following the cessation of hostilities, some planters restarted their operations using paid labor. However, the market had changed greatly and the rice industry simply didn't take off after the war. Planters that remained turned to mechanical tools to replace the slaves, but even that didn't save the industry. Carolina Gold rice, the main variety grown in the lowcountry, all but disappeared after the early years of the 20th Century, but returned as the slow food movement started to gain traction in the past decades. Rice is now grown in a number of locations in South Carolina, but not at the industrial levels seen before the war. Charleston County has a great resource page about the history and technology of rice. The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation supports growing and restoring the rice in South Carolina.There's a lot to love about living in the South Carolina Lowcountry, but one of the most interesting for me is the history, both natural and human, that abounds anywhere you bother to look. Yesterday was a great example. I went out with a friend for a 3 hour bike ride, but blew out a tire a bit more than halfway and didn't have what I needed to fix it, so we had to wait for my wife to come pick us up. I had my blowout on the