STORY BY ABBY REIMER & DESIGN/PHOTO BY RACHEL MORRIS
When you look out at the neat rows of tea plants on the Charleston Tea Plantation and see the massive, gnarled branches of Angel Oak trees spread out over the blue sky, you’d think the plantation had been there forever. Even the main building, with its expansive front porch and rocking chairs, speaks to a different time.
Charleston Tea Plantation, the only commercial tea farm in the U.S., evokes memories of the Antebellum South to sell products and draw tourists to the plantation.
The Charleston Tea Plantation isn’t alone in using an “Old South” brand. Plantation is a common marketing word for businesses and real estate developments.
Like many words and symbols in the South, the word plantation is a contested one — a word that signals prestige and gentility to some, but violence and repression to others.
“There really is a selective and uncritical use of the name and idea of the Southern plantation for use for branding,” says Derek Alderman, a geography professor at the University of Tennessee who studies the use of the word plantation and Southern tourism. “It’s a highly romanticized view of the plantation, usually from the perspective of white folks.”
From Potato Farm to Tourist Trap
Charleston Tea Plantation might give off a Gone With the Wind aura, but its roots are far less genteel.
Tea plantations simply never existed in the Antebellum South — tea requires too much rain and heat to really thrive in most of the South.
The first successful attempt at American tea production came in 1888, when Dr. Charles Shepard started Pinehurst Tea Plantation in Summerville, S.C. Pinehurst operated until Shepard died in 1915.
Years later, Bill Hall, a third-generation Canadian tea taster, would discover Shepard’s tea experiment.
Hall was on his way to a tea convention in Arizona when he started reading an article about the history of American tea.
“I was fascinated that there was a history of tea in America. And it all centered around Charleston, S.C.,” he says. “They said it was impossible to grow tea in America, that it can’t be done.”
The article also included a fascinating piece of information: Lipton had an experimental tea farm on Wadmalaw Island that used the original tea plants from Pinehurst. The land itself used to be a potato farm.
In 1987, Bill Hall and South Carolina horticulturist Mack Fleming bought the land from Lipton and started a commercial tea farm. They sold their tea, with flavors like “Plantation Peach” and “Governor Grey,” under the American Classic Tea label.
“They (Lipton) had no interest in growing tea for America, because they were already the No. 1 tea,” Hall says. “They were at the point that they were ready to plow it all over, and I thought, ‘Well that’d be a crime, considering all the history here.’”
Like his predecessors, Hall struggled to make American tea profitable. In 2003, the plantation went up for auction. In 2003, Bigelow Tea bought it for $1.28 million, and brought on Hall to manage the plantation.
Since then, the plantation has more than doubled production. Charleston Tea Plantation uses a harvester built from old parts of tobacco and cotton harvesters, which Hall and Bob Giesy, a veteran tour guide, refer to as the “Green Giant.”
In most other places around the world, tea is harvested by hand. In Assam, India, a major tea producer, tea plantation workers get paid an average of $1 per day. The Green Giant does the work of 500 workers, which Hall says keeps the plantation competitive, considering he “couldn’t get anyone around here to work for that.”
Selling an Idea
Hall knows that the success of the Charleston Tea Plantation hinges on more than just selling tea.
Guests on the plantation can peruse the gift shop, which sells everything from china to tea-infused lotion, and take a tour of the factory to learn how the plantation’s tea is processed.
Then, visitors hop into an old-fashioned trolley and learn about tea growing on the island. Giesy tells visitors about the breeding and harvesting process.
Occasionally, he’ll turn on a recording of Bill Hall. At the beginning of the tour, the recorded Hall asks visitors, “Did you feel like you were going back to another period in time?”
That’s exactly how Hall would like visitors to feel. A year ago, after realizing that, “Charleston has an identification,” he dropped the “American Classic Tea,” choosing to brand all of his products with “Charleston Tea Plantation.”
“Plantation has become one of those branding words that residential developers, entrepreneurs and business owners kind of appropriated and used,” Alderman, the professor, says.
Of course, Hall isn’t unique in using an “Old South” brand. A few examples: Charleston’s Old South Carriage Company, Old South Apparel and Plantation Blackstrap Molasses.
Charleston Tea Plantation sells its products to other businesses seeking a similar genteel image. Some of its tea is used to make sweet tea vodkas for Firefly Distillery, a Wamdalaw Island company. Firefly Distillery, despite opening in 2008, clings to an image of an old, hospitable South. “We don’t have the bright lights of the big cities,“ its website reads. “The pace is a little slower down here. We have plantations, hundred-year-old oak trees and dirt roads. Everyone is your neighbor and folks enjoy relaxing on the front porch swing, on a lazy Sunday afternoon.”
Charleston Tea Plantation also sells its products to Wisteria Tea Room and Cafe in Fort Myers, Fla.
The tea room, which serves “English tea with a Southern flair,” sells Charleston Tea Plantation’s tea infused lotions and lip balms. Guests can order endless pots of tea, quiches, scones and Devonshire cream.
Tables are set with lace tablecloths and English china. Overlooking one table, there’s a print of a painting called “Remember Me: Fredericksburg, Va. 1862.”
It shows soldiers on horseback waving a Confederate flag in front of a snowy church, and one soldier giving a rose to his heartbroken companion.
In sunny Fort Myers, the romanticized South is alive and well.
There’s still widespread use of the word “plantation” and the idealized Antebellum South in product marketing and Southern tourism, Alderman says. But there’s also a pushback, with some Southerners, including many black Southerners who can link their ancestry back to plantations, demanding a more realistic presentation of history.
Plantations, many of which have been converted to tourism sites, often downplay slavery or don’t mention it at all. Alderman’s research shows more plantations are beginning to talk about slavery during tours and in historical materials.
“The public is demanding to hear more about slavery, even the white public,” Alderman says.
International tourists, who come to plantations to hear about slavery, drove much of this change.
“We think about the Southern plantation as this closed off geography; it’s part of this larger global economy and narrative,” he says.
The best example of this shift is the Whitney Plantation Museum, a Louisiana plantation that opened to visitors in 2014. The museum strives to tell the stories of enslaved people who lived on the plantation and throughout the South.
The Whitney Plantation, with its stark portrayal of slavery, stands in extreme contrast to the idyllic landscape at Charleston Tea Plantation.
The struggle between the two images represents a struggle over memory and heritage all over the South.
“Memory in the South, rather than set in stone, is always open to reconstruction,” Alderman says.
Bill Hall, Blackface and Our Day on the Plantation
It’s a sunny spring day on Wamdalaw Island, S.C., and we’re the first visitors to arrive at Charleston Tea Plantation. We’re told we would meet Bill Hall, manager of the Charleston Tea Plantation, after our trolley tour. So we get our complimentary Styrofoam cup of Plantation Peach tea and head out around the plantation.
We get back from the tour, now well versed on the growing and production of tea, to meet Hall. Hall still has the air of a rebellious teenager — shoulder-length hair, scraggly beard and dusty jean jacket — despite working in the tea industry for more than 40 years.
He asks us to come outside so he can smoke a cigarette, bringing out his own looseleaf tobacco and papers.
“Where are you all from?” he asks.
“Detroit,” I say.
“Jamaica,” says my friend.
“Oh, Jamaica, mon,” he says.
She responds with a tight-lipped smile.
He leans back and starts telling his story.
He says he was last in Jamaica for a tea conference, and there was a costume party at the resort. He was walking down the beach to get his hair dreaded.
Another tight smile.
Then, he painted his face black and put on a Bob Marley shirt.
“The women loved it,” he says. “But the men weren’t too happy.”
My friend laughs uncomfortably. “I can see why.”
He lights his cigarette.
“So,” puff. “What do you want to know?”