Parkway work grows into lessons on rice

Mary Ford Elementary School 4th grader Michelle Wright demonstrates how a Fanner Basket was used to process rice back in the 1600s and 1700s, as she and her classmates in Willette Ash's class, learn from the Charleston County Inland Rice Fields Traveling Trunk Program.

Nine-year-old Michelle Wright shakes kernels on a flat, round fanner basket, separating the rice from the hull.

The Mary Ford Elementary School fourth-grader is cleaning rice much the way it was done in the Charleston area in the 1600s and 1700s.

Classmate Aleyah Johnson, also 9, said it was slaves who did such work back then, and it was heavy work. “They were hard workers and had to do stuff by hand.”

Willette Ash’s fourth-grade class was learning about South Carolina’s inland rice fields, which early settlers and African slaves created before they harnessed the tides to lessen the human labor required to grow the valuable crop. Inland rice field cultivation techniques came to the area through slaves who were captured and taken from the rice-growing regions of West Africa.

Ash used a trunk full of replicas to teach the lesson — the kinds of tools and supplies rice planters would have used centuries ago. The trunks are part of an education program designed through RoadWise, Charleston County’s road-building program.

The county found evidence of inland rice fields in 2008 when it began to extend the Palmetto Commerce Parkway from Ladson Road to Ashley Phosphate Road. Employees and archaeologists decided to turn the find into valuable history lessons for local children, said Steve Thigpen, the county’s director of transportation development.

The evidence of inland rice fields is subtle, Thigpen said, as he pointed to earthen mounds in the woods along the edges of the now complete Palmetto Commerce Parkway. Planters dug shallow ponds and used the dirt to build embankments around them to retain fresh water. The dikes are about 8 feet wide and 1.5 feet high, and often are obscured by brush and trees.

Archaeologists that the county called in said the dikes were remnants of inland rice field systems that once were part of the Windsor Hill and Woodland plantations.

Thigpen said that those involved in the Palmetto Commerce Parkway project were behind the idea of creating an education program for children. “Everybody felt it was the best way to mitigate the effect on the rice dikes.”

Jaime Brown, spokeswoman for RoadWise, said the county put together four “traveling trunks” on inland rice fields, and has made them available on a rotating basis this year to all elementary schools in the Charleston County School District. The program is targeted to third-graders because that is the year students begin to learn about South Carolina history. But the lessons are appropriate for fourth- and fifth-graders as well. The response from teachers and students has been excellent, Brown said.

And Ash is one of the most enthusiastic among the teachers who have used the trunks.

Ash said she loves hands-on activities. And the activities contained in the trunk drive home how difficult and time-consuming rice production was centuries ago. “It’s not like buying a bag at Walmart,” she told her students.

And the lessons are about work that was done in Charleston, she said, which made them more relevant to students. “There’s a connection because they can identify with the location.”