Orton Plantation stands as a memory of a South that never was. It is a beautiful, entrancing, exciting place. Built in 1725 as a Plantation designed to produce rice the central home and its chapel has withstood the ravages of time. It even survived the Civil War in which it became a Federal hospital after the fall of Fort Fisher.
During its first one hundred and thirty years it was one of many rice plantations that dotted the coast of the Carolinas. Like the cotton plantations, these plantations depended heavily on slave labor.
The plantation now only produces floral extravaganzas and picture perfect weddings. Open to the public during the key floral season, the plantation is a warm and inviting place.
The ever present alligators, insects and snakes are a reminder that the people who lived and worked on this land had much to endure to make it through the days. Its survival gives us to see both the incredible beauty that was afforded the residents and the majestic rewards that drove men to enslave other men to maintain an opulent lifestyle.
When we leave Route 133 and enter the gates of Orton Plantation, our eyes catch the beautiful white wall with its wrought iron gates. Two proud Eagles adorn each side of the gate.
The road off Route 133 is 1533 Orton Road SE. This plantation is located at the intersection of the towns of Boiling Springs and Southport. Entering down this road is like entering into another century. Except for the automobiles, everything else has a nostalgic touch of the past. (The best of the past, not the hardships that many endured to sustain this type of life)
We start our journey down the dirt road between gigantic Live Oaks. These are trees are not as old as they appear, they were seedlings around 1934 when the first land route to the plantation was created. Their huge branches stretch out nearly as wide in all directions as the trees are tall. The branches are heavy with Spanish moss.
The soil under our tires is soft and dusty on this narrow road as we head toward the heart of the plantation. To keep their visitors safe and keep us from zipping through the trees in a cloud of dust, the current residents of the plantation have established large traffic bumps that caution our drive. It also allows us to fully take in the wonders of the South as many of us believe it was experienced more than a century ago. It is awesome!
As we pass through the columns of Live Oaks we see our first Azaleas. A beautiful bounty of red flowers adorns the side of the forest. Now on our left we can see the marsh for some distance. It was this marsh, fed by a fresh water river that made this a perfect place to produce rice.
The road now crosses between the marsh on the left and a water swamp on the right. Here we are greeted by a second set of sentinels. Unlike the eagles these creates are not stone, thought they look more ancient than stone. With a cool smile two large alligators glide effortlessly in the shallow water.
The signs entreat us to stay in the car. Apparently the benign look of these creatures belies an appetite for visitors. We journey forward with enough excitement to get a good start on the day.
Now we re-enter the woods. We come upon a small white building opposite a greenhouse of some age. This is the closes we get to a gate house. A very nice man checks to see if we (meaning me) are sixty or over, alas I’m not there yet; it would save a dollar if I were. We instead pay the full fare and by the souvenir booklet “The Story of Orton Plantation”. This booklet goes into a lot of history of this plantation and the other rice plantations that dotted the coast.
Everyone has to stop here before they proceed down the road. It is mostly a trust thing as far as I could see. We did not visit the nursery, but we did discover that during the growing season a number of the flowering plants we will see can be purchased here. In addition they have a great selection of carnivorous plants, most of which grow very well in warm, wet environments. None of them grow large enough to eat the pesky neighbor dog; maybe a pesky horsefly though.
Now we leave the gate house and return to the drive to the plantation. It is a short drive to the entrance to the parking lot. Here a huge (A really huge) Live Oak is silhouetted against the blue Carolina sky. It is an amazing sight. Behind the tree is the marsh, leaving the full dimension of this awesome tree to dominate the warm morning sky.
The entry to the parking lot is immediately after this scene. This incredible scene created by the gift of life.
The parking lot entry has flowers adorning both sides as you enter the unpaved dirt lot. To the left are picnic tables and primitive facilities; to the right are the beginnings of pathways that lead to the gardens; in the middle is the path leading to a beautiful chapel still in pristine condition. Just beyond the chapel this day we can see a large tent being set up, probably for a wedding.
Now we leave our car behind and start down the path ways toward the gardens. The display of color and the huge quantity of flowering plants make it almost overwhelming.
There is really no special way to describe the grounds. And because the plants are living things it is like a kaleidoscope, changing each day and in each season.
On this day the azaleas are in bloom, most are at the peak, a few are past prime. Camellias, the ever flowering winter blooms, are still beautiful and full.
We begin the walk through the gardens. Everywhere there are large Live Oak trees covered with Spanish moss. All along the paths we see Azaleas in a broad variety of colors. Most are in huge bushes colored in white, violet, red and pink. Intermixed are some flowers that look like roses but have no thorns. They are a soft yellow and adorn several corners of the garden path.
Following the garden trails we come out onto a long white deck that overlooks a series of gardens twenty feet below. (Give or take) These gardens are somewhat symmetrical, made of bushy flowers and pansies. One particular one looks to us like a butterfly, it is well designed and has strong contrasting colors. Deep greens, bright yellows and cool purples give the imaginary insect a life of its own.
There is a staircase down to these gardens but it is closed off. We guess that the fact that fairly large alligators like to rest on the banks of this garden may have made the ground keepers wary of accidentally putting their guests are risk.
There are two of the long overlook decks, both of which give a panoramic view of the marsh.
Leaving this area we follow the garden path along path of the river (Or stream). Here we can get quite close to the water, should we really care to. (This encourages us to keep our eyes open) As we meander down toward the plantation grave yard we pass a shelter that is probably one the newer structures on the plantation. It was most likely built to allow weary walkers to take a rest.
The grave yard was a requirement of all plantations. In fact, as we understand it, it was the law. There are only a few graves here; though few in number the ages of those that repose here points to the hardships of plantation life.
From the grave yard we follow the path back through a cypress swamp. It is not that much further back into the woods, yet it seems like a completely different world. The swamp is covered with pond lilies and has wading birds in it. The birds are hard to see in the shadows of the trees and even harder to photograph. Their coloration is a perfect camouflage for the swamp.
In the middle of the swamp we pass over a bridge that turns one way then the other over and over. There is something that tells us that the Chinese thought that a crooked bridge would trick the evil spirits who, not being able to negotiate the turns, would fall over the side into the water. We suspect this was literally an old wives tale told by old Chinese wives to keep their wayward husbands away from the rice wine.
The sight of Cyprus knees is quite spectacular. You usually don’t see so many so close to shore. (If you continue down the road by the entrance toward Brunswick Town there is a fantastic swamp full of these)
Continuing from the swamp we proceed to the Sun Garden. This is a very colorful garden made up of small ground flower like Pansies. Pansies allow the garden to take on a sort of sun shape. It is actually several concentric flower beds with a variety of flowers that has a large Grecian style pot at its center. The whole garden was rimmed by azalea bushes in full bloom.
From the garden we travel via an azalea covered pathway directly to the White Circle garden. This is a beautiful pool with a large white statue at its center. Around the pool is a circular bed of white flowers. Around this is a green bed in a circle form. (It may have contain white flowers or may bloom later) Around the outer circle is a ring of white azaleas.
From here we pass numerous small flower beds with an array of flowers in blues, whites, yellows, mixed colors, pinks, purples and other colors. It is a wondrous scene fit for those who appreciate nature. Throughout the trip we heard and occasionally saw many native birds.
Finally we reach the corner from which we can see the Plantation Mansion. It is a gorgeous white structure that is dwarfed by a huge Live Oak on one side. It is exactly what you would expect a southern mansion of the middle 1800s to look like. We can’t tour the building itself, as it is still occupied by real people. Given that it probably contains many modern trapping, it is probably better to imagine the grandeur. Like the trees and flowers, the wings of the mansion are much newer than the central portion. The original structure would have been smaller and less inviting.
The grounds around the mansion are neat and well kept, adding to the charm of the plantation.
From here we pass by many small gardens on our way back to the parking lot. The wedding preparations have continued and a second smaller tent has joined the large tent on the lawn beside the chapel. It is a warm sunny day and the wedding chapel will make for a memorable joining of families. The sun, the birds and the occasional butterfly will all add to ambiance.
We have had a fantastic trip. The gorgeous floral arrangement of the plantation is enough to heighten the senses and stir the soul. The expanse of marsh, the alligators and the occasional biting insects help remind us that the plantations were built and financed on the backs of people who had no say in whether the risks were worth it.
The Plantation came into the hands of the current family owners through a gift in 1904 to Mrs. Sprunt from her husband. She later in an interesting turn of events took in and provided for a former slave. The current owners were never involved when the plantation was a working plantation growing rice.
In a way keeping the plantation open to the public and developing the gardens, the current owners are providing a wonderful opportunity to understand better a piece of our past while building our future.
“The Story of Orton Plantation” available at the ticket counter is a bargain, containing many interesting stories, facts and fables about the plantation.