Bad storms rising: The end of Lowcountry rice culture
One hundred years ago today, on Oct. 19, 1910, Duncan C. Heyward witnessed "the most peculiar storm which ever visited the coast." Heyward, a rice planter with decades of experience, had recently completed a term as governor of South Carolina, serving from 1903 to 1907.
The storm struck Heyward as peculiar because it brought neither death nor gale force winds, but it augured the rice industry's ebb tide.
The weather bureau predicted an October gale, but instead of bringing wind and rain, the storm turned seaward and likely never qualified as a hurricane. The change in direction did not spare the planters of the ACE (Ashepoo-Combahee-Edisto rivers) Basin, however, for as Heyward noted, "the prevailing wind for more than a month had been from the east backing much water up the river. ... Full moon and perigee came on the same day." This combination of factors resulted in one of the highest tides anyone had ever seen and all the plantations flooded. The water carried away the partially harvested rice crop, stopped all work, eroded rice field banks, and in Heyward's words "a scene of activity and prosperity was changed into one of stillness and desolation."
One hundred years ago South Carolina coastal dwellers, unbeknownst to them, were in the middle of an especially intense set of hurricane seasons. Never has the state felt the sting of three destructive storms in as many years. Storms can bring death and destruction without ever qualifying as hurricanes. In 1909 a gale came ashore on Aug. 16, peaking with 50 mile-an-hour winds. Less than a year after the flood from the 1910 storm, a true cyclone came ashore in August 1911.
The 1911 storm nearly broke the back of Lowcountry rice planting. As Duncan Heyward put it, when "I saw the ocean actually coming up Meeting Street. ... I knew ... that the death-knell of rice planting in South Carolina was sounded." The 1911 hurricane devastated the whole Lowcountry, not only the plantations, but also the rest of the infrastructure of rice culture, in particular the docks, warehouses and rice mill of Charleston. The tidal surge in Charleston reached at least six feet above the high water mark.
Lowcountry rice culture already occupied a perilous economic position in 1910. Domestically, the Atlantic rice kingdom faced competition from the expanding rice growers in states like Arkansas and Louisiana who could adopt machine power more easily. The tidal rice fields of Carolina and Georgia looked like a crossword puzzle from above due to all the berms and ditches that moved water around the land. Even when the fields could be made dry enough to pull a reaper across the little squares, the ditches made it tedious to move equipment to the next field.
Rice had become a global commodity and after the Suez Canal allowed the flow of rice from Asia to the Mediterranean and Atlantic oceans in the nineteenth century. Competition only intensified for Lowcountry growers.
Rice planters understood commodity markets and competition. They also respected the vagaries of weather such as droughts and the destructive potential of tropical storms. Although we often tally the results of a hurricane by adding up its dollar cost, psychologically those storms served as forks in the road -- decision points -- for participants in a global market, placing great competitive strain on its South Carolina participants.
Many planters, like Duncan Heyward, could not face the financial and emotional re-investment in a disadvantaged industry after such events as "the storm that wasn't" in 1910 or the one that slammed home in 1911. In strict financial terms those planters that resumed planting in the spring of 1911 can be seen as having taken the wrong path when faced with the decision point of the October 1910 flood, not unlike many of us a century later who plowed more money into bigger houses with steeper mortgages during the recent housing bubble.
Despite our habit of talking about economics and personal finances as if we make such decisions in an economic vacuum, we are always influenced by cultural and psychological factors too. Even our language -- "safe as houses" -- demonstrates our cultural axioms. Moreover, there is prestige in owning a luxury home with a kitchen that would make Paula Deen dye her hair red -- much as there was tremendous prestige in owning and operating a rice plantation.
The 2010 hurricane season has nearly ended and rice culture is, with the exception of a few notable Carolina Gold rice growers, an industry of our past, but it always serves us well to remember our vulnerability to nature and the market.