Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Dropping in on the Neighbors

            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. Seven buildings on the scenic boardwalk were destroyed, 130 people 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.  Unaccountably he recognized opportunity when his friend Peter Scalise suggested that there was a market for a sophisticated menu amidst the fast food and Calabash seafood.  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 kept coming up.  “By 11 A.M. the morning of the fire, we were drawing up the lease to open a restaurant on the 900 block,” said Scalise. “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.  But they persevered.  Each dish is homage to what was lost. Art created from burned rubble is now decor.  “We just spread our wings and the community pushed us,” John said. 

            Just ten minutes outside of town is another epic story, The Mansfield Plantation.  The oak tree-lined driveway passes the partially restored slave quarters as it meanders to the main house.   Looking like images from Southern Living, a bride a 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 there but its background is more of a Gothic novel than a love story. 

            After a restful night in the former kitchen cottage that 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, Kathryn 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 the 1,000 acre Plantation has developed. She loves sharing its story, especially about the Parkers, their ancestors and their newly discovered relatives.   
       The Plantation began in 1718 as a land grant and became one of the largest producers of rice in the country. In fact, when the Dr. Francis Simons Parker married into the dynasty in 1836 he relinquished his medical degree from the College of Charleston to concentrate on rice cultivation, a much more profitable enterprise.  Using his scientific background, Dr. Parker experimented with different fertilizers on the soil (bat dung proved to be the most effective) and increased the production from 375,000 pounds in 1850 to 1,440,000 pounds in 1860.  The remnants of the rice fields provided us with terrific bicycling terrain to tour the Plantation.  But after the war when slave labor was gone, the rice cultivation ended and eventually the Plantation was sold as a vacation home and hunting lodge to rich industrialists, ending the Parker family’s ownership in 1912.  Eighty two years later John and Sallie Parker realized their lifelong dream and bought their ancestral Plantation back.  Sally said, “The first time I saw Mansfield, I said ‘John I’m home’”.  They weren’t the only ones drawn back to Mansfield.  Dwight Parker had 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 when he visited and made fast friends of the owners. Together their foundation is restoring the slave cabins, school house and church as well as the cemetery.  It’s a daunting task but John Parker explains that it’s nothing compared to the work of 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 neighbor recovering from its hardship. 
More photos: Georgetown, SC 

If You Go:
Mansfield Plantationwww.mansfieldplantation.com
Georgetown County Tourismwww.hammockcoastsc.com
Seven Hundred Modern Grill + Bar:  916 Front Street 843-520-5720