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Touring the South

Valerie MacEwan

Agri-tourism. It seems people will pay good money to drive a tractor, weed collards, and pick cotton.

The post-NAFTA South is depending on tourism to bring it back from economic disparity. Everyone seems to blame NAFTA for their economic woes. Towns like Washington and Columbia, North Carolina, are hoping to capture tourism dollars to replace tax dollars formerly paid by factories like Hamilton-Beach, Procter Silex, Singer furniture, and the like. But it's a hard row to hoe. Two new ideas have come to the forefront, lately.

The first is our latest entry in the tourism field of dreams competition. Agri-tourism. It seems people will pay good money to drive a tractor, weed collards, and pick cotton. Guess it's that Green Acres land-spreading-out-so-far-and-wide urge in folks. It causes a compulsion to mix it up with the aphids and the cow dung. And the second idea? Eco-tourism. Which is popular all over the damn place these days. In Washington County, North Carolina, they're building camping decks at $10,000 a pop in the swamps of the Roanoke River so the canoeing/kayaking public can take in 130 miles of swamp without ever seeing a telephone pole or an SUV.

The cypress trees are truly an awesome sight and I'm not denying the beauty of the area. Truth is, the mosquitoes there come in two sizes. Small enough to fly in through the holes in the screens or big enough to open the door and come on in. And gnats, snakes, alligators, bears, panthers (yes Virginia, there are still panthers in eastern North Carolina), red wolves (recently introduced to the area by our forward thinking environmentalists despite the fact that red wolves are not an indigenous species, not native to the area, they eat yard dogs and small farm animals, and they wander into people's back yards and scare the bejesus out of some hamburger grillin' farm family).

It sounds like I'm picking on folks who would pay their hard earned cash to view what we take as every day dull. I'm not. Lord knows I've had my share of derision. Try talking sweet tea and grits in Manhattan. Doesn't matter how dressed up I am (Sunday Go To Meeting Clothes and all), if I open my mouth and speak in New York City, folks around me will either shy away or egg me on, try to get me to talk more. "Say something else," they'll implore. "What are ya'll talking 'bout?" I'll ask. Funny, though, I don't recall anyone around here ever asking someone with a Yankee accent to keep on talking.

There must be a tourism maxim along the lines of: If you live here, you can't imagine why anyone would want to see the place, unless of course it's someone visiting you personally and then you've got to take them in the 110 degree heat in 110% humidity with the windows down and the bug spray on, all over the damn countryside to see every oddity, freak of nature, and barbecue pit. (See Circling Dixie book review.) To museums that feature fleas dressed as bride and groom or the world's largest button collection, and farther down the highway, just about a mile from Betsy's Elbow to Miss May's farm on account of she's got a two-headed piglet, and over toward the phosphate mine where the water lines on the cypress trees off Highway 17 show how high the Pamlico River got when Hurricane Floyd flooded eastern North Carolina. Like touring in New York City, where my friend, a native NY'er, hadn't been to the Statue of Liberty since a grade school field trip but he showed it off to me proudly like he went there every day.

The Tourism Paradox: Why do we show it off to out-of-town friends and family and then make fun of it when they leave?

Being a Tourist in South Carolina

Living in Aiken, South Carolina for a brief spell gave me the opportunity to tour many of the true icons of Southern Tourism. Three cities in Georgia � Atlanta (the penultimate Southern city) and Savannah (the "If you're not 'from' here, you're 'not' here" capital of the world) � were within easy driving range and Charleston, ahhhh, Charleston, South Carolina was right there at my fingertips. A nothing-drive, barely two hours away.

Touring Charleston's Drayton Hall with a graduate class, I got a taste of real southern history. Completed in 1742, the historic plantation house sits smack dab on a 630-acre site. It's one of the finest examples of Georgian-Palladian architecture in America and is still in its original condition. The house is an archeological site. It has no furniture inside: it's a skeleton, preserved, stabilized, but not restored. Professionals, many with advanced degrees, not costumed re-enactors, run the tours and the house is part of the National Historic Trust.

Wade Lawrence, in an article published in the Summer 1998 issue of Historic Preservation Forum, wrote about Drayton Hall:

. . . (A) climate such as that found in Charleston, South Carolina, no museum would willingly exhibit its primary collection artifacts in an unconditioned space. The ravages of extreme heat and unrelenting humidity would certainly shorten the life of any prized and priceless museum piece. Yet visitors to Drayton Hall, a National Trust historic site found just outside Charleston on the Ashley River, see just that. Drayton Hall is shown to the public unrestored, unfurnished, and completely without mechanical environmental control, an object fabricated of masonry, wood, and paint [which] sits exposed in a field along the lowlands of coastal South Carolina." And it is that way because of a conscious, philosophical decision made by the Trust when the house was acquired in 1974.

Drayton Hall is not for the myth-seekers. It's not a Disneyfictation of the American South. It's the real deal. It breathes and ages like a living thing. But not all visitors want to see "real" and you can't blame them. Real is hot, humid, uncomfortable, and can smell pretty damn awful if the breeze off the swamplands leading down to the Ashley River hits just right.

A few weeks after my Drayton Hall trip, I had the opportunity to tour the air conditioned flip-side of archeological preservation. People pay big bucks to tour the Margaret-Mitchell'd-Joel-Chandler'd South of Scarlet O'Hara, Rhett Butler and Br'er Rabbit. Restoration with a twentieth century ideal in mind. Boone Hall Plantation outside of Charleston, South Carolina � the quintessential myth-mocking Southern money maker. I'm there with a "spouse tour" designed to placate the mates of busy middle-managers, mostly men, who will sit through three days of intense meetings while their spouses tour the area, buy Gullah baskets, and eat salt-water taffy and pecan pralines while riding in horse-drawn carriages, giggly and thrilled at the prospect of having a few days without their toddlers as constant companions.

The night before the tour, I visited the Boone Hall Plantation website to get some information about the tour I would soon take. The website mentions a "fee charged", but there's no dollar amount on the site. I suppose gives them leeway to change the price on a whim.

Boone Hall's original plantation house was built in the mid-eighteenth century, and was constructed of both brick and wood. In 1935, the present house was built by Thomas A. Stone, a Canadian diplomat who came to know South Carolina through his wife, a South Carolinian. Stone was fortunate in finding enough of the original, hand-made brick stored in good condition with which to construct the new house. He also used materials salvaged from the original house, as well as dated woodwork and appointments.

Stone built the house to fulfill the traditional intent of a southern planter's home, a comfortable residence in which elegant rooms welcomed visitors to the plantation in the grand style that made the ante bellum South legendary.

Today the plantation home remains faithful to its original purpose; it is a private home, but visitors receive a guided tour of the first floor rooms. Costumed hostesses interpret ante bellum life and customs as they point out furnishings and household accessories of the past three centuries, all carefully selected to reflect the southern planter's way of life.

Not the original house, not the whole house � costumed hostesses � reflecting the southern planter's way of life? That's okay, I want to see where North and South was filmed. I want to feel the history while walking down the avenue of live oaks. So I'll settle for a few first floor rooms instead of the whole shebang.

I'm researching hearth death for a short story and I'll check out the fireplaces in the Cotton Gin House, which according to the map in the brochure, contains the plantation kitchen. Most people don't know this but the leading cause of death among American women in the 18th and 19th centuries was hearth death. Not diseases like small pox or tuberculosis, or even childbirth. Instead, they died when their voluminous aprons and skirts caught on fire, lit by the open flames of cooking at a hearth. It's pretty much agreed upon by historians that this is why women began wearing pants (which were originally called Bloomers, after feminist Amelia Jenks Bloomer, who advocated more than just wearing pants for women. She was so radical, she wanted women to be able to vote.)

I've found quite a few references to the horrible death one can only imagine, a woman burning to death, seared by her flaming clothing. "The bottoms of our dresses are burnt full of holes now, and they will be soon burnt off," related Miriam Colt along the Missouri/Kansas border in 1856. "If we stay here we must needs don the Bloomer costume," referring to the bloomers which resembled culottes. It gives you pause to think when you look at a kitchen fireplace in a historic home, doesn't it? Well, all in all, it should be a fine tour here at Boone Hall.

Arriving at Boone Hall via a tour van supplied by the hotel, we wait in line for the tour to begin in fifteen minutes. My "spousal" companions are a cheerful group of women from the Midwest. We all wear khaki shorts, pastel t-shirts, running shoes, and carry large straw bags filled with souvenirs and credit cards. We don't wear nametags but our uniforms define our group. No one planned the sameness, the sea of khaki, it just occurred naturally. I'm the only Southerner, but if I keep my mouth shut, no one will ever know. As we stand waiting for our tour guide, I notice a chalkboard sign with today's specials printed on it. It lets me know today's specials are asparagus quiche and salad nicoise in the restaurant located in the Cotton Gin House. True Southern fare.

Waiting on the steps just ahead of our group there's a young couple, Linda and Carl. They are both wearing name tags, "Carlson Tours Hi I'm Linda" and the same with "Carl" and both have a smiley face instead of a dot above the letter "i" in hi. That's how I've come to know their names.

Linda smells like yesterday's sex, wears polyester lime-green stretch Capri pants pulled girdle tight across her ample, generously poned rear end and has a tattoo of a mermaid right above her ass crack that shows when she bends over to scratch her ankle which is covered with infected mosquito bites. It's a cheap tattoo, not in color, just a mermaid outlined in black. She stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Carl, who probably works in a foundry, judging by the slate gray tint to his skin and the permanent black stains on his fingernails and the backs of his hands. Carl's wearing Sansabelt slacks, plaid shirt, black acrylic socks with flip-flops, and a new Johnny Reb Confederate cap that he must have bought in the gift shop, prior to mounting the steps to wait to tour Boone Hall Plantation. "I wouldn't have minded the bus ride so much if that old man hadn't been sitting behind us," says Linda, "He wheezed all the way here. You just don't realize how far South Carolina is from Pennsylvania until you ride there in a Greyhound. I'm not complaining, this has been real great, Carl, I just wish we'd had enough money to fly here. Did you hear the way that waitress sounded this morning ... when she called you "honey" and asked if you wanted sweet tea? What the hell is sweet tea? And, don't let me forget, I need to call Jimmy if he's not feeding the dogs, I got to get Mama over there quick like."

Carl shakes his head, "You always got to let something ruin a good time, don't ya? Them dogs is okay, so's Jimmy, and everything else at home. Shut up about it and look at them trees. Those is live oaks. Someone back at the motel told me they filmed Gone With the Wind here. You're never gonna' get a chance to see nothing like this again for a long time. Damn it's hot. Who'd a' thought ten o'clock in the morning could be so goddam hot? They say they's used to be slave houses over there, where them rock buildings is, over yonder. You know, if we hadn't a'won the Civil War, they'd be slaves there still. That's what it's all about, Linda, it's about freeing them African-Americans from bondage."

Carl says "African-American" slowly, deliberately, like he's not used to it. And "bondage" doesn't exactly roll off his tongue. "Got your camera? Be sure and get some pictures of them rock slave houses. I read in this guide-thing that there used to be 27 of 'em. Slave houses I mean. I promised Willie I'd take pictures of what slavery done looked like, he wants them for his kids. Says they's got no clue of the troubles their great-great-grandpappy went through. You know, Willie's a good man, don't come no better, whatever color they is."

"I hope we go in soon. After lunch . . . we's eating here ain't we? I want to buy me some of them Aunt Jemima dolls. Salt and pepper shakers too. I need to get something for Mama. She's never been south of the Pennsylvania state line. We should get her something real nice like. Come to think of it, has anyone you know ever been south of Doylestown? I don't think nobody in my family's ever been out of Pennsylvania. 'Cept us, on this trip. Takin' this honeymoon tour is sure real nice, Carl. I gotta' tell ya', 'cept for the heat, this is real nice."

"Nobody never left Pennsylvania 'cept Layton Grimes. Did you know he's a cousin of my step-daddy's? Oh, wait, I don't think you met him, he didn't get to come to the wedding. Well, he went to Norfolk for a while to work in the shipyard, back in the '80s. His daddy was stationed there, during World War II. But he came right home, as soon as the war ended. It's too goddam hot to come down here. And these goddam gnats, always in your face, flying in my goddam mouth."

"Here comes the tour guide . . . Don't she look pretty? And she ain't sweating a bit. Wonder if she's just used to it, the heat, I mean."

They step aside as a woman in a hoop skirt, dressed as a wanna'be Scarlet O'Hara, mounts the stairs. She stands at the front door, hand poised above the door knob, and says, "Hi ya'll, welcome to Boone Hall Plantation. Ya'll got your tickets? If not, we can wait right here for you while you purchase them at the gift shop, just to the left of the main house, right over there. Everyone got a ticket? Ya'll come on in then."

And the South succeeds at last in clutching the Yankee dollar, amid forgotten fields of sea island cotton and long-grain rice swept up by the price of manual labor. And me, I just keep touring. My cousins are coming down from Cincinnati in a few weeks. I know our destination has to be air conditioned with clean restrooms. The South will accommodate them just fine. We've got something for everyone.

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