WILLTOWN BLUFF – At the time that somebody hauled a movie camera into a Willtown Bluff Plantation field, it would have taken a projector that weighed as much as a peck of flour to display the captured images. But in the 75 years that have passed since that recording session, screens have shrunk and shrunk and shrunk again, so John Holmes recently found himself squinting at an iPhone, trying to decipher a grainy scene of African-American men and women reaping rice with sickles in 1941.
Holmes was seated in a golf cart parked under a shade tree near the edge of Adams Run, the community closest to the Edisto River property. Failing to make out the faces presented to him, he started to do the math: The workers appeared to be in their 30s, meaning they were approximately as old as his mother, who about a decade ago died at the age of 100. So their contemporaries are gone, and their children have passed or moved away, too.
“All them dead,” he said. Holmes ventured a deacon at the church might be able to identify the people pictured, but since the man’s sight is slipping, he doubted he could see much of the movie beyond broad outlines.
Other black residents of the area told much the same story. White residents demurred when asked about the footage, knowing they wouldn’t recognize an ancient group of African-American farmhands or have much luck fingering family resemblances. For now, then, the Willtown Bluff workers preserved on film are condemned to anonymity.
But even without names assigned to the figures, the newly surfaced home movie remains a treasure for students of Lowcountry rice history, as the five-minute segment depicts the last vestiges of local rice cultivation methods that predate South Carolina’s statehood.
“I think that was kind of the end of it, because people don’t plant rice no more,” Holmes said, closely scrutinizing a scene of laborers threshing rice against a board. “The whole place done changed up. It don’t look the same no more.”
Willtown, located about 30 miles south of Charleston, is one of the oldest white settlements in the state. Land parcels in the frontier town were first issued in 1697. According to The Charleston Museum’s comprehensive 1999 survey of the archaeological site, undertaken at the behest of plantation owner Hugh C. Lane, Willtown’s founders were motivated to defend the colony, create a refuge for Presbyterians and bolster their deerskin trade with Native Americans.
Within a half century, though, none of those rationales for the riverside town’s existence were as compelling as the prospect of getting rich on rice. Willtown shed its urban icons — the school, the courthouse, the church, the store that sold cloth and ivory fans — as lots were reallocated for plantation use.
Willtown Bluff was established in 1714. By the early 1800s, it belonged to the son of New Jersey’s sole Declaration of Independence signer. Lewis Morris in 1809 built a grand octagonal home that still stands, although it was largely transformed by an early 20th-century remodeling project.
Between 1871 and 1930, Willtown Bluff changed hands six times, ending up in the possession of Arthur Whitney, then a few years removed from losing a New Jersey gubernatorial race to a Democratic candidate who promised to fight Prohibition.
Whitney was a sportsman who just wanted somewhere warm to winter. The commercial rice market had withered after the Civil War, which is why the plantation suddenly seemed undesirable: Not only was the profitable production of rice dependent on enslaved labor, but beginning in 1873, hurricanes successively tore up the Lowcountry’s most valuable rice banks. South Carolina’s last commercial rice was grown in 1927. Historians don’t rate that crop highly.
“Some things should be said about this late rice,” says University of South Carolina professor David Shields, who serves as the research arm of Anson Mills’ ongoing project to revive flavors lost to industrialization. “Much of it was not Carolina Gold, but one of the cheap white varieties that seed could be procured for. Some of it was for ducks as much as people.”
Pockets of “family rice” survived for another few decades. But that doesn’t explain exactly why massive quantities of rice were being grown at Willtown Bluff in 1941, when a friend of the Whitneys arrived with a movie camera.
“Twenty, thirty years after the industry had ended, why they were growing rice, nobody has any explanation,” historian Richard Porcher, author of “The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice,” says. “It can’t be commercial. There was no commercial machinery. So I don’t know why they were doing it. It’s a mystery.”
The mysteries are multilayered. Circumstances surrounding the making of the home movie (such as who held the camera and why) are unclear, since it was just recently rediscovered.
Charleston’s Henry Fishburne, whose great-grandfather briefly owned Willtown Bluff, inherited the reel from his mother, who died in 2003.
“For some reason, I always thought this was a movie of her wedding, and I thought I better preserve it,” says Fishburne, who arranged to have the movie transferred to DVD. Then he got a call from the guy handling the job. “I know you thought this was a wedding,” he said. “But this is not a wedding.”
Instead, the movie featured multiple scenes of the wealthy Whitneys reveling in hunting retreat life. A little white girl is pictured feeding chickens in the company of her French maid, and a little white boy bobs on a joggling board. Fishburne’s octogenarian Uncle Bow, then a young student at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, is shown with his prize ducks.
“Then about halfway through, you get to where whoever’s behind the camera is interested in African-Americans out there harvesting rice,” Fishburne says. “And they’re doing it by hand. To me, it almost appears that you’re looking back at 1840 instead of 1940. It’s just a remarkable look through a window into history.”
There’s an undated black-and-white home movie from Brookgreen Gardens, now in the University of South Carolina’s Digital Video Repository, that also depicts rice production, but it’s a very different kind of movie. The Brookgreen workers are dressed in their church best: A woman fanning rice wears a light-colored dress with a ruffled collar, while the young men looking on are suited up in jackets, knickers and short-brimmed caps. At Willtown, by contrast, the workers have holes in the backs of their cardigan sweaters and at the knees of their overalls.
Men and women thresh side-by-side in the full-color movie, beating the rice with such gusto that bits of it fly back in their eyes and stick to their hats. Then the camera pans to a woman walking with two very young boys, her hands in theirs, and a trio of slightly older boys horseplaying in a pile of rice stalks. Another mixed-gender group is shown cutting rice, keeping their sickles close to the ground.
Finally, a woman with a bucket balanced on her head and clunky shoes on her feet, fully aware of the camera, sashays away from it. Her last hip shake marks the end of the movie’s rice portion.
Porcher has no doubt that the workers had an everyday acquaintance with rice — there’s nothing in their motions to suggest they were re-enacting agricultural practices for posterity, even if the Whitneys kept the fields planted for sentimental reasons. Porcher sees a direct path from the methods pioneered by the Malinke, Bakute, Kisi, Mende and other West African cultural groups to the tasks performed at Willtown.
“The harvesting, the stacking, the threshing: All of that is legitimate,” he says. “They’d been doing that for years.”
Fishburne gave a copy of the movie to Porcher to illustrate his frequent lectures because, Fishburne says, “everyone thought the staff was backward and didn’t have any industry or engineering.” Porcher says the visual evidence proving otherwise “goes over really well. It’s really captivating.”
According to Hugh Allston, a lifetime resident of the area, Willtown last produced rice in 1944, one year before Lane purchased the plantation. “I believe then in the late ’40s a Frenchman came over and tried growing rice, but it was kind of a flop,” he says.
That means it’s possible that Fishburne’s footage, captured at the very twilight of Lowcountry rice production, could represent the last documented instance of age-old cultivation skills being put to real use in the region. Yet scholars say the murky realm of home movies prevents any pronouncements along those lines.
For example, the Library of Congress’ holdings include just two archival films involving U.S. rice farming: “Wild Rice Harvest,” a 10-minute short produced in 1950, and a 1968 compilation of home movies shot in Wisconsin.
“The truth about home movies is that no one really knows how many there are, and how many we’ve lost,” the Smithsonian Institution’s senior film archivist Pam Wintle says, adding that many home movies in research libraries’ care are essentially inaccessible because of cataloging backlogs and keyword mistakes. “The bottom-line answer is there is no way of verifying whether (the Willtown) film is unique.”
What is certain is “these films capture ways of living that are no longer,” Wintle says. “It is a view to be cherished.”
Or, as Porcher puts it, “It’s marvelous.”