Tea times in Summerville
So just how does Summerville figure into the history of tea production in America?
The story is interesting – and goes back quite a few years.
Tea, which is cultivated and brewed from a combination of leaves and leaf buds from the camellia sinensi, is actually native to Southeast Asia. However, it is grown all over the world in tropical and subtropical climates and in fact people have grown tea in North America since the 1700s.
According to an April 16, 1997 article published in The Journal Scene written by Summerville Preservation Society President Heyward Hutson, tea production came to Summerville in the late 1800s, but the U.S. Government had been interested in tea cultivation for many years prior to that and in fact, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture had distributed tea seedlings around the country since before the Civil War.
In 1880, U.S. Department of Agriculture Commissioner William LeDuc convinced Henry Middleton, an elderly, well-to-do Lowcountry planter to grant the U.S. government a 20-year lease on 200 acres of land located on what is now the Newington subdivision for the purpose of tea cultivation. Middleton agreed to do so, however, when asked what recompense he would accept for the lease, he told LeDuc that he would accept one silver dollar as the price of the transaction – but as he distrusted Yankees, he would accept no greenback notes.
LeDuc had a special medal cast from a silver dollar, which he later presented to Middleton, according to Hutson’s article.
LeDuc left office in 1884 and the tea cultivation experiments stopped until Dr. Charles Shepard started growing the plants again in 1888 on a different parcel of land near the original site. According to Hutson, it is believed that Shepard used plants from the original nursery on Middleton’s property.
Shepard’s efforts paid off. In 1892 his plants yielded 92 pounds of tea; by 1907 his plants were yielding around 12,000 pounds from 100 acres cultivated. His teas became well known across the country, winning a blue ribbon at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. In fact, a number of famous personalities would visit Summerville and Shepard’s Pinehurst Tea Plantation in its heyday, including President Theodore Roosevelt, who visited Shepard’s home in 1902, according to Hutson.
In order to cultivate a labor force to cultivate his tea crop, Shepard started a school for tea pickers, which not only provided black children educational opportunities they otherwise might not have received, but also provided a source of income. A good tea picker could make up to 50 cents a day in an era when most laborers earned around one dollar a week, according to Hutson.
Shephard died in 1915; four years later his production facility burned. Shepard’s heirs sold the property to Frederick Boswell, whose family would in turn sell the property to Harold Sebring in 1955. Sebring developed the property into what is now known as Tea Farm subdivision, and while he did not preserve the tea plantation as it was originally configured, he did preserve some of the buildings by converting them into residences, according to the article.
In 1963, Sebring leased 20 acres to the Lipton Tea Company for research. Lipton took some of the plants to property on Wadmalaw Island later that year; this property would become the Charleston Tea Plantation. Mack Fleming and William Hall bought the property from Lipton in 1987 and would later sell it to the Bigelow Tea Company in 2003.