Episode 16 – A Day at the Museum

The weather was cool this week, so we’ve used the opportunity to soak up some South Carolina Low Country history. My favourite museums are the interactive ones, like Colonial Williamsburg, but second best are those with well-informed guides, like the two tours we had this week. One was a historic home, the second was a huge plantation turned into an environmental research centre.

MUSEUM # 1

First, we took a guided tour of Kaminski House in Georgetown, a historic home filled with the collected antiques of the Kaminski family – objects ranging from the early 1700’s through late 1800’s. The home itself sits waterfront on the Sampit River, property that was a prime location in the days of indigo and rice plantations, but became much less attractive after the steel and paper mills were built on the river. That said, those industries are what kept Georgetown prosperous.

I always like having a docent take us on a tour. It makes every tour different, since each docent focuses on their own areas of interest. Our guide (a retired former US government international diplomat originally from Pennsylvania) hilariously jumped between centuries as specific objects caught his eye on the tour… one minute in the 1700’s and Lafayette’s visit to Georgetown, next in the early 1800’s talking about skilled slave craftsmen creating the fireplace mantle carving, and then suddenly in 1941 when Harold Kaminski was a naval lieutenant at Pearl Harbour.

Although the house was strictly “don’t touch”, we were allowed to take pictures.

Clockwise from top left: Historical marker info; entrance hall lamp; our docent in the “withdrawing” room; dining room (which could seat 24); bedroom carpet detail; front of house showing symmetrical Georgian style.
Clockwise from top left: the “candle” carved mantle; two single person chairs made to accommodate 1700’s hooped skirts; a boot-shaped chair foot (likely the trademark of the slave who carved it); a “fainting couch” for those tightly corseted southern women to use in hot months.

MUSEUM # 2

On a previous visit to Myrtle Beach we toured Hopsewee Plantation, where Carolina Gold rice was grown. This year we visited Hobcaw Barony (http://hobcawbarony.org/visit/tours_and_programs/). It’s hard to know where to start: 16000 acres (25 square miles) of salt marsh, freshwater marsh, long leaf pine forest, rice paddies, puff mud, a slave town complete with church and school, stables, aircraft hangar, 16000 sq ft 13 bedroom home (think Downton Abbey size but in South Carolina), pristine waterfront, university research centres, water filtration station, wild turkeys, feral pigs, crabs, turtles, egrets, endangered woodpecker species…. add to that history going back 10000 years to Waccamaw Indian artifacts, a failed Spanish settlement attempt in the 1500’s, the granting of the land as a “barony” to an Earl, and then the story of the Baruch family (contemporaries of the Vanderbilts and Guggenheims) who last owned the land.

Coincidentally given our visit the the Kaminski House, both the Kaminskis and Baruchs were Jewish families who fled Prussia in the mid 1800’s to avoid having their sons conscripted, but who both fought in the Civil War for the South, and in WWI for the U.S.

Given the size of the property, the 3-1/2 hour tour is done on a bus, with several stops on the property. Our guide had plenty of information about the history and the current environmental studies being done, but most fascinating to me was the story of Belle Baruch, who bequeathed the property to the state. Belle was the eldest of 3 children of a prominent Jewish financier and a New York socialite, and was an award-winning sailor (evidenced by a whole cabinet full of silver cups won in regattas competing against men), an accomplished horsewoman (the only person to get a perfect score competing in France in the 1930’s on her horse Sourient), aviatrix, camellia grower, suffragist, and agent of the FBI during WWII who captured a German spy off the Atlantic coast. She spent 16 years in Europe before WWII, returning home after Churchill forewarned her father about impending war, and observing that she had already annoyed both Hitler and Mussolini by refusing to sell them her prize stallion — not to mention that she was half Jewish. At 6’2” tall she was an imposing figure, and openly lesbian in an era where only the rich could be that “eccentric”. Absolutely fascinating!!

Belle’s father advised presidents from Roosevelt through Kennedy, and hosted people as diverse as Winston Churchill, HGWells and Hedda Hopper at their home. We learned SO much that we didn’t know before…. a super interesting day!

Clockwise from top left: main room of a slave house for a family of up to 8 people; emancipated slave family portrait; current marker for location of slave village; slave church; slave house upgraded after emancipation; door knocker of female healer’s cottage.
Top left: The Baruch home (rebuilt in brick, concrete and steel after being destroyed by fire in 1930), viewed from the bay; three views of Winyah Bay at low ride.

2 thoughts on “Episode 16 – A Day at the Museum

  1. Thank you for sharing. What an interesting read and experience you both had. I have said to Steve, that we must see the southern states. The plantations and the history draw me in. Where to next?

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  2. We just did Hampton Plantation. VERY interesting. We loved the Virginia James River plantations outside Williamsburg in other years. I am looking forward to visiting The Alamo next winter, and the Mexican churches in Tucson and San Antonio.

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