What has gone before is always amazing, once you know about it. It can either be amazingly great or amazingly awful, but it is never what you imagine when causally thinking about it. That is because we think in terms of what life is like in the here and now and have to consciously remember times past were not like the here and now.

Drayton Hall main house

Our trip to Drayton Hall is a case in point. I knew some of the historical data from Charleston. I knew that in the first census, Charleston was one of the five largest cities in the country. It was, in fact, the fourth largest city.

What I didn’t know was that it was the most hoity-toity place around these parts. Between 1740 and about 1825 Charleston was the place to be in the colonies and new nation. Fashions were said to reach Charleston before they reached the London suburbs. Cultural outlets were far ranging here in the South. The arts were supported in a variety of ways.

During the late 1700s, nine of the ten richest men in the colonies were living in Charleston. It was an important port and a focal point for trade with the Mother Country. I knew from previous tours in historic houses that glass was not permitted to be made here in the colonies, so all windows had to be imported from England. I’m not sure what the logic was behind this, but I’m sure there was some glass making union prototype back in England that managed to create an avid market for their product by forbidding and competition.

The Draytons were a powerful, wealthy family. The first Drayton to build this plantation was born at the neighboring plantation. At the age of 23, he bought the land next door and began building his own fiefdom. He eventually was the owner of 70 plantations. I found this quite interesting. I was under the impression it was one to a customer. Apparently, these wealthy men would buy up land in a variety of places and run something akin to a chain.

The Drayton plantations ranged across South Carolina and Georgia. They may have encroached into North Carolina, too. There is some rumor there was even some land holding in Canada. One would assume that different plantations were centered around different crops. The plantation on the Ashley River was dedicated to the growing of rice. Others propably were known for growing cotton. I have no idea what the Canadian land would have been primarily used for, but rice and cotton wouldn’t grow there.

The Draytons were ardent supporters of the Revolutionary War, feeling a need for freedom from the oppressive rule of King George III. Mr. Drayton wrote many letters to this effect – stating a desire for freedom and knowing it was an essential part of humanity. The Hall and surrounding plantation housed anywhere from 45 to 100 slaves, depending on the season and the shipping of slaves between all the other plantations. Apparently the irony was lost. The Draytons were also ardent supporters of the Civil War, on the Confederacy side.

All the other plantations along the Ashley River were burned toward the end of the Civil War. One of the Drayton brothers was a doctor and may have been using the house as a hospital by the time the Union troops came by torching the plantation houses. This, at least, is the theory as to why Drayton Hall was spared the same treatment.

Even in the best of families, hard times can descend and this happened with the Draytons, as well. The once stylish, beautifully crafted showcase house fell into disrepair. By the late 1800s, the house was tending toward shabby. Another resource was found on the property. Phosphate was mined and shipped out to be ground into powder, useful as a fertilizer. Money was once again available and the house was improved and modernized.

New fertilizers were found and once again, family finances dropped. By the time the house was donated to the Historical Society, it was only a shadow of its former self. The grandeur of the architecture remained. The size of the rooms was still impressive, but by modern standards, not as much as was once the case.

The house retained some of the old glory and was allowed to be preserved as it was, but not improved upon. No restoration was to take place. This grand old dame of the great South was to stand in testimony to hundreds of years of service.

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