Southern Hospitality oozes like honey in Charleston, South Carolina. From open gates allowing access to gardens to locals inviting strangers onto their porches to escape the rain and rock in one of several chairs standing sentinel, and to feeding a woman asking for directions to a nearby restaurant, Charlestonians astonishingly still warmly welcome visitors even in a changing world.
It was mid-morning Saturday when my cousin and I first drove into downtown Charleston to go to the Marion Square Market. We pulled into a metered space, but when we got out we discovered we could park for only 15 minutes. Meter-maids were marking cars. When we explained to them that I was visiting, delightfully they said, “We won’t give you a ticket. Enjoy the market.”
People with dogs of all varieties perused booths offering everything from vegetables to snacks. Among items for sale were the famed sweet grass baskets usually created by African Americans. A tiny one cost $12 but some ran hundreds of dollars, even $1,000. Prices are allegedly cheaper along US 17N. The basket ladies also weave pine straw and palmetto leaves but fewer artisans work this craft each year.
Next we picked up a friend and walked to a French restaurant close to St. Michael’s Episcopal Church for lunch that included soup, cheese, meat, bread, and melon, served with wine. Luckily we were early enough to avoid the long line that usually spills out of the narrow storefront suggesting its continued popularity. Four people sat near us at a counter: two who lived in South Carolina and the man's parents visiting from Germany. After lunch we returned to our friend’s townhouse that she bought years ago. It was a delightful treat to actually see the interior of one of the homes that constitute photo-opportunities throughout downtown.
Among the many churches in Charleston, the 250-year old St. John’s Lutheran Church at Archdale and Clifford Streets still contains pews with doors that parishioners once owned and boasts an interesting graveyard located between the church and Parish Hall.
St. John’s first services were held in 1742. Its present church was dedicated in 1818, the year Dr. John Bachman journeyed from Philadelphia to become the pastor. During the 50 years he officiated, John J. Audubon came to live with his family. While he painted birds, Dr. Bachman wrote copy for his books. Two Bachman daughters married Audubon sons. A church member gave me a tour of the library housing memorabilia after I attended a meeting of the Ladies Sewing Society founded in 1825. While sewing isn’t on the agenda, supporting the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary endures.
The Lutheran service resembles the Episcopalian ritual. In fact, when the Episcopal Church was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1886, members of St. John’s allowed its parishioners to worship in theirs until they could rebuild. After St. Michael’s was restored, its congregation gave St. John’s two silver chalices which are still used today.
St. Michael's, with its outstanding steeple located at the corner of Meeting and Broad Streets, also known as 'the Four Corners of Law', initially was completed in 1761. The oldest in the city, it is one of few city churches in America to retain its original design. George Washington worshipped in one of its enclosed pews and viewed its stained glass windows during his tour of the south in 1791.
On the north-east of the Four Corners of Law is Old City Hall, constructed as a bank in 1801, that houses a collection of art including John Trumbull’s portrait of Washington. At the north-west corner is the County Court House originally built as the State House circa 1752. The fourth or south-west corner contains the Federal Court, built in 1886 on the site of the old Town.
The first time we crossed the longest cable bridge in the country, the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge, we were on the way to visit my cousins’ friends who live near the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in the coastal region of upper Charleston County. My cousins told me, “The bridge cost six million dollars and was completed a year early under budget.” From a distance the cables look as thin as harp strings.
On the way we stopped at the Sewee Outpost, an expensive general store selling camping equipment, food, and souvenirs, located close to Avendaw. The town achieved its name from the 17th century Sewee tribe who called the territory “avendaugh-bough”, which translates to the mouth of the Awendaw Creek. Large lovely homes face the water with long docks that sometimes lead to a boathouse.
Nearby, McCellanville remains a picturesque village since being established in the 1800s. Main industries today include fishing, crabbing and shrimping and it boasts the Village Museum. Reputably the exhibits are designed to educate and entertain visitors. Shrimp boats were docked not far from the well established rustic T. W. Graham & Co. Fish Restaurant, one of seven eateries in the area.
One of the islands surrounding Charleston is Sullivan’s, where the historic Fort Multrie, the third built on the site, memorializes its part in the Revolutionary War. Large houses face the ocean and roads crossing Middle Street are called stations. One lot on the island was listed for a million dollars, the price of many houses, my cousin informed me.
The island’s Stella Maris Catholic Church gained fame in Dorothea Benton Frank’s book called Sullivan Island. Dottie wrote the book as part of a creative writing exercise when she returned to college to get her degree. She sold it, and dropped out of college again, this time at forty-two years old. It did pretty well so she wrote a few more books set in Charleston including Plantation, Pawleys Island, Shem Creek, and Isle of Palms.
In order to drive to the island we passed through Mt. Pleasant where my cousins pointed out Mama Brown’s, known for its BBQ and fried chicken, and confirmed the New York Butcher Shop has the best meat in Charleston County. It was interesting to discover that major chains are not clustered but spread throughout greater Charleston. One morning we enjoyed a country breakfast at Bear-e-Patch Café — don’t you just love the name? — on James Island, a famous place where people travel from far to eat down home cooking.
Charles Towne Landing, South Carolina’s birthplace reborn, contains a 12-room museum with interactive exhibits. An experienced guide provided a personal motorized tour around a part of the 80 acres of informal English park-style gardens because no one else was visiting on an overcast day threatening rain.
The Legare-Waring House and its live oak avenue are popular locations for weddings. Ferdinanda Legore Waring, the pioneer horticulturist who pieced together the ownership of the plantation, lived in the house that’s not open to the public. She eventually sold it to the state for its permanent preservation but maintained the right to reside in it until she died. When war prisoners were in the area, the apparently feisty woman had them help plant the property. The guide pointed out a wall, discovered by archeologists during a dig, which protected the settlers, and replicas of servants’ quarters.
The Adventure, a full-size replica of a 17th century trading ship constructed on the site, was docked for years in the Ashley River. The new Adventure, built in Rockport, Maine to replace the one that sunk in 2004, sailed (top speed 9.3 knots or 12 mph) to the Landing in 2008. The guide recommended visiting the park in January or February when azaleas and camellias bloom.
The Spirit Line website states that the best way to experience Charleston and her history is while enjoying “a unique three-hour dining experience with breathtaking views of the Charleston harbor” (except when it rains and gets dark early, like it did when I sailed). Not only does the line offer cruises, including another to Fort Sumner, visitors may explore the Spirit of Carolina, and she can be hired for parties. The fully-appointed “yacht” sails from where the USS Yorktown ship, a WWII aircraft carrier, is moored.
The next Saturday I strolled alone up and down King Street that gave me an opportunity to experience a portion of the city on foot. My route essentially followed the walking tour, one of 11, in Complete Charleston, A Guide to the Architecture, History and Gardens of Charleston by Margaret H. Moore. When I meandered up the shorter end of the suggested tour, I visited the Tourist Bureau before returning to St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church across from Marion Square. The sexton graciously invited me in when he saw me taking photos outside. He said he had it ready for Sunday service and turned on the lights so I could see the altar and fabulous stained glass windows.
All along King brand name stores occupy vintage buildings. Often buildings have names carved in the façade dating from the first occupant plus signs for the current business. Stores occupy many historic buildings.
As I ambled horse-driven carriages hauling tourists passed me by and I heard parts of spiels that might not be entirely factual. My cousin confirmed they were correct about the houses on the Battery being set at 90 degree angles to afford privacy, a better view of the park built from landfill and the water beyond, as well as for sea breezes.
By 1:30 pm I hadn’t had lunch. Everywhere I looked I saw only residences. I asked three women walking together if there was a restaurant nearby. “Perhaps down a side street,” one replied. I turned into the first one after walking down a very long block along the water. A man stood in his garden with two old dogs. I asked him about a place to eat and he said four blocks this or that way, pointing in two different directions. Thinking I would need to eat at the mall later, I explained my cousin would pick me up in 30 minutes on the Battery.
He replied, “I have a leftover sandwich in the refrigerator,” and invited me into his house. He offered me the bathroom; I should have accepted just out of curiosity in order to see more of the well-loved home. He said when it was raining he often invited visitors onto his porch lined with rocking chairs.
The McCloud Plantation fated to become the American College of the Building Arts offered an opportunity to glimpse the past without charge. Some people were making a school film on part of the unguarded property. Slave houses still stand along the former entrance to the Plantation. (Note that in Charleston and its vicinity a number of plantations, historic and haunted houses, as well as private residencies opened to visitors in the autumn may be toured for a fee.)
Unfortunately nine days in Charleston failed to be sufficient time to do much more than sample the high quality of life enjoyed in the city, savour its history, and enjoy being submerged in Southern Hospitality. Hopefully I shall return.