James Tuten: The End of Lowcountry Rice Culture

Roundup: Talking About History

[James Tuten is the author of "Lowcountry Time and Tide: The Fall of The South Carolina Rice Kingdom" and creator of ricekingdom.com. He is an associate professor of history at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.]

One hundred years ago South Carolina coastal dwellers, unbeknownst to them, were in the middle of an especially intense set of hurricane seasons. Never has the state felt the sting of three destructive storms in as many years. Storms can bring death and destruction without ever qualifying as hurricanes. In 1909 a gale came ashore on Aug. 16, peaking with 50 mile-an-hour winds. Less than a year after the flood from the 1910 storm, a true cyclone came ashore in August 1911.

The 1911 storm nearly broke the back of Lowcountry rice planting. As Duncan Heyward put it, when "I saw the ocean actually coming up Meeting Street. ... I knew ... that the death-knell of rice planting in South Carolina was sounded." The 1911 hurricane devastated the whole Lowcountry, not only the plantations, but also the rest of the infrastructure of rice culture, in particular the docks, warehouses and rice mill of Charleston. The tidal surge in Charleston reached at least six feet above the high water mark....

Many planters, like Duncan Heyward, could not face the financial and emotional re-investment in a disadvantaged industry after such events as "the storm that wasn't" in 1910 or the one that slammed home in 1911. In strict financial terms those planters that resumed planting in the spring of 1911 can be seen as having taken the wrong path when faced with the decision point of the October 1910 flood, not unlike many of us a century later who plowed more money into bigger houses with steeper mortgages during the recent housing bubble.

Despite our habit of talking about economics and personal finances as if we make such decisions in an economic vacuum, we are always influenced by cultural and psychological factors too. Even our language -- "safe as houses" -- demonstrates our cultural axioms. Moreover, there is prestige in owning a luxury home with a kitchen that would make Paula Deen dye her hair red -- much as there was tremendous prestige in owning and operating a rice plantation....

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