Written By Glenn Roberts, David S. Shields, & B. Merle Shepard
Originally Published in the Rice Paper Newsletter, Spring 2012
Although rice was planted as a market crop in the Carolina Lowcountry near Charlestowne by 1685 and proliferated North and South rapidly along the Carolina and Georgia coasts over the next century to become a major pre-revolutionary commodity export, rice did not become a distinctive American export crop with respect to its morphology, taxonomy, and unique identity until after our revolution.
Dr. David Shields writes extensively about the genesis of Carolina rice in his introduction to The Golden Seed. “Some time before the Revolutionary War, the ‘Gold Seed’ rice was introduced (from what precise quarter, and how, has not been accurately ascertained) which, owing to its superiority, soon entirely superseded the white.” Dr. Shield notes that “more precise commentators pinpoint its (Carolina Gold rice) introduction to the period after the cessation of hostilities between the United States and Great Britain form 1783-1785.
Even though we cannot state with certainty the origins of Carolina Gold Rice, we can site planter-naturalists of the era who presented the first informal characteristic description of Carolina Gold rice: “The ordinary crop rice most highly esteemed and therefore universally cultivated, an oblong grain 3/8ths of an inch in length, slightly flattened on two sides, of a deep yellow or golden color, awn short; when the husk and inner coat are removed, the grain presents a beautiful pearly-white appearance — an ellipsoid in figure, and somewhat translucent.”
The meteoric rise in acreage devoted to Carolina Gold rice after our revolution followed the trajectory of improved practices characterized today as the scientific agricultural movement. Over 100,000 acres of ricelands were in production and those acres demanded pure seed. Scientific farmer/breeders moved aggressively to develop vigorous pure Carolina Gold seed to combat the increasing incidence of weedy red rice in Carolina Gold production fields. Their routines against foreign variety and weedy contamination were extensively researched and trialed after 1800. R. F. W. Allston, E. T. Heriot, and Joshua John Ward rose as South Carolina scientific breeders whose seed rices were legendary for purity and vigor in their regions.
It is no small coincidence that Dr. Frederick Jones Hill, Orton’s owner from 1826 to 1854, worked closely with his South Carolina colleagues and was equally respected with regard to his research, weedy rice suppression protocols, seed selection, and market production. In short, Orton was one of only five great rice research stations strung along the Carolinas and Georgia devoted to breeding and horticultural science during that era. Orton’s many rice fields were used to develop and trial Carolina Gold rice in any scale from small isolated 100 sq. ft. rice plots to massive field trials on hundreds of acres for production.
Golden Seed Rice History at Orton Plantation
Orton Plantation, under Dr. F. J. Hill, became the vital Northern supplier of pure Carolina Gold Rice seed to support the vast market rice production across all ricelands extending deep into Louisiana beginning in 1830. Orton’s reputation for pure seed was legendary and critical to national rice horticultural advances between 1830 and the Civil War.
Dr. Shields writes of Orton’s rice seed history:
“During the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s, Orton Plantation was the northernmost producer of Carolina Gold rice seed, replenishing the production stock of planters nationally. The plantation’s owner during this period, Dr. Fred J. Hill, belonged to the rigorous network of planters extending from the Santee River to the Cape Fear who exchanged seed stock and policed seed purity. The entire Southern rice planting system depended upon seed produced by these breeders. Careful planters as far away as Louisiana improved their rice plantings with an infusion of “northern seed” [the 19th-century designation for production from this area north of the Santee and PeeDee] on a three-year cycle; less careful, on a six year cycle.
Hill embodied the experimentalist spirit that enlivened the most successful southern planters during the second quarter of the 19th century. Because of a fire that destroyed Orton’s mill and grain processing infrastructure in 1824 during the Governor Benjamin Smith’s final years of residence, Dr. Hill, when he took possession in 1826, rebuilt with state of the art engineering the finest rice hulling and milling factory in the region. He installed gates on the water system, and created a fully functional tidal irrigation scheme on the S.C. model. He sought seed partnerships with important rice breeders in South Carolina — R. F. W. Allston, E. T. Heriot, and Joshua John Ward — to secure the best available seed stock. As the most learned of the Cape Fear Planters, he became the resource for the growers at Belvidere, Buchoi, Clarendon, Lilliput, Kendal, Hilton, and Sans Souci Plantations in Brunswick County, providing advice on insect infestation, red rice pollution of fields, and declining field production.
The heyday of rice production ceased with the Civil War. Orton was declared abandoned by the Federal authorities and briefly turned over to occupancy by freedmen. The lands lay abandoned for 15 years. When K. M. Murchison secured ownership of Orton in the final quarter of the 19th century, the expense of rice planting in Carolina made in noncompetitive with high-yielding Honduran white rice planted in the Southwest. Even John F. Garrell, the greatest agricultural savant of the region after the War, could not make Sans Souci plantation’s rice (despite its superior taste, mouth-feel, and appearance on the plate) compete in the commodity market against rice from Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana.
In 1911, the USDA in 1911 funded the draining of wetland ricefields at Orton Plantation to determine whether they could be converted to dry field agriculture. This attempt at secondary usage failed. A hurricane later in the year effectually brought an end to commercial rice production in the Carolinas until its revival in the 21st century. [Annual Report of the U. S. Department of Agriculture 1911, p. 762]