"This is really interesting!," the only other person in the McKissick Museum gallery exclaimed, likely as surprised as I was that the story of wealthy nineteenth-century horticulturists could be so compelling.
The University of South Carolina museum last month mounted "Taking Root: The Summer Brothers and the History of Pomaria Nursery," an exhibit devoted to cultivating appreciation for the pioneering Newberry County plant nursery, considered the first major nursery in the lower and middle South. Although Pomaria is largely remembered as a developer of roses and supplier of decorative trees - one sales catalog offered giant Sequoias - William Summer was equally interested in coming up with fruit trees specifically designed to thrive in the Southeast.
"Pomaria had orchards with over 1500 varieties of fruit trees, including pears, apples, peaches, nectarines, apricots, figs, pomegranates, different berries and nuts," according to an exhibit panel. "William Summer was an expert pomologist, and created 33 good varieties of apples, nine of which became widely known throughout the South."
In the mid-1800s, Pomaria's catalogs were hugely popular with Lowcountry planters. The Summers' trees still stand across the region, but their household-name status long ago faded away: Until exhibit co-curator James E. Kibler in 1993 published a paper about the nursery, Pomaria didn't exist in modern scholarship. (To get a sense of how little the situation has changed, try Googling "Pomaria" or "Summer brothers.")
Acknowledging most visitors' lack of familiarity with Pomaria, the McKissick show touches on the Summers' motivations (in addition to wanting to make their estate profitable, William Summer was something of an environmentalist), as well as the four brothers' schooling, methods, temperaments and achievements. The show is illustrated by ledger books, dried leaves and plant sketches, but the very best artifact in the room is a commemorative knife, likely awarded in the 1840s by the State Agricultural Society.
According to an accompanying label, a scene in O.B. Mayer's novel John Punterick - set at Pomaria in 1847 - features the four brothers, attacking a feast of apricots with their "silver fruit knives - the rewards of Agricultural Societies."
"Taking Root" runs through Sept. 20; admission is free. The museum is located at 816 Bull St., Columbia. For more information, visit artsandsciences.sc.edu/mckissickmuseum.