I once had a colleague who talked about flying into a particular city and just having a sense of evil in the place. It was a city that was the center of powerful for ethnic and religious elites who were using their force against a minority community in an adjoining region. My colleague could not wait to get through the city on to his final destination. Do places take on the spirits of their past and present? As you walk through Rwanda, can you sense the heavy spirit in places where the Rwandan genocide was concentrated? Do these spirits live on, long past human remembrance? If you have ever read a book by James Michener, you have a sense of how a geographer sees the depth of cultural landscapes. Landscapes embody the past where generations of people lived, worked, suffered, and loved.
In visiting a coastal marshland landscape near Hilton Head, SC and Savannah, Georgia, I explored and read about the evolution of this cultural landscape to its present recreational use. Population early on in this area was tied to rivers and rice production dominated during the eighteenth century. The reclamation of swampland required large amounts of labor which led to the extensive association of the area with slavery. For example, Ralph Brown, in his Historical Geography of the United States, states that in 1765, the region had 40,000 whites and from 80,000 to 90,000 African-Americans (pg. 63). Rice plantation homes were more like hunting lodges, as they often became later in their history. Planters and their families would only be in residence several months out of the year with the rest of their time spent in places like Savannah or Charleston. The traditional townhouses in these coastal cities had large porches to allow air circulation and according to John Hudson, the porches were built on the long dimension of the house in order to maximize the use of space.
Other than these major coastal cities, where rice and other products were traded for imports coming from the British Empire, towns did not flourish. The plantations were the center of economic activity with their buildings found in clearings of higher ground, almost appearing like they sat on islands. Post plantation era saw many of these lands become sites for hunting estates and eventually for second homes and resorts.
I spent several days at Palmetto Bluffs, one such resort that has evolved from rice plantation to hunting lodge to resort. Palmetto Bluff was comprised of 21 plantations during the antebellum era. After 1902 it was used as a hunting estate and for entertainment for those who would come by steamship or railroad and stay for weeks at a time, enjoying R.T. Wilson’s retreat home. On March 26, 1926, the great mansion caught fire, and R.T. Wilson’s idyllic retreat was reduced to ashes. It past into the ownership of timber interests and continued to be used as a hunting camp. Eventually it was realized that its 32 miles of riverfront and forest had great conservation and recreational value. As I walked around the resort, whose architecture is modeled after traditional southern plantation house and building types, I pondered the re-creation of an architectural look that reflected a dark aspect of our history. Should I be sensing ghosts of the past here? As I was reflecting on this thought, an African-American colleague walked by, and we chatted about the history of the place. He simply said that “yes, all places have histories,” and continued on his way, enjoying the scenery, the warmth of the sun, and the beautiful surroundings. I decided to do the same.