Some plantations include house museums, offer manicured gardens through which visitors can stroll and preserve the surviving structures of slavery. But many of the Lowcountry's historic sites are privately owned, welcoming the public only occasionally for fundraisers or other special events.
That's the case with Plum Hill Plantation in Colleton County, best known for the part it played in the blockbuster 1994 movie "Forrest Gump." It will be the site of an April 27 fundraiser for the Lowcountry Open Land Trust.
Much has changed at these historic plantation sites. After slavery ended in 1865, many of the old planters tried to keep things going but eventually sold their properties. The economics no longer made sense. The destruction was too much to bear.
Their rice fields lay dormant, then deteriorated, reclaimed by nature and storms. The old structures fell into disrepair.
But after the turn of the 20th century, some wealthy men from up north who liked to commune with nature and hunt ducks and deer, and who increasingly struggled to find game in the depleted woods of northern states, discovered opportunity in the South.
They could purchase, at relatively affordable prices, scruffy acres left behind along the banks of the Lowcountry’s many intertidal rivers and create hunting havens, vacation retreats and family compounds.
Chicago printing magnate Gaylord Donnelley purchased Ashepoo Plantation. Bernard Baruch, a financier who grew up in New York, bought Hobcaw Barony. Standard Oil’s Herbert Lee Pratt of New Jersey acquired Good Hope Plantation in Ridgeland. Publisher Henry R. Luce secured Mepkin Plantation on the banks of the upper Cooper River.
Timber farming resulted in the removal of large swaths of old pine forests, and developers constructed subdivisions of homes on some of this land, particularly land closest to cities. The extension of sewer and electric lines, of paved roadways and gas stations and tiny strip malls, became an increasing threat.
In the 1970s, something unusual began to happen. Property owners partnered with conservationists to secure the land. A new legal-financial mechanism was introduced: the easement.
Among the first people to strike a deal to preserve their land holdings were Jane and Harry Gregorie. Shortly after the Gregories and their kin subdivided the larger 3,100-acre Bluff Plantation in 1975, the couple contacted the Lowcountry Open Land Trust and signed a conservation easement that would protect their share of the property — Plum Hill — in perpetuity, while granting them certain rights of use as well as tax benefits.
On April 27, the Land Trust will hold its annual picnic fundraiser on the property from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“It’s a wonderful way to see a private property that you might not otherwise see,” noted President and CEO Ashley Demosthenes. “It’s one of the quintessential ACE Basin properties.”
Jane Gregorie, 85, remains active at Plum Hill, clearing debris, gardening and keeping things in order, according to her daughter, the nutritionist Ann Kulze.
“Dad’s quiet,” Kulze said of the 92-year-old retired surgeon. “He spends most of the time on the front porch in a rocking chair looking at the Combahee River.”
This is where the title character of “Forrest Gump” fell in love under a sprawling oak tree, and where he later married. This is also where Ann and John Kulze live, on a large parcel adjacent to two others used by family members, and next to a large wildlife reserve.
And this is where the families kayak and swim, hike and bike, and where they gather for holiday meals, 86 strong. Ann’s brother-in-law David Baird, a surgeon, raises grass-fed beef cattle here, and where another brother-in-law, Francis Johnson, an avid outdoorsman, takes his children and his nephews duck hunting.
The Kulzes have been cultivating heirloom, organic Carolina Gold rice on a few wet acres.
Bluff Plantation once encompassed 7,400 acres along this stretch of the Combahee River near Yemassee. Before the Colonial period, this area was home to Native Americans who settled in this sweet spot, with its good views and relative security. (Kulze has accumulated a collection of indigenous pottery that has impressed archaeologists and historians.)
Then Daniel Heyward acquired The Bluff in the mid-1700s. His son Nathaniel created a rice empire, eventually owning or managing 35,000 acres of land and around 2,000 slaves on dozens of plantations across the Lowcountry. When he died at Bluff Plantation in 1851, he was the area’s wealthiest planter and likely the richest man in all of antebellum South Carolina.
Near the banks of the Bluff, Harriet Tubman launched her 1863 raid on the Combahee River, rescuing 800 slaves and delivering to the Union valuable goods confiscated from Confederate forces.
In 1915, Anne Heyward sold the plantation to the Combahee Corporation. In 1923, A. Felix DuPont, a stockholder of the company, assumed ownership of the property. He sold it to the Lane family in 1946, and then it transferred to Earl Fain Jr.
In 1978, Kulze’s dad, along with three others, bought the Bluff and the group quickly sold off more than 4,000 acres. Ann and John Kulze were married in the shade of a large oak tree on the property in 1984. Eventually, one of the partners sold his interest in the land and it was subdivided into three parts in 1995, a year after so after much of “Forrest Gump” was filmed there, including the "Run, Forrest, run!" scene and the wedding scene, shot not far from the oak tree under which the Kulzes had recited their vows, and 12 years before their daughter was married nearby.
Upriver is Rose Hill, then Bluff, then Plum Hill.
The easement on Plum Hill forbids any further subdivision or development on its approximately 1,000 acres, though the Gregorie children (there are six of them today) each can have a home there. Currently, Plum Hill has four homes, all but one relocated to the property and renovated.
In 1996, the Kulzes bought a house in Earhart, 45 minutes away, and had it moved to Plum Hill. As the project unfolded, John Kulze became a master carpenter, his wife said.
Ann Kulze's sister, Dicksie, who died of breast cancer two years ago, and her husband, Francis Johnson, moved an old sharecropper’s house to the property in 1999. Sister Becky and her husband, David Baird, positioned a house there about five years ago.
“What’s unique about the property is it really is a family compound,” Ann Kulze said. “And I think that’s one reason why the Lowcountry Land Trust wanted us to host the picnic, because this is an example of a family using the property collaboratively.”
The picnic’s rice pilaf will include some of Kulze’s Carolina Gold, she said.