South Carolina once stood at the cutting edge of American agriculture, but the Civil War put a definitive stop to all that: Union Gen. William T. Sherman even burned down the State Agricultural Society's building in Columbia.

The state never recovered, said Jim Kibler, a Newberry County farmer and literary scholar who has immersed himself into the history of Adam and William Summer, two brothers who led the society and wrote more than 500 essays.

But Kibler also has a more ambitious idea. He is trying to re-create the society - or something very much like it.

On Saturday in Columbia, about 20 agricultural experts from across the state will gather for the second meeting of the Pomaria Society, named after the historic nursery that once operated from the small the Newberry County town with the same name.

"Pomaria was the first major nursery of the middle and lower South. Its emphasis on local adaptation, plants acclimated to the South and sustainable farm practices sounds current and provides the society with inspiration and a good foundation," Kibler said. "I feel a need to reestablish agrarian roots where they have up and died."

Connecting the dots

The disruption in local knowledge might best be illustrated by a story told by Nat Bradford, a Seneca landscape architect whose family has grown Bradford watermelons in Sumter for generations.

Bradford, who is expected to take over as president of the Pomaria Society from Kibler next year, said he recently got interested in reinvigorating his family watermelon variety. He said he only knew that his great-grandfather was growing it in Sumter since the early 20th century - but he thought its history might go back even further.

As he did research, Bradford connected online with David Shields, a University of South Carolina English professor who developed a website on American Heritage Vegetables.

Shields told Bradford that Bradford's ancestors had shared seeds with the Summer brothers in the early 1850s, and those seeds were shipped to Pennsylvania and led to the most popular watermelon variety of the 19th century.

But by the early 20th century, extension agents advocated changes to improve the shipability of fruits and vegetables, and the melon gradually faded away. Shields told Bradford the last company to carry those seeds existed outside Augusta in 1922.

Bradford then told Shields that while he had no idea of any of that 19th century history, the Bradford watermelon remains alive and well: His family has continued to grow the crop in the same Sumter soil - without any pesticides, herbicides or insecticides.

Bradford said his grandfather did start using fertilizer around World War II, but Bradford stopped that practice just recently and now grows them with manure instead. For advice on reverting back to manure, Bradford said he turned to an 1853 agriculture journal entry penned by a farmer who actually was farming land now owned by Kibler.

"I think that's what this whole society is to me - tapping back to stuff that worked when people were connected to their place, their soil and a time when their crops were representative," Bradford said. "I have a hard time believing this story is the only one out there. There's got to be other stories like it that are waiting to be uncovered."

'Hands in the dirt'

Kibler's Huguenot ancestors first arrived in the Carolina colony in 1672, just two years after its founding. They tried to grow grapes and silk, "and of course, they lost everything pretty much. They moved up the Cooper River and were still trying to farm and eventually some of them got up to Newberry County, where I am. Farming has been in my background."

That is what led him to research the Summer brothers and Pomaria Nursery, a renowned nursery run by William Summer that existed from the 1840s to 1870s. And that research led to an exhibit at the University of South Carolina's McKissick Museum.

At its peak, the nursery had more than 1,000 varieties of apples, pears, peaches, plums, figs, apricots and grapes grown especially for the south's heat and humidity - and another 1,000 or so ornamentals, including 400 varieties of roses.

Through their writings, Kibler discovered all sorts of tidbits about how South Carolina's farmers were on the cutting edge. He discovered that the cashmere goat first arrived in America in Fairfield County. He learned 19th century advice for growing turnips and that Summer brothers learned feeding barley to swine could prove fatal if the crop under certain conditions.

The society ultimately will seek to share all that.

"It's not about then. It's about now," Kibler said. "All this very current in the local food movement, the slow food movement. We're going to learn a great deal tomorrow about what I've found in the past. That's what I'm trying to work through."

The Pomaria Society will meet about twice a year and, like the old S.C. Agricultural Society, it will recognize excellence.

"They gave silver tea sets," Kibler said. " We might give a plaque at first. We're all about old things, new things, getting the word out, rewarding, encouraging."

The 20 inaugural members of the society were selected based on their knowledge of diverse areas, such as heirloom seeds, citrus trees, heritage livestock, native plants, composting, rice, historic foods, agritourism, cover crops, family farms, sustainable forest and organics.

Bradford said its greatest contribution may be publishing new journals that share both historical and new hands-on information.

"We have gotten so far away from practical, hands-on knowledge that has been passed down from generations," he said. "We would love to see the Pomaria Society become a leader in sustainable agriculture for the South.

"This is about people who have their feet on the ground and their hands in the dirt."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.