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Sea Island Cotton planted at McLeod Plantation Historic Site
Volunteers sought to help manage the historic crop
[JAMES ISLAND] – McLeod Plantation Historic Site, owned by the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission (CCPRC), has begun a planting project involving Sea Island cotton (Gossypium barbadense). Although varieties of this species are still grown in other places in the world, it was long believed the Sea Island cotton varieties that made the Lowcountry famous were extinct.
Open to the public as a historic site, the 37-acre property on James Island was originally purchased by William Wallace McLeod in 1851 as a Sea Island cotton plantation. The last time Sea Island cotton was grown at the historic site was in the 1920s, ending with the arrival of the boll weevil, a beetle that feeds on cotton buds and flowers, on James Island. The Sea Island Cotton Project is a partnership between CCPRC, the Friends of McLeod non-profit organization, longtime local attorney and James Island resident Bill McLean, and local botanist and author of "A History of Sea Island Cotton," Richard Porcher.
Inspired by Porcher's book and the mystery of what happened to the local varieties of the cotton, McLean embarked upon a search for Sea Island cotton seed from the Lowcountry. He successfully located and acquired Bleak Hall seed originating from Edisto Island at a USDA seed repository. Looking for a convenient location to plant, he approached CCPRC about growing the cotton at McLeod Plantation Historic Site. One quarter of an acre was planted at McLeod Plantation Historic Site on May 22, in the site's former cotton fields near the main house. Volunteers will be needed to cultivate and harvest the crop during the summer and fall. People interested in volunteering are asked to contact Shawn Halifax at 843-762-9508 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Sea Island cotton, along with rice, had a very important influence on the development of the Lowcountry and Charleston,” said McLean. “Locally produced Sea Island cotton was the finest and most valuable cotton fiber ever produced anywhere and provided the desired genetic traits of the finest cottons grown in the world today. It has taken on legendary status.”
“Planting cotton at the site was suggested by Richard Porcher during a lecture to Friends of McLeod in 2010,” said Jerry Owens, of the Friends of McLeod. “However, planting Sea Island cotton did not become a latent possibility until after CCPRC rescued McLeod in 2011 and Bill McLean secured local varieties of Sea Island cotton seed. The Friends of McLeod are proud to assist in ensuring the success of this project.”
Contributing to its historic significance, McLeod Plantation Historic Site was a very significant agricultural site. In 1860, enslaved families like the Dawsons, Forrests, and Gathers harvested 90 tons of Sea Island cotton, making it the most productive plantation on James Island.
“While it is exciting on one hand to have Sea Island cotton growing here once again, it is equally important to acknowledge the cultivation of this cotton was accomplished through the oppression of millions of people for generations,” said Shawn Halifax, site historian and cultural history interpretation coordinator for CCPRC. “This calls for solemn remembrance, too.”
Today McLeod Plantation is an important Gullah-Geechee heritage site carefully preserved in recognition of its cultural and historical significance. The site’s buildings include homes that make up Transition Row, where enslaved families and their free descendants lived during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Friends of McLeod is a charitable organization formed in 2004, and is dedicated to preserving and protecting McLeod Plantation. CCPRC acquired the property from the Historic Charleston Foundation in 2011 and opened it as a public county park and historic site in 2015. McLeod Plantation Historic Site is open for regular visitation every Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit CharlestonCountyParks.com/McLeod or call 843-762-9514.
McLeod Plantation Historic Site is located at 325 Country Club Drive on James Island. The mission of CCPRC is to improve the quality of life in Charleston County by offering a diverse system of park facilities, programs and services. The large park system features over 11,000 acres of property and includes four land parks, three beach parks, four seasonally-lifeguarded beach areas, three dog parks, two landmark fishing piers, a historic plantation site, three waterparks, 19 boat landings, a climbing wall, a skate park, a challenge course, an interpretive center, an equestrian center, cottages, a campground, a marina, as well as wedding, meeting and event facilities. The park system also offers a wide variety of recreational services – festivals, camps, classes, programs, volunteer opportunities, and more. For more information on CCPRC, call 843-795-4386, download Charleston County Parks’ mobile app, or visit charlestoncountyparks.com.