There are not many things in this life that can embody the spirit and stride of a culture, that can bridge the gaps that divide us. In the South, sweet tea has leveled the proverbial playing field. There is some kind of mysterious power that is unleashed when a leaf brew and sugar are combined. It has proven to be bigger than any racial or socioeconomic diversity that can sometimes cause division. Whether it’s served in a plastic cup or a crystal glass, as Dolly Parton so poignantly put it, “sweet tea is the house wine of the south.” And you just might be surprised to find out what role Summerville played in the dawn of this refreshing cultural phenomenon.
The tea plant, formally known as Camellia Sinensis, is a distant relative of the giant magnolia trees that grow so proudly along our Southeast Coastal Plains. Tea plants thrive in tropical and subtropical climates, characterized by heat, humidity, and rain. There are large areas of ideal tea-growing land in countries that have for years provided the world’s tea-China, Japan, and India. South Carolina’s Lowcountry has a small belt of like conditions. South Carolina is the first and only place in North America where tea has been grown and is the only state to ever have produced tea commercially.
The first tea plant arrived in this country in the late 1700’s when French explorer and botanist, Andre Michaux (1746-1802), imported it, as well as other beautiful varieties of camellias, gardenias and azaleas to suit the aesthetic and eager longing of wealthy Charleston planters. He planted tea near Charleston at Middleton Barony, now known as Middleton Place Plantation [modern day Summerville].
In 1884, almost ten years after two failed attempts to grow tea, first in Greenville, SC and then in Georgetown, SC, the federal government became interested in this new tea experiment in the South. At this point, America was the world’s largest importer of tea and sought to profit from producing its own. An experimental governmental tea farm was established in Summerville. Four years later, however, the government gave up the effort, concluding that the area’s climate was too unstable to sustain a tea crop. Fortunately, a wealthy and scientific philanthropist named Dr. Charles Shepard, didn’t give up the dream of a prosperous American tea plantation. In 1888, he acquired 600 acres of the Newington Plantation property and established the Pinehurst Tea Plantation not far from the government’s farm, again in Summerville, South Carolina. He cultivated about 100 acres and built a factory to manufacture and package the tea. Dr. Shepard was confident that South Carolina would fill the void. In an interview quoted in an 1898 issue of Cosmopolitan, he said “In this field the American grower need fear no competition from the Orient. Such teas demand a high price; but if no better can be otherwise obtained, there will be no scarcity of buyers.”
Dr. Shepard addressed the problem of securing laborers for the fields by building a free school for his employees on his Summerville farm, teaching them basic academics as well as how to pick tea, guaranteeing a strength of child labor while providing them with an education they might not otherwise obtain. In 1889, the U.S. Congress appropriated $1,000 for the Summerville tea experiments and another $700 for experiments with irrigation systems at the site. That same year, Shepard - who had been named “Special Agent in Charge of Tea Investigations” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture - wrote a report for the government on the status of his experiments.
Shepard wrote, “It was well-known that the tea plant, Camellia thea, would thrive under the local climatic conditions; and that the tea made therefrom possessed excellent cup-qualities, if somewhat weak - possibly owing to faults in cultivation and curing.” He stated that under the right blend of circumstances - the necessary rainfall or irrigation, cheap labor, effective pruning of bushes and a protective tariff from the government - “pure commercial tea may be profitably raised in the Southern States, thereby supplying an easy and healthful livelihood to idle thousands and imparting a value to immense tracts of now waste land.” Shepard marketed his first Pinehurst Tea with the slogan, “From Bush to Cup, Quality, Purity and Economy.”
He added, “The demand for (Pinehurst tea) has easily kept pace with the supply, in spite of its peculiar taste. But without a characteristic flavor, American tea can have no special advantage.”
Whatever gave the Pinehurst tea its unique flavor, it was a big success: Dr. Shepard won the public’s favor at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair where his tea won first prize. His oolong tea popularized iced tea, the way 85 percent of Americans drink it today. The Pinehurst Tea Plantation and its flower gardens became a popular attraction for visitors to Summerville’s popular resort inns. President Theodore Roosevelt visited Shepard to see the tea-making operation during a trip to the Pine Forest Inn.
Dr. Shepard’s plantation thrived until his death in 1915, after which it lay abandoned until 1960. That was when the Lipton Company bought the property. Lipton salvaged the remaining plants and used them to open a research facility on Wadmalaw Island. Lipton soon decided, as the federal government had over a century earlier, that an unstable climate and high costs of labor made American tea production unfeasible.
In 1987, Mack Fleming, the former manager of the Lipton project, and William B. Hall, an expert, third generation tea taster trained in London, purchased the
farm from Lipton to establish the 127 acre Charleston Tea Plantation. In 1987 the tea from Charleston Tea Plantation, derivatives of Dr. Shepard’s Camellia Sinensis, earned the honor of the Official White House Tea.
Many believe that this great southern beverage, known to us as sweet tea, had its birth at the St. Louis World Fair, the same year Dr. Shepard won “Best Tea,” when a British dealer added ice to his tea to accommodate guests in the sweltering heat. This simply isn’t the case. Pat Villmer of the St. Louis World’s Fair Society, wrote that iced tea, “wasn’t invented at the World’s Fair. The good people of the South were serving iced tea in their homes long before the fair. It was just popularized at the fair.” In 1890, years prior to the fair, an article documenting a reunion of confederate soldiers, presents evidence that iced tea had been consumed years before the popular 1904 account of the British dealer first adding ice to his tea.
“The following figures will convey some idea of the amount of provision used at Camp Jackson during the recent encampment. There were 4,800 pounds of bread, 11,705 pounds of beef, 407 pounds of ham, 21 sheep, 600 pounds of sugar, 6 bushels of beans, 60 gallons of pickles, and a wagon load of potatoes. It was all washed down with 2,220 gallons of coffee and 880 gallons of iced tea. The committee expended $3,000, a little in excess of the amount subscribed, for the entertainment of the old soldiers.”
Lets look back at the facts. The tea plant made its U.S. landing in Summerville. Summerville was also the site of the first commercial tea plantation, as well as the government’s tea farm. Let’s not forget the article documenting the confederate reunion. So I’m going to do it. In regards to Summerville’s role in the great Southern drink of tea, ice, and sugar, I’m going to step out on a pretty thick limb and say it. Come on and say it with me, Summerville is the birthplace of sweet tea. My appeal to all Summervillians; take pride, take ownership. I feel the need to say it again...
Summerville is the birthplace of sweet tea.