By Carol Antman for Island Eye News
In the spirit of visiting a neighbor who’s suffered a hardship, my girlfriend and I made a call on Georgetown. Just four months earlier, a devastating fire had ripped through the downtown area. Seven buildings on the scenic boardwalk were destroyed, 130 people were put out of work, and 13 residents lost their homes. I thought of the boardwalk as the only reason to stop in Georgetown, since the gritty industrialized route up Hwy. 17 past the hulking steel mill hadn’t enticed me. But I had missed something.
John Cranston hadn’t missed it. He recognized opportunity when his friend Peter Scalise suggested that there was a market for a sophisticated menu amidst the fast food and Calabash shrimp. And they were right. Their boardwalk eatery, Zest, with views of the harbor and Sampit River, was immediately successful. But one fateful night John got a call from his landlord. “The restaurant is on fire,” he was told. Rushing downtown, he stood with a somber crowd in the dark and watched his enterprise burn. This was the part of our visit where stories of resilience and resolve first emerged and continued to proliferate.
“By 11 a.m. the morning of the fire, we were drawing up the lease to open a restaurant on the 900 block,” Scalise said. “We named it Seven Hundred Modern Grill+Bar, in honor of the 700 block of Front Street.”
More tragedy lay ahead, as their sushi chef was killed in a motorcycle accident just weeks later. Nonetheless, they persevered. Each dish pays homage to what has been lost. Art created from burned rubble now serves as decor.
“We just spread our wings, and the community pushed us,” John said.
This is not the only epic story, however. Just ten minutes outside of town lies The Mansfield Plantation. The oak tree lined driveway passes the partially restored slave quarters and eventually meanders to the main house. As if we were viewing an image from the pages of Southern Living, a bride and groom were staging a photo shoot under the Spanish moss-draped trees as we arrived. Stephanie and Greg Farbo met as pilot and co-pilot while flying commercial airliners all over the world, but they chose Mansfield for their picturesque wedding photos. Many romantic occasions are celebrated at the plantation, but its background is more reminiscent of a gothic novel than a love story.
After a restful night in the former kitchen cottage, which has been converted into two adjoining luxurious guestrooms, we joined innkeeper Kathyrn Green in the formal dining room for a lavish breakfast. No stranger to tragedy herself, Green came to Mansfield after a series of personal hardships that devastated her family and left her unemployed. It was a place where she would recover and rise to become an essential part of the bed and breakfast enterprise developed on this 1,000 acre plantation.
Green loves sharing the story of Mansfield, especially when it involves telling visitors about the Parkers, their ancestors and their newly discovered relatives.
Mansfield Plantation started in 1718 with a land grant and eventually became one of the largest producers of rice in the country. When Dr. Francis Simons Parker married into the dynasty in 1836, he relinquished his medical degree from the College of Charleston in order to concentrate on rice cultivation, a much more profitable enterprise. Using his scientific background, Dr. Parker experimented with different fertilizers for the native soil. (Bat dung proved to be the most effective, increasing rice production from 375,000 pounds in 1850 to 1,440,000 pounds in 1860.) Though the remnants of the rice fields provided us with terrific bicycling terrain to tour the Plantation. Rice cultivation ended after the war and the disappearance of slave labor. Eventually the plantation was sold as a vacation home and hunting lodge for rich industrialists, ending the Parker family’s ownership in 1912.
Eighty two years later, John Rutledge Parker, and his wife Sallie Middleton Parker, repurchased his ancestral plantation, realizing a lifelong dream.
“The first time I saw Mansfield, I said ‘John I’m home,’” Sallie said.
John and Sallie weren’t the only ones still interested in Mansfield. Dwight Parker has been assiduously researching his ancestry for years and discovered that he was the descendant of slaves from the Plantation. “I’m drawn here,” he said visiting and making fast friends with the owners. Together, the Parker Family Foundation is restoring the slave cabins, school house and church, as well as the cemetery. It’s a daunting task, but John explains that it’s nothing compared to the work performed by the 100 slaves who dug the rice fields by hand.
Back downtown, we slowly toured the tree-lined streets. Graceful 18th and 19th century homes with broad verandas and giant columns are abundant. On Front Street, cars jockeyed for parking spaces, and restaurants and shops were busy. Plenty of pleasure boats and commercial fishermen crowded the still picturesque boardwalk, and optimism filled the air. It was good to see our neighbors recovering from their hardships.
Roadtrips Charleston is a feature of Lucky Dog Publishing. Each month the column presents adventurous, interesting destinations within a few hours’ drive of Charleston. Carol Antman’s passion for outdoor and artistic experiences has led her to exotic and nearby destinations far and wide. For recipes, suggestions, comments and to view more images please see www.peaksandpotholes.blogspot.com