The Grains Used in Historic Southern Distilling

A talk delivered at the Grain Gathering, Lexington KY 9-16-19

by David S Shields

What kind of corn, rye, and wheat was used in the first century of whiskey making in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Virginia, and the hills of North Carolina? Can this information be supplied despite the fact that there exists no reputable written explanation prior to the 1880s for the precise varieties of corn, rye, and wheat employed in distilling? 

I won’t talk about barley today because I discussed  the historic prevalence of 6 row Winter barley in southern fields in my last talk to the Southeastern wheat breeders.

What do the documentary records provide from the first half century of whiskey distilling from Kentucky and Tennessee?  This: “Whiskey is made either with rye, barley, or Indian corn. One, or all those kinds of grains is used, as they are more or less abundant in the country. I do not know how far they are mixed in Kentucky; but Indian corn is here in general the basis of whiskey, and more often employed alone.”

This is from Anthony Boucherie’s The Art of Making Whiskey, published in Lexington,Ky., in 1819.[i]  Indeed his chemical orientation immediately translates all grain into saccharine matter in his process, so it really doesn’t matter whether spirits are concocted from all corn, or any mixture of grains.  In all the early recipes — corn is designated as corn or Indian maize; no specification of variety; the same is true for rye and wheat. This is also the case for the one 18th-century whiskey recipe from a resident of Kentucky, Jonathan Taylor’s diary of the 1794,[ii] or the most reliable printed instruction available before Boucherie’s Art. Pennsylvanian Samuel M’Harry’s 1809 manual The Practical Distiller.    

M’Harry’s handbook mirrors Taylor’s recipes in having one for all corn whiskey, and others for mixed corn and rye.  In his main rye whiskey recipe he presents the early optimum formulation of one-third rye and two-thirds corn that would be standard for the first half of the 19th century.  When it comes to character of his ingredients M’Harry conveys one thing that it is consequential — “Indian Corn cannot be ground too fine for distilling.”[iii] A fine grind insured best results for cooking in the still.

This sentence enables us to make a preliminary judgment about what corn was used in early distilling. Of the general categorizations of corn at the end of the 18th century, flint corns, pop corns, flour corns, gourdseed corns, and sweet corns.  Flint corns and pop corns because of their granularity in milling would have been too troublesome to process.[iv]  Sweet corn was too rare and highly valued as a table corn to put in a still.  You will perhaps note the absence of dent corns here — created from the crossing of gourdseed and flint corns,[v] they did not become a general feature of the southern agricultural landscape so called until the second quarter of the 19th century — in the 1830s and 1840s  to be precise when Carswell White in Georgia, Cocke’s Prolific in Virginia, Kentucky Yellow, Leaming Yellow, and Bloody Butcher became standardized.  Reid’s Yellow Dent emerged in Illinois at the same time. 

When we look to Tennessee and Kentucky in the post-Revolutionary settlement period, there are several things to consider.  After modest beginnings in Jonesboro, Tenn., distilling took off in 1790s in Davidson and Robertson counties — that is from Nashville north to the Kentucky border.[vi]  The Shawnee had inhabited the area until 1745, the Cherokee had a temporary presence, and it was largely vacant when settlers began camping along the Cumberland in 1760. Corn does not naturalize, so Shawnee red corn and white flour corn were not growing in the region as a resource.

Settlers used corn they brought with them from North Carolina and Virginia. The same might be said of Kentucky. The Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia settlers of Bourbon County in the 18th century, came from areas long expert in distilling. Historian Henry G. Crowgey in the second chapter of Kentucky Bourbon supplies a roll call of early distillers who brought knowledge and technology from parts East into Kentucky:  John Hamilton, William Calk, Col Evan Shelby, Evan Williams, William Shiell, and the legendary Elijah Craig.[vii]  One presumes they brought seed of their favorite corn and rye varieties with them as well. William Caulk of Boon’s fort is one of the earliest recorded corn planters in the territory cultivating a patch in his first year of settlement, 1775.  So what were people growing at the end of the 18th century in North Carolina north to Pennsylvania?

They brought Native landraces — old strains improved by the indigenous peoples. In 1837, just before the emergence of the Dent Corns, Dr. Peter A Browne published “An Essay on Indian Corn,” that supplied as orderly a taxonomy of varieties that were stable enough to be recognized during those decades when growers were growing multiple varieties contiguously, and cross-pollinization was rampant.[viii]  It was widely republished and established itself as the word on the subject. He organized them by color — Yellow, White, Red, Blue, and Particolored. Color sorting was the second common method of conceptualizing maize after the type categorization into flint, gourdseed, flour, sweet, and pop corn. For our purposes it is important because the only stated preference found in advertisements by distillers buying corn in Kentucky and Tennessee is this:  “Corn, Rye and Barley, for which the highest market price will be given in cash — to be delivered at the Distillery formerly occupied by Mr. Benajah Bosworth, one mile from the city, convenient to the Railroad. N. B. Yellow Corn would be preferred.”[ix] This 1833 ad by distillers Daniel and Henry McCourt of Lexington states a preference that could be said to pertain to this very day, when #2 Yellow Dent is the default corn employed by most distillers. 

Turning to Dr. Peter A Browne’s section on Yellow Corn, we encounter first and most extensively listed, Yellow Gourdseed Corn. 

“A. Yellow Corn.

A.a. The genuine gourd seed Indian corn, so called from the supposed similitude in shape, between its grains and the seeds of the gourd; the spike contains, when thus unmixed with any other variety, twenty-four rows, which is the highest number of rows on any cob of Indian corn I have ever seen. I have heard of twenty-six rows. When this corn is mixed with any other variety, its spike gradually diminishes in its number of rows until it arrives at the maximum of the variety with which it is mixed. Examples of these mixtures are seen in #2 of twenty-two rows; #3 of twenty rows; #4 of eighteen rows; #5 of sixteen rows; #6 of fourteen rows; and #7 of twelve rows.” (“Indian Corn,” 84.)

Two other yellow corn varieties are listed: 8 row King Phillip Flint from New England and 12 row Sioux Flint Corn from the upper mid-west.  Prior to the emergence of yellow dent corns in the 1840s—Leaming’s Yellow  (originally called Clinton Corn)[x] and Yellow Dent in Ohio and Kentucky,  Yellow Gourdseed corn was the preferred variety for distilling.

The three cultivars in the USDA GRIN collection that most closely approximate the description provided by Browne are PI 414179 and PI 414183 and PI 608456 .  Until the 1870s agronomists believed that  the Yellow gourdseed “produced greater yield than any other variety in proportion to the size of the ears.  They had more starch and less protein and oil than the flint kinds.  They had more oil and flavor than the white gourdseed varieties. 

So we come to the question — why the preference among distillers for yellow corn? Ohio agronomist William D. Emerson observed, “distillers say it is richer in material for their product”.[xi] Richer both in the sense of capacity the generate spirits, and also to impart flavor.  This was a judgment formed before the orthodoxy that corn supplied neutral spirit, while wheat, rye, limestone water, and toasted barrel were where a product’s flavor derived.

Even in Samuel M’Harry’s The Practical Distiller, there is a recipe for all-corn whiskey, with the comment that sometimes one’s rye crop fails. Are there corns whose intrinsic chemistry imparts sufficient flavor in a spirit — in white dog — that no additional grain additives are needed?  This is a rhetorical question among multi-generational moonshine families.  Of course there are and the shine families maintain them: whether Leaming, Kentucky Yellow Dent, John Hauk corn, or the Appalachian Red Dent called “Master Corn”.[xii] This red corn is of historical interest because it is a parent of both Bloody Butcher and Jimmy Red, the former being a hybrid of Master and Hackberry Corn, according to antebellum botanist John Klippart,[xiii] the latter being a hooch corn that came to the Carolina Lowcountry in the post Civil War period.  Both these red corns are presently the focus of much craft distilling experimentation.[xiv]  

From the 1840s to the 1890s corn production for distillation were governed by two competing impulses: a desire among farmers to collect varieties, cross, and improve corn — a penchant that in open pollinated countryside led to more than a little chaos[xv] — and the desire to have a reliable, prolific variety that performed in predictable ways — as feed, as fodder, as mash.  While new varieties proliferated in the seed catalogs ever year post 1865, fewer and fewer corn varieties were employed by farmers for mass planting, until in the 1890s Reid’s Yellow Dent (like all dents a cross between flints and gourd seed corns), became the default corn of the Midwest corn belt, and by happenstance the go to corn of twentieth century distillers before Prohibition.[xvi]  

The end of the 19th century saw a conception of product take hold among large scale distillers. Product doctrine held that consistency was the highest good — a consistency achieved despite differences in weather, terroir, grain variety, and formulation. Food chemist David Wesson had proposed a new model for constructing mass products — there should be a taste neutral palate upon which flavor was admixed.[xvii] Wesson made cotton seed oil flavorless so that it could be universally applied to any product than required a lipid. A similar kind of reasoning took hold among distillers — the corn spirits should be a neutral basis into which rye or wheat or both would be intermixed to supply the basis for taste. There were two consequences of this reasoning — a group of distillers who realized that white dent corns provided consistently less flavored spirits than yellow dent embraced Hickory King Corn, a variety introduced by A. O. Lee of Hickory Virginia in 1880, or the higher yielding Johnson County White, when it became available in the early 20th century. Others thought that the distilling process could mute the distinctive character of yellow corn, provided that the corn employed  was grown on such broad scale in such large production that differences wrought by time, soil, and temperature were averaged out.  This contributed to the large scale  adoption of Reid’s Yellow Dent and its descendants such as No. 2 Yellow Dent. 

Since rye and wheat were so important in flavoring whiskey, bourbon, and rye, what types of rye and wheat supplied the savor?  Let’s talk about rye first, because in the two decades before Prohibition an agronomic sea change in rye cultivation took place—traditional varieties were supplanted by two introduced varieties: Abruzzi from Italy and Rosen from Russia.  In 1900 USDA Plant Hunters dispatched to Italy found Abruzzi Rye, a productive strain growing east of Rome.  Through the promotional efforts of Coker Seed and the USDA, Abruzzi had become the standard rye grown in every part of the South except West Virginia and Kentucky which embraced Rosen Rye after its introduction in 1909.  

One old rye was not supplanted — in the Lowcountry, Florida, and the Gulf coast of Alabama a heat tolerant landrace, black seed rye proved better able to withstand the growing conditions than Abruzzi. In 1986 the University of Florida released a select version of this ancient rye, FL 401, extensively used for winter forage, cover, and as a wind break, since it is tall growing.  There is reason to believe that black seed was the first rye grown extensively in the South, brought from Europe and cultivated in the colonial period.  In 1856 an agricultural historian recalled the sequence of rye varieties grown in North America:

            “The varieties of Rye are much fewer in number than those of oats, but still deserve our notice.  And first upon our list we find our old and once very “Common Blake Rye,” so called after the dark color of its grains, which made a correspondingly dark flour. This is process of time, gave way to our “Small White Rye,” and our “Large White Rye,” varieties of whose origins I can saying nothing, but I know that they have been displaying the old, little hard-grained black variety . . . , And now our country also has the famous “Multicole” Rye or Poland Rye, which was introduced to our country twelve or fifteen years ago by the Hon. William C. Rives of Virginia.”[xviii]

While the Multicole, or tillering rye is greatly important in the history of rye breeding, for our purposes, chronicling the distilling grains, the important successor to black seed rye was the large white.  Though our historian did not know the origins of this variety, there is a rich paper trail for the plant. In 1811 the first notice appears in New England, “White Rye, an entire new kind this part of the country.”[xix]  Contemporary reports give it another name, “Egyptian White Rye” and a source, Richard Peters of Pennsylvania. It was “beautiful” and it was “large.”[xx]  

E. S. Thomas of Baltimore in 1821 began the extensive shipment of Egyptian White Rye across the South, with the Carolinas a particular focus of sales.[xxi] People knew that Egypt was a fictional provenance for the rye. 

“George Albrecht raised a small amount of fine Egyptian rye this year on his place north of town.  The berry is clear and bright, almost like wheat in appearance and of large size.  The see came from Russia and the flour makes a bread almost like corn.”[xxii]  Indeed the fictional Egyptian origin became a feature of fantasy such as this Reidsville, NC, rhapsody: “Mr. W. R. Vickers . . . set his famous Egyptian rye whiskey with the pedigree.  He ways ‘the soil was ploughed and planted by Methuselah’s father — the grain was reaped by Methuselah himself — distilled at the Pyramids of Egypt by the Sphynx —watered by the river Nile — dripped through a copper worm a thousand miles long — heated by two volcanoes — shaked up by four earthquakes — drawn through the great desert of Sahara and refined —stored in the Catacombs until the flood-rescued by the Egyptians, put in Noah’s Ark, landed on top of Mount Ararat, rendered respectable by age — crowned with glories of antiquity, sampled by the monks — inspected by ten thousand revenue officers, glorified with stamps, and covered with the cobwebs of creation, was drawn by elephant teams to Vicker’s saloon in West Market street.”[VSD1] [xxiii]

So we have Egyptian White Rye Whiskey in western North Carolina in the 19th century, what about Kentucky. Well in the Bourbon News of Paris Kentucky from August through September of 1899 (a year before the discovering of Abruzzi Rye) ran multiple notices of white rye seed for sale. No other rye seed was mentioned. One notice indicated a batch came from Michigan. That speaks to a development in terms of seed supply — northern farmers took up rye seed production and managed to create lines with mammoth seed heads.  These varieties remained in cultivation until 1930. 

Now white rye is gone. There are analogs to the old Egyptian-Russian large white winter rye that endure, including the oldest regularly planted rye cultivar in the world, Sangaste, bred in 1875 in Estonia by Friedrich Georg Magnus van Berg  (then a part of the Russian empire) out of local large white rye landraces.[xxiv]  It is a divergent development that approximated the same tall habit, large head configuration of the white mammoth rye produced out of Egyptian White in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and the Dakotas at the end of the 19th century. 

And what of wheat? The American Revolution set in motion a number of developments that would cause the eclipse of the old settler wheats of the colonial era — yellow lammas and Old English White — and the rise of a trio of wheats that would dominate grain cultivation in the early republic—early white wheat (Isbell’s forward, white May wheat, rare ripe), purple straw Wheat (blue stem, mountain purple straw, early purple straw), and red may wheat (Red Wheat).

War disrupted seed production, leading to a scramble for wheat seed in the 1780s procured from every possible source.  Second, the war saw the introduction of a major pest, the Hessian Fly reportedly conveyed in the straw bedding of Hessian hired soldiers with the British Army, but just as likely to have come with English supplies. It appeared first on Long Island in 1784, and in eastern Virginia in 1785.  It spread across New York and New England, and the eastern seaboard, traversing Virginia by 1798.  The Fly had fall and Spring hatching cycles. It infested young wheat stunting its growth, inducing straw collapse and inhibiting grain formation.  Finding seed not infected by the fly, and that sprouted at times when the larval flies were not active became the foremost agronomic aims of wheat growers in the early United States.

Planting times later in autumn and harvest times earlier in Spring (late May or early June) became the keys to a wheat’s ability to make a bankable harvest.  The first of the early wheats was discovered in Carolina County Virginia by Henry Isbell III in 1787. He sent away for a batch of white wheat seed from a merchant. (In the years after the Revolution mercantile grocers handled much of the seed business in the United States.). “When his wheat was in flower,  [he] observed a single early almost ripe.  Hence he conceived an idea it might be a different species. To determine this, he carefully preserved the wheat produced by this solitary ear, which has now multiplied to such a degree, as that several thousand bushels will be produced at the next harvest, having been distributed into many hands.”[xxv]

The new wheat had a number of striking qualities:

  1. “This wheat ripens from 15 to 20 days earlier than any other”

  2. “The straw is short by one third, than that of any other kind”

  3. “The straw is encumbered by very little fodder”

Isbell’s wheat became known as “forward wheat” or “Virginia early wheat” because of the first quality; it’s short stature gained it a following because it minimized lodging (the blow down of grain in storms—a problem with tall grains).  But the greatest consequences of these attributes were that it escaped the infestation cycle of the Hessian Fly and it also evaded infection by the dreaded disease, rust. By 1796, Isbell’s seed was being shipped across the United States. Agricola of New York reported in 1800, on a comparative planting of Virginia early and red chaff:  “The Virginia wheat ripened ten days earlier than the other, its straw was one fifth less in height, and scarcely on half in bulk.  The berry was yellow, hard, large, plump and handsome.  That of the red-chaff wheat was shrunk, and did not yield more than half of the quantity of Virginia wheat on the same space of ground.”[xxvi]  Agricola calculated the Virginia yield at 42 bushels an acre. He planted on November 3.

Virginia’s great agronomist John Taylor of Carolina County in 1818 summarized its virtues and pointed out a signal liability:  “Isbell Wheat.  There are two varieties of this species bearded and unbearded.  .  .  .  Having cultivated both for many years, I have preferred the bearded for very slight reasons.  .  .  .  The characters of both are 1st. Great forwardness. —2nd. A liability once in 20 years to be injured but not destroyed by frost. —3rd. To produce every year a few black rotted heads, which do not injure the other wheat or materially effect the crop. —4th.  To be far less liable to rust than any latter species. —5th.  It requires strong land and produced on poor, worse crops than late wheats, —6th.  It is hard wheat to get out. —7th. It makes very fine flour.  —8th. It is one fourth lower than late wheats. I have for many years partly cultivated it. The high repute it once had, has diminished as lands have grown poorer.”[xxvii]  

Taylor pointed out the great problem taking place in Virginia: extractive farming (the planting of staple crops in the same fields without rotations for successive years) was leaching soil of its nutriments.  Certain grains were more sensitive to this depletion than others.  Isbell’s early wheat (which began to be called White May wheat in the 1800),[xxviii] suffered the greatest decline in productivity.  Rather than amend the soil  (the geoponic crisis would not influence southern farmers’ field practices until the mid-1820s).  A farmer from Orange County, Virginia, told what happened in 1817:  “The old White Wheat cultivated by our Fathers yielded to the forward May Wheat—that lasted a few years and the Baltimore bearded expelled it.  The latter in turn gave place the purple straw.”[xxix]

Planting staple grains in fields repeatedly until nutrition was stripped was only one dimension of the problem.  The amount of wheat being grown in the upper South exploded in the 1790s as tobacco gave way to small grains.  In 1796 an observer noted, “double the number of acres are now put down to wheat that were four years ago; and, on account of the extraordinary propitiousness of this season, it is expected that she will turn into market nearly double the quantity this year that she did last.”[xxx] Expansion of acreage and mono-cropping wheat gave rise to a host of problems: the accelerating spread of Hessian Fly, outbreaks of rust disease (in 1800), smut, and mildew. 

Rust, a fungal disease caused by Pucinnia triticina-black leaf rust, or Pucinnia striiformis-yellow leaf rust (aka stripe rust), could cause anywhere from 20 to 50% crop loss.  “In wheat ripening by the 12th of June the rust scarcely ever makes its appearance; when it ripens later than the 20th it seldom escapes.” .”.   From the 1790 onward only two wheats dependably ripened before the outbreak: “ the old white May wheat, and the early purple straw.  They came to the scythe in a very few days of each other, the former being a little the earlier of the two.  The white May was sometimes cut in the last week of May; generally the first week in June, scarcely ever later than the 10th.  It was, without doubt, the most perfect wheat ever grown in this climate, making a flour superior to any manufactured in these days, and often weighing sixty-six pounds to the bushel.  It was also very productive on rich land, frequently yielding upwards of thirty bushes to the acre.  The purple straw was equally productive, perhaps rather more so, and weighed well.”[xxxi]

A beardless soft red wheat that grows erectly atop stiff straw that colors from dark red to purple to blue when the grain achieves the dough stage, Purple Straw Wheat was developed in the Virginia Piedmont at about the time of the American Revolution.  “The blue stem or purple straw originated in Fauquier county, having been distinguished in its growth by a Mr. [Robert] Embrey.  Not being particularly acquainted with the facts in detail, I would beg leave to refer to the gentlemen living the neighborhood of Embry’s family—among others, are gen. John Blackwell, John C. Scott, and William Shuke, Esqrs and others, near the Falmouth post office.”[xxxii]

What variety of wheat Embrey was improving is difficult to determine.  Gina Brown-Guedira, the USDA’s small grain geneticist for the southeast has noted genetic similarities to North African Spring wheats.  What can be said without equivocation is that enough seed was circulating in Virginia in 1790 for agronomist John Taylor to make an extensive comparative grow-out of the variety to test productivity: “On the 10th July, 1790, a crop of wheat of 110 loads, the purple straw red wheat chiefly, was hauled home and secure in houses and stacks . . . . The load was estimated at fifteen bushels, giving for the crop 1650 bushels.  In the month of December following . . . the produce proved to be thus—White wheat 495 bushels, purple straw red wheat 1144, making a total of 1639 bushels; exhibiting minus eleven bushels only.  The land from which this crop was raised was 66 acres of fallow and 40 of corn ground, planted in the order of 4 feet by 6, two stalks to a hill; the wide rows always in the direction of N. and S. for the advantage of seeding without digging up the corn crop.” Arator[VSD2]  [John Taylor], “Indian Corn vs. Wheat,” Alexandria Gazette (June 11, 1818), 1. 

 Purple Straw’s ability to thrive on marginal soils, its ability to evade rust, its earliness, its productivity, and the quality of its flour, made it the field preference for farmers in parts of the South throughout the 19th century and into the twentieth.  Numbers of times rival wheats were put forward by farmers with the aim of supplanting purple straw’s place—Lawler wheat, Hunton Wheat, Maryland-Pennsylvania Yellow Bearded—and all failed.  It found strong champions—Edmund Ruffin, the agriculturist and editor, spent the 1830s improving the seed.  He explained why no other wheat could supplant it:  “We prefer the mountain purple straw to any other kind of wheat, and sow of it altogether; not on account of its being considered more productive, but because its peculiar disadvantages may be obviated by using proper care, and it will better withstand the dangers which no care can guard against.  Its great advantage consists in the ripe grain being able to bear more exposure to wet weather, than any white, or bearded red wheat: and where we make large crops out wheat is exposed in the field from the beginning of reaping to the end of thrashing.  Besides this important ground for preference, this kind of wheat is heavier than the bearded, and makes better flour.” Indeed, for yielding flour, it is said by some of the most experienced millers to be inferior to no other kind—though the flour of white wheat sells better, merely because it is of a purer white.”[xxxiii] Ruffin’s efforts insured that enough Purple Straw seed was dispersed throughout the South that the disruptions of seed production in the South caused by the Civil War would not imperil the variety.  The White May would, in contrast, suffer.  

The multiplication of pest and pathogen pressures over the first half of the 19th century set farmers experimenting.  New wheat strains were imported from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.  Planting different kinds of wheat side by side and “crossing” wheat—selecting out mutations—and by the mid century—intentionally breeding wheat for specific traits.  The most important southern breeding initiative involved crossing the landrace yellow lammas with White May to create Red May Wheat. 

The yellow lammas (old lamme, or red lammas) was an English landrace that had a short red berry and produced yellowish flour.  It had the liability of coming to maturity at times when rust plagued southern fields.  Crossing it with Isbell’s Early White May Wheat gave rise to Red May sometime between 1825 and 1830 near Amelia, Virginia.  It had features of both—the sensitivity to soil quality, short stature,  and earliness of the White May, the short head, coloration, and plump berry of the yellow lammas.  Agronomist James Killibrew gave a portrait of the wheat after it had been in general cultivation for a quarter century:  “This is a most excellent variety, but varies very much in yield.  On the alluvial bottoms it will give 20 to 25 bushels, while on rich up lands 10 to 12 bushels per acres is considered a good yield.  It has a short head, short straw, small berry. . . . It is not much liable to any of the diseases to which wheat is heir.  It is a very certain crop, though not the heaviest.  It does not tiller well, and hence must be sown thicker than the usual kinds.[xxxiv]  

The popularity of Red May Wheat arose from virtues not immediately apparent in its two parent strains: extraordinary drought tolerance and great cold tolerance.  An 1843 letter to the Southern Planter attested to Red May’s resilience and won the wheat general admiration including its adoption by the Shaker communities in the South as their standard winter wheat in the antebellum period.[xxxv]  

White May, Purple Straw Wheat, and Red May Wheat were direct responses to the rise of a new set of field conditions that prevailed in the upper South after the American Revolution.  Each possessed virtues that kept it long in cultivation despite the introduction of foreign wheat varieties that promised well:  Canadian white Flint Wheat, Mediterranean Wheat, Yellow Bearded Wheat.  All would survive into the 21st century and have become the linchpins for restored southern heirloom winter wheat. 

In summary, what do we know about what corn made up classic whiskey, bourbon, and rye in the century after the American Revolution?

  •  In the 18th century it was made of whatever corn was available, black seed rye, and red/yellow lammas wheat. 

  • From 1810 to 1850 it was made with yellow gourdseed corn, Egyptian  White Rye, and Purple Straw Wheat or in the 1840s Red May Wheat.

  • From 1850 to 1890 is was made from yellow dent corn, Egyptian White Rye, and Red May Wheat or some other red winter wheat. 

  • All of these components grains survive somewhere in North America, except Egyptian White Rye.  There is, however, an analog for that as well. 


 [i] Anthony Boucherie, “Of the Distiller of Whiskey,” The Art of Making Whisky so as to Obtain a Better, Purer, Cheaper and Greater quantity of Spirit from a Given Quantity of Grain (Lexington, KY: Worsley & Smith, 1819). Boucherie had visited distilleries the United States before returning to France where he published this treatise in French; it was translated by C. M. and published in Lexington.

[ii] Diary of Jonathan Taylor from August 1794 through Oct. 24,1794, Mss. A T243j, The Filson Historical Society.

[iii] Samuel M’Harry, The Practical Distiller: or an Introduction to Making Whiskey, Gin, Brandy and Spirits (Harrisburg: Wyeth, 1809), 65.  See also Michael Krafft, The American Distiller (Philadelphia, 1804), 55-57.

[iv] That being said, distillers in the earliest decades of southern whiskey making tended to use whatever was available and in surplus, including corn husks, in creating their product. It was only when the retail market for whiskey made the quality of produce a price issue (let’s say 1815 or so), that the lessons about grain quality, grind, water quality, and barrel preparation went from principle to practice. 

[v] Some botanical taxonomists have taken to categorizing gourd seed corn as a dent corn, since it was a soft corn suited for milling.  But at no time prior to the creation of gourd-seed / flint crosses was the term dent ever applied to them.  The descriptor “dent” was first used by farmers in the 1830s precisely for those crosses and does not become general in print until 1840 when it begins appearing with some frequency.  

[vi] Kay Baker Gaston, “Tennessee Distilleries: Their Rise, Fall, and Re-Emergence,” Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association 12 (1999),

[vii] Henry G. Crowgey, Kentucky Bourbon, The Early Years of Whiskeymaking (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2008).

[viii] Peter A Brown, “Indian Corn, an Essay on Indian Corn,” The Farmer & Gardener, and Live-Stock Breeder and Manager (July 11, 1837), 84-85.

[ix] “Wanted—Corn, Rye, and Barley,” Kentucky Gazette (April 20, 1833), 3.

[x] Leaming Golden Dent Corn—an improved dent corn secured by Christopher Leaming (1777-1850) “from off a flat boat at Columbia, Hamilton County, Ohio.” The original cobs were a landrace yellow gourdseed hailing from the mouth of Bullskin Creek on the Ohio River, probably of Native American origin. “A Brief History of the Celebrated Cereal,” Wilmington News-Journal (Wilmington OH) 15 Oct 1879, 2.    The original landrace was reputed to be pale yellow and small cobbed.  It was called “little yellow.” Christopher’s son, Jacob S. Leaming (1815-1888) spent decades improving the strain by seed selection until it achieved its prize winning configuration: “A short thick stalk tapering from the ground to the tassel, earing very low on the stalk, that succors but little, but when it does nearly every succor has a good ear.” The stalks bore one or two ears of 16 to 24 rows of golden dent kernels on a red cob. The rows could be quite irregular. Because the kernels were large Leaming had a good reputation as a field/feed corn.  It ripened ten to fourteen days earlier than other dent varieties in the mid-19th century.    It spread into New York and New England during the 1850s.  In 1878 it won the silver medal for corn at the Universal Exposition at Paris. In 1904 it won the grand prize at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

[xi] William D. Emerson, History and Incidents of Indian Corn (Cincinnati 1878). 148.

[xii] “Master is from Tennessee, and is so distinct as to maintain its character when mixed with other sorts, upon which it leaves its impress, and hence the name it bears.  The grains are rather deep, dented, sound, though not heavy.  Each stalk produces one of two ears, and each ear up to twelve rows.  It is from medium to large size, dull red color, early, and is a soft variety.”  John H. Klippart, The Wheat Plant (Cincinnati: Moore, Wilstach, & Keys Co., 1860), 668. It is probably related to the Shawnee Flame corn. 

[xiii] John H. Klippart, The Wheat Plant (Cincinnati: Moore, Wilstach, & Keys Co., 1860), 666.

[xiv] Jill Neimark, “From Hooch to Haute Cuisine: A Nearly Extinct Bootlegger’s Corn Gets a Second Shot,” The Salt NPR (January 2, 2018):

[xv] In 1848 Isaac Fowler of Erie County Ohio wrote to the agriculture secretary of the U. S. Patent office, “In the year 1839, I planted one and a half acrews of ground with three different kinds of corn, half acre of china, half acre yellow gourd seed, half acrew white flint . . . when I commenced with that corn [China] it was a flint corn; from seven years’ use, it has become so closely allied to gourd seed that the kernel is very much dented, and the ears from twelf to twenty rows.  The same remarks hold good in relation to white flint.” “Experiments in the Culture of Indian Corn,” Genesee Farmer (July 1848), 168.

[xvi] C. Wayne Smith, Javier Bertran, E. C. A. Runge, Corn: Origin, History, Technology, and Production (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2004), 167.

[xvii] David S. Shields, Southern Provisions The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 301-04.

[xviii] “Rye Varieties, Dollar Newspaper Philadelphia (May 26, 1858), 4.

[xix] Hampshire Federalist (September 19, 1811), 3.

[xx] Berkshire Reporter (November 2, 1811), 3.

[xxi] Charleston City Gazette (October 20, 1821), 4.

[xxii] Jamestown Alert, (September 19, 1895), 6.

[xxiii] “Rambler at Reidsveille” The Western NC  Sentinel (January 10, 1884), 1.

[xxiv] Rolf H. J. Schlegel, Rye: Genetics, Breeding, and Cultivation (Boca Raton, London, New York: CRC Press, 2014), 236.

[xxv] “An account of a new species of wheat,” General Advertiser (May 4, 1794), 1.

[xxvi]“ To the Editor of the Monthly Magazine,” The Monthly Magazine (May 1800), 328.

[xxvii] John Taylor, “Communicated for the American Farmer by G. W. Jeffreys,” American Farmer (February 2, 1821), 374-75.

[xxviii] The first use of “May Wheat” to designate Isbell’s forward white wheat took place in  “Extract of a letter from Manchester, Virginia dated June 12, 1800,” New-York Gazette (June 26, 1800), 2.

[xxix]“A Farmer, Orange,” Richmond Enquirer (July 8, 1817), 4.


[xxx] New York Herald (July 27, 1796), 1. 

[xxxi] S., “Petersburg Letter,” Richmond Dispatch (October 17, 1868), 5. 

[xxxii] Fauquier, “Mssrs, Gales & Seaton,” National Intelligencer (July 1, 1817), 1.  

[xxxiii] Edmund Ruffin, Farmer’s Register (October 1835), 382.

[xxxiv] James Killibrew,Wheat Culture in Tennessee, (Nashville: The America Company, 1877), 253.

[xxxv]“Red May Wheat,” Southern Planter (October 1843), 236.


 [VSD2]ˆis this meant to be narrator?

Mighty Sweet Rice: Inland and Garden Rice in the 20th Century

Written by James H. Tuten

Pounding rice in Orangeburg, S.C.

Pounding rice in Orangeburg, S.C.

Rice cultivation has an unbroken tradition in small or garden plots around parts of the African Diaspora from Sierra Leone to the hill rice in Trinidad. In the old Rice Kingdom of the United States, however, where Carolina Gold once dominated, an emphasis on commercial production or plantation agriculture obscured the history of garden rice.

Although commercial rice production ended in the late 1920s or very early 1930s, rice growing for personal use is nearly an unbroken tradition here too. After emancipation, when the Gullah faced a choice on whether to grow rice, relocate, or remain in place and grow other crops, many chose to be involved in rice. They maintained a connection to rice as commercial growers and garden plot growers and they sustained tradition through their foodways.

A look at small plot rice growers in South Carolina establishes a connection with that aspect of the African Diaspora not only during the era of the enslavement or plantation production in the half-century or so after emancipation but well into the 20th century. 

At several junctures, especially in the decade that we call Reconstruction in the U.S., from 1865-1876, and again in the 20th century as commercial-scale production concluded on rice plantations, rice growers faced inflection points where they had to decide whether to continue growing rice.

These contingent moments further include both a choice about sticking with commercial growing or to grow rice for home consumption. Gullah people were choosing change or continuity with rice. 

Commercial or Plantation Rice Culture

First we will consider the sustained interest that Gullah people had for sticking with commercial rice cultivation. Two reasons for this were that many of them had pride in place and in rice growing skill. Before we get to those reasons I want to stipulate that people like the way a field of rice looks. Agricultural people, farmers, typically admire the visuals of their crops. Growers and even visitors to the Rice Kingdom openly applauded the look of rice. 

The aesthetics of rice fields under cultivation affected visitors and planters alike. Near the end of the antebellum era T. Addison Richards reported in Harpers magazine on his visit to the Lowcountry. “[F]ew are they who know aught of the graceful grain, living, blossoming, and ripening into golden beauty in its native fields,” he declared. He considered rice to be the “most beautiful ... of the great family of grains.” [T. Addison Richards, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1859) 721-738]

Other visitors noted the visual effect of rice and the plantation fields. During Reconstruction Edward King investigated the region as a journalist and waxed eloquent on what he found.

“Beautiful were the broad and carefully cultivated acres, stretching miles away on either side of the placid, deep, and noble Combahee; picturesque were the granaries … and novel and inspiring the vistas of the long sedge-bordered canals.” [Edward King, The Great South, 436]

Rice fields made a strong impression upon people in part because of the geometric shapes they imposed upon the landscape and the sharp relief that the waterways provided between every cultivated square. Often, too, the terrain and agricultural patterns struck viewers because they were so different from that to which they were accustomed. 

When a crop or commodity is important to a particular society, residents will often have festivals and celebratory events connected to the cultivation cycle. Those who labored through the hot and mercilessly humid summer days enjoyed the brief parties of the harvest season.

Maggie Black recounted such events: “Den when dey ge t’rough, dey hab big supper dere fa aw dem wha’ whip rice. Gi’e em aw de rice en hog head dey is e’er wan’. Man, dey’ud hab de nicest kind uv music dere.” [George P. Rawick, ed, South Carolina Narratives, vol 2 The American Slave: A Composite Biography, 1 and 2, 59]

Rice culture required participants to manipulate land and water in ways not demanded by other crops. Judith Carney captured that well by calling rice culture a “knowledge system.” Planters came to believe that only they could manage such a complex undertaking, which added to their pride of being rice planters. Their specialized knowledge enabled them to look down upon those who grew other crops. Moreover, it added to their sense of uniqueness and led them to consider the aesthetic qualities of their land and crops.

The Last Black Rice Laborers

Elizabeth Alston Pringle and the other Waccamaw Neck planters quit planting commercially as a result of a 1910 storm. However, many African Americans continued to reside on the plantations. They no longer worked at growing rice commercially, but they continued to plant small plots of rice for their own food. On Sandy Island, for example, the all-black community grew rice for domestic consumption and as a trade commodity into the late 1940s. [Vennie Deas Moore, Sandy Island: Nothing is the Same, 2-3 ]

For the African Americans who associated with rice culture either through labor alone or by virtue of both employment and abode, the cessation of planting hastened a process of migration into other employments. Over time this migration eroded many of the plantation communities.

Even so, some plantation communities lasted until after the Second World War. After 1900, with little employment left in phosphates, most black men that remained in the rural areas turned fully to timber, turpentine, or railroad work, employments previously pursued in conjunction with planting rice, cotton, and efforts to raise most of their own food. Others joined the ranks of the cotton tenants and sharecroppers, in some cases on the highlands of the same plantations where they had grown rice.

Those African Americans who remained on the rice plantations until the industry collapsed lost more than a job. Many of them appear to have stayed on the plantation because of a sense of place or an attachment to rice culture.

John Rutledge served as the supervisor of the Cheves Family plantation of Weehaw outside of Georgetown. The Cheves brothers’ focus lay with their other lands, and they allowed the houses and the banks to degrade over time. In January of 1901, traditionally the time of year when rice plantation leases were renewed, Rutledge wrote to Henry Cheves informing him of the disintegration of the plantation and of his own commitment.

"Mr Speights told me that my time is up with him he says that he cannot give me any further orders … so i write to ask you if I must continue to go round the bank to look after them. Also the empty houses the hands is moving off because there is nothing to do. I myself will never leave until I die [John Rutledge to Henry Cheves, January 5, 1901. Cheves Papers, SCHS.]

Rutledge was not a singular case. Historian Charles Joyner made an important point with a quote from Ben Horry, a rice growing man born in slavery: “slavery time people done something!”

They had, as Joyner made clear, a sense of ownership of the land because they knew they and their ancestors grew, cultivated and harvested the rice. Morris, also born into slavery but a man who lived well into the 20th century, told the owner of the land where he lived, Bernard Baruch, “My mammy and Daddy worked de rice fields. Dey’s buried here. De furst ting I remember are dose rice banks. De strength of dese arms and dese legs and of dis old back, Mist’ Bernie is in your rice banks.” He went on to make it clear that his connection to the plantation was such that “de ret of dis body want to be with de strength of de arms and de legs and back dat is already buried in your rice banks.” [Joyner, 42-43]

Rutledge and Morris demonstrate the strong sense of connection to the land, the crop of rice and suggests pride in managing the elegant system that produced it. Large plantations were not the only places of rice production in the Lowcountry, though. 

Upland or Interior Rice

The plantation-scale rice culture has had a number of books written about it. But that is not the only area where rice growers raised the grain. In the Pine Barrens just inland from the tidewater, former slaves and their descendants grew rice as a provision crop into the 1930s. This sparsely settled belt was less productive than the Lowcountry, and it was easier for blacks to buy small plots of land or to find tenant arrangements on largely undeveloped pine tracts. In fact, the Black Belt enjoyed a substantial increase in black population after emancipation. 

Perhaps no better example of both upland rice cultivation or the sustained commitment to rice for the kitchen exists in the Lowcountry than in the vicinity of Mars Bluff, South Carolina. In her wonderful book on the subject, African American at Mars Bluff, author Amelia Wallace Vernon interviewed a number of people in the late 1980s who had learned to cultivate upland rice in garden plots.

Matthew Williamson, for example, grew rice on land that his father and his grandfather had used to cultivate rice. “The rice was a way of life at that particular time, because they made it.” [Amelia Wallace Vernon,  African American at Mars Bluff , 207]

Vernon undertook an oral history project in the Mars Bluff community 50 miles above the known tidal rice cultivation area, but still near one of South Carolina’s great rice rivers, the Pee Dee. There, up to around 1920 African Americans supplemented the sharecropping of cotton with garden plots of rice ranging from about one-third to an acre in size. They planted in low ground, trusting to rain or occasionally turning to irrigation from wells.

Vernon found at least one person who grew rice within the town limits of Florence, a medium size city in the state, all the way up to 1939. [101] Some grew wetland and some dryland rice. All grew it for their own table or to share with friends and family. But in general rice growing declined in the 1920s as a generation died or others moved away as part of the great migration of African Americans out of the South.

While Vernon believes her subjects didn’t eat the rice they grew, I find that unlikely. She does see it as an African Diaspora cultural survival. Rice was perceived as only having marginal cash value and was grown on otherwise unused lands, so a sharecropper could grow some and keep it all. There are signs that rice had been grown as a tertiary provision crop in Mars Bluff during slavery. They ate some and sold some. They kept planting it, because “that skill … had set them off as special and had given them a degree of autonomy…”[125-128]

Though rice growers in the Pine Barrens did not always make the grain central to their foodways, rice did carry some of the same symbolic content that it had in the Lowcountry rice kingdom.

Vernon’s research suggests that whites, more than blacks, maintained a rice kitchen around Mars Bluff. The African Americans in the area that raised rice, but only occasionally ate it, grew it because it conferred status upon them as farmers. 

In other words, African Americans, like white rice planters, gained some degree of self-respect and status from the greater technological and agricultural complexity involved in growing rice as opposed to cotton or corn.  [Vernon, African Americans at Mars Bluff, 127-128]

Another method for getting at the production of rice for home use is the Census of Agriculture. For my purposes here I focused on the data for 1934 and 1939.

The old rice plantation counties still had many small, non-commercial rice growers during the Great Depression, a decade to a quarter century after commercial-scale cultivation ended. For example, Beaufort County had over 400 farms reporting rice on a total of 380 acres. That indicates small plots of an acre or less in. Similarly, Charleston had 379 farms amounting to 323 acres of rice. The figures for broadly uniform for the old coastal counties. 

Rice Production in Rice Kingdom, 1934

407 farms223379324125174433
380 acres208323422166329872
1294 bbl6681448115441422992566

Source: U.S. Census of Agriculture 1940

What the Agriculture Census also shows is a precipitous decline in the garden plot rice during the Great Depression. Five years later, in 1939, the number of rice farmers, acres and barrels grown had fallen by half or more in each county. 

As important for us to notice, though, is the inland rice production by small farmers. The chart on inland counties reveals that in 1934 Orangeburg County, pretty far inland, grew more rice than two of the counties in the rice kingdom. These were mostly small-scale growers continuing a tradition of inland production in the pine belt that had existed at least since Reconstruction. Research by Coclanis and Marlow shows that the rice growers were nearly evenly divided between black and white rice growers. 

Although the agricultural census quit recording such small non-commercial levels of production in 1940, that is not positive evidence that no one grew rice anymore. A broad and concerted effort to document inland garden crops of rice just might reveal but a short break in rice growing. For example, to my surprise I recently learned that African-American farmer Snowden Buckner routinely planted a quarter acre of rice along the Salkehatchie Highway in Hampton County into the middle 1950s. [Henry Tuten interview, 1-29-17]

Regardless of race, the dominant place of rice eating — the rice kitchen— and rice growing re-shaped society so that after emancipation both members of the African diaspora and white South Carolinians had rice as part of their agricultural and culinary heritage. That is why they kept growing it for another 70 years or more. 

Rice Production Inland Counties, 1934

29 farms691247652334129
38 acres78215684651997
73 bbl1645632101021012237

Source: U.S. Census of Agriculture 1940

Over the years between 1865 and 1940, one-time rice growers repeatedly asked themselves whether their economic interests, the lack of civil rights, and the allure of cities in the South or the North amounted to enough of an invitation to migrate from country to town and out of the region altogether. 

Migration certainly meant an end to personal rice production.

A second choice was whether to keep or to let go of the rice kitchen. For those who moved to New York, Chicago, Detroit, or Los Angeles, some chose to let go of some elements of that rural past and other Americans, white and black, denigrated migrants’ dialects and culinary cultures and encouraged conformity to mass culture. Emory Campbell wrote of the “masking of Gullah culture” both outside the South and even among fellow African Americans when in Savannah.

In some cases shame of being rural in a society promoting urban superiority, a desire to embrace modern lifestyles and move away from the past led to abandonment of rice eating" as some of us will tend to divorce ourselves from rice meals,” Campbell observed, “except an occasional Chinese rice dinner.” [Campbell, 287]

It seems that most African American families in the Lowcountry, however, did keep a rice kitchen and continued to rely on rice as their staple food up to the present day. While a corn-based diet predominated in much of the cotton South, Ben Horry stated that on the plantation where he labored as a slave they “never have much grits…have fine rice.” [Rawick, Supplement, Series 1, Volume 11, 197.]

Likewise, for Gabriel Washington, born into slavery on a rice plantation, gardening included rice that he ate every evening as late as 1939. [Charles Von Ohsen, “Gabriel Washington: Life History” South Carolina Writer’s Project (c-10 SC, Box 2)] Maggie Black, another interviewee, noted the difference between the brown rice pounded on the plantation and the bleached rice she bought in the 1930s, remembering “it wuz mighty sweet rice, honey, mighty sweet rice.” [Rawick, SC 1&2, 59]

Many black families such as Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s maintained their culinary traditions despite migrating out of the Lowcountry. Smart-Gosvenor, born in the Lowcountry, wrote as recently as 1970, “And speaking of rice. I was 16 years old before I knew that everyone didn’t eat rice every day. Us being Geechees, we had rice everyday. When you said what you were eating for dinner, you always assumed that rice was there.” Today the South continues to be a major market for rice and most of the major rice markets are east of the Mississippi River. White families that left the area also kept this link to their heritage. [Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, Vibration Cooking or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, Second ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992). 6,7-10.] 

Similarly, Emory Campbell, born and raised on Hilton Head and long-time leader of Penn Center recalled of growing up that to be Gullah meant he assumed he would always have “an affinity for rice dishes; rice was a part of every dinner meal (…) sometime eaten with okra, ‘matoes, and prawns.” [Emory Campbell in Phillip Morgan, African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry, 283-4] Alexander Small put his attachment to a rice kitchen in this context: 

Since daddy was a Geechee in the truest sense, no meal could be served without fluffy Carolina long grain rice. (I’d seen him leave the table, refusing to come back, until my mother, who was trying to break the habit, made him some.) [Alexander Smalls and Hettie Jones, Grace the Table: Stories and Recipes From My Southern Revival 3.]

The Great Depression and World War brought many changes — and here I speculate — that the decline in rice cultivation in the 1930s is attributable to multiple causes including seed rice becoming harder to attain, land ownership loss during the depression, the disruption of the war and the economic boom afterward with lots of cheap rice. 

I suspect these factors worked together to bring about the decline. Today though, small rice growing has begun a rebound thanks in no small part to the work of David Shields and the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, and chefs such as BJ Dennis who value local and heritage ingredients and from whom many others of us take our cues about food. 

A Compendium of Traditional Grains of the Coastal South

In 2004 the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation formed to renew the agriculture that gave rise to the rice-centered cuisine of the Lowcountry from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida.  The revival of the cereals stood at the center of the work the Foundation undertook — not just the rice, but the biscuit wheat, the whiskey rye, the high-power oats bred for race horses, and meal, sweet, and flint corns. 

We sought the enduring staples — the row crops whose virtues were so profound that they remained in use for generations. In 2004 we did not know what those enduring grains were, aside from Carolina Gold Rice. Research in 19th-century agricultural journals gave us an outline that served as a guide to restoration in 2006-2007. Yet our picture of the full scheme of cereal production did not come into final focus until 2013-14. 

Read More

Does the Original Sweet Corn of North America Survive?

Written by David Shields

Sweet corn arose out of mutations that caused three strains of maize to pack kernels with dextrin, a sugar, rather than starch. On the Peru-Argentina border, Chullpi became the special grain of Kolla people. In Mexico, Maiz Dulce was the ancestor of the various sweet corn varieties there. In the Iroquois homeland in New York sometime about 1750 a strain of their white flint meal corn mutated form a sweet corn they named Papoon. In 1779 it was seized as a spoil of war by Lt. Richard Bagnal of Poor’s Brigade during the American Revolution. 

It was sweet, rather soft, and wrinkled. The original strain had a red cob, though this was bred out of the North American sweets by 1800. Improved and cross-bred varieties began appearing in number during he 1850s. Old Colony and Stowell’s Evergreen dominated the gardens (sweet corn tended to be grown as a garden crop, not a field crop). Stowell’s was the favorite sweet corn for a century, although in 1890 Country Gentleman Shoepeg corn ran a strong second.  Silver Queen, introduced in the 1950s, made the two earlier corns less popular. 

Has Papoon corn disappeared? It is not among the seven Six Nations corns surviving the USDA grains collection. The Current Iroquois White Corn repatriation project is devoted to the white flour corn, not the sweet. 

It seems implausible to me that it has disappeared completely. Both Chullpi and Mais Dulce — more ancient grains — survive in cultivation. Papoon apparently does not. While there are landraces belonging to the northeastern family of sweets recognized in the USDA GRIN, none of them fits with the descriptions found in the early accounts of the corn.

Chestnut Pig Barbecue, November 16, 2013

Written By David S. Shields

Originally Published in the Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2014


The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation (CGRF), while devoted to the restoration of the crop central to the Lowcountry rice kitchen, has taken as its mission the restoration of the co-crops of Carolina Gold, and the other ingredients that made up classic Southern cuisine. The Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, and Jacksonville markets before the 20th century were filled with fruits and nuts, beginning with loquats in March and continuing around the calendar to Christmas oranges and January tangerines. The autumn bounty of chestnuts coming from the hill and mountain country was a regular feature of these foodways, until the coming of chestnut blight and phytophthora, twin plagues that wiped out the vast eastern forests of American chestnut and decimated its dwarf cousin, the chinquapin.

The CGRF has been greatly interested in reviving the chestnut foodways that had once been common in our region. This chestnut legacy has been reduced to holiday “chestnuts roasting o’re an open fire” and chestnut stuffing for the Thanksgiving turkey. We have recovered recipes for chestnut grits, chestnut skillet bread, chestnut soufflé, and chestnut pudding (with rose water). But as glories of the southern table went, none of these dishes competed with the most cherished dishes — chestnut-fed pork barbecue and chestnut-fed venison.

When word filtered up from Florida that two wild pigs had been seen grazing in a widow grove of Dunstan (a hybrid American-Chinese chestnut popularized as edible landscape in the 1950s), Glenn Roberts, president of the CGRF, sent a request that they be penned in. And so two pigs gorged on fallen nuts until they had grown sufficiently fat to warrant a truck trip southward. Glenn hauled two ornery fat pigs into South Carolina, and on November 14, 2013 they were handed over to 601 Deer and Hog Processing in Fort Motte, S.C., for butchering. One of the pigs would be handed over to Chuck Ross and James Helms for barbecuing. Master charcutier Craig Diehl drove up from Charleston to take charge of the second pig for curing.

I arrived at 601 Processing on the afternoon of November 15 and found the son of the proprietor and Craig deep in a consultation on the quickest way to cut certain venison joints. These weeks in November constitute the crush time of 601. In the 20 minutes I was present, two and a half deer were disemboweled, skinned, and broken down. The bloody skeletons lay stacked in a corner crying out for a chef’s stock pot, but because of the game sale laws, no go. I did, however, learn that a substantial portion of the deer harvest is donated to Harvest Hope. That charity does not waste its materials.

The hog had been skinned when we arrived. (Alas, no cracklin’s for the guests.) Craig was tremendously enthused about the fat quality of the pig. It was admirable, and the meat itself robustly red-pink. Craig sliced through it quickly, his knife work singularly precise and quick. I told him to do his curing of the meat in ways that seem appropriate to the quality he found. We parted, and the proprietor commented that quite a number of chestnuts grew on a nearby ridge and that he has seen wild hogs in the vicinity. He then informed me that he is one of only four processors given a state permit to process wild pigs.

On Saturday morning of the barbecue I made three of the four barbecue sauces — the standard Lowcountry mustard, the classic Hemingway, S.C., vinegar and pepper, muscadine vinegar sorghum tomato and pepper, and there was blueberry as well. I wound up using Joseph Trapp’s sorghum rather than the Lindler. I brought several jars of Bradford watermelon pickle. I also made a cucumber, tomato, dill, and onion salad dressed with benne oil and good madeira vinegar. I arrived at Oldfields Plantation in Hopkins, S.C., the site of the barbecue at noon. Mike Davis of Terra Restaurant was already present with the chestnut skillet bread. 

The pig had been smoking for a good while and the compound was fragrant with the smell of smouldering chestnut husks. Much of the next two hours was consumed in setting up water stations, scrubbing down the tables, laying out the food displays. Chuck had begun the process of cutting the meat off the lustrously browned hog. He was the soul of self-control, refusing to taste until I, James, and Heidi Cooley, the head of the film crew, had partaken. Glenn Roberts, the provider of the pig, alas, was out in the field, unable to be present. So I had to report long distance that there was a distinct quality to the meat, an earthly basic flavor, a fine, almost floral fatty sweetness, and a long finish in the mouth. It was moist, tender, and the caramelized portions startling in their nuttiness.

There was, of course, hash with Carolina Gold Rice.

The first guests to arrive — some of host Ted Hopkins’s friends — were fascinated with the stories connected with the food, and ready with their cups when I broke out my sake bottle. (Sake is better than beer or bourbon as a complement to barbecue). Nathalie Dupree, her husband Jack Bass, and their passenger, Hanna Raskin arrived precisely at 2:00 and Nathalie went directly to the cutting station, going for some gnawing bones. For a half an hour the guests arrived, milled about, ogled the food (the panniers from the Palmetto Pig were covered, but the salads, cured loin I brought, and pickles were available for nibbling). Most guests gravitated to Michael Peterson’s chestnut basket where he peeled and hand fed a cluster of eager eaters. After Ted Hopkins arrived at 2:25, we were ready to begin. By this time there were approximately 50 persons present, including numbers from the press.

After a blessing, the panniers were uncovered, the lines quickly formed. The rhapsody on chestnuts and chestnut-fed pigs had people’s gastric juices percolating. Chad Carter appeared suddenly bearing a number of Bradford Watermelon pickle varieties and gummi-treats.

James Helms made sure a portion of the meat and sauce were secured for pig provider Glenn Roberts upon his return. There was not much left at the end of the feast. We had gauged the invitations to food ratio well. It took a little over an hour to clean up. A splendid sunny day turned to dark slowly with a spectacular sunset over a wonderful countryside.

Southerners had tasted that day the first chestnut fed barbecued pig available in the South in a century.

A Book on the History of Rice Processing Technology Gets Published

written by David Shields

originally published in the Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2014


It is with great pride and delight that the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation announces publication of Richard Porcher & William Judd’s The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice, a history of the technology of rice processing. This landmark presentation of the many structures and machines developed from the 18th through the 19th century for the growth, harvesting, hulling, and milling of Carolina Rice supplies a comprehensive view of the immense expenditure of capital the exercise of mechanical ingenuity entailed in making Carolina Gold a world crop.

Professor emeritus of biology at the Citadel and board member of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, Porcher examined the material remains of virtually all of the significant plantations in the region. Judd, his collaborator, is a draughtsman who has performed miracles of interpretation, taking ruins and jumbled knots of rust and translating them to schematic drawings of a variety of machines. These illustrations are impressive in their clarity and detail. They contribute greatly to one of Porcher’s theses — that the old canard that the South lacked mechanical genius and industrial development was patently false. The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice traces the historical development of a vertically integrated scheme of processing the equal of any sugar refinery in Barbados or Jamaica.

The organization of The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice derives from the order of labors requisite siting, formation, irrigation, planting, weeding, harvesting, and soil renovation of a plantation, then the process of the harvest — the cutting, drying, threshing, screening, milling, and polishing of the rice. The authors recount both the processes involved and the material means by which they were accomplished. 

As Porcher demonstrates, only he has explored the several sorts of evidence needed to do this work: he alone of the several students of rice culture has visited the important historical sites, including the difficult-to-reach marsh islands in the Santee River, to record the remnants of the fields and the ruins of milling infrastructure there. Numbers of objects he photographed and measured 30 years ago have disappeared from the landscape. In parallel with these material evidences, Porcher delved into Southern archives for written commentary on the methods, examined U.S. Patent Office records for drawings of machines, and sifted through the extensive corpus of agricultural literature published in the many farming periodicals of the 19th century for his reconstructions. Having explored the literary evidence extensively myself, I can attest to the depth of the research involved here. All of the most informed contemporary commentators are given preference in citations, while the testimonies of a great number of experienced planters and inventors flesh out the narrative.

Rice culture as a subject has inspired several masterworks of historical interpretation. Porcher & Judd’s The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice joins that distinguished list of essential volumes. The monograph was published by the University of South Carolina Press and released in summer of 2014.

Part 3 — Orton Plantation Rice Production: Heirloom Rice Foodways, Farming, and Cultural Notes

Written By Glenn Roberts, David S. Shields, & B. Merle Shepard

Originally Published in the Rice Paper Newsletter, Spring 2012


Heirloom Rice Foodways, Farming, and Cultural Notes

Carolina Gold rice market farming created a unique set of foods that eventually evolved into a complete cuisine. Sweet potatoes, brassicas, oats, barley, buckwheat, benne, emmer, bread rye, wheats, maize, cowpeas, broad beans, etc. were involved at the height of 19th century science supported market farming in an elegant sequence of mixed crop rotation prior to industrialization. We have completely lost these combinations and rotations in modern times. These rice crop rotation crops formed the cuisine associated with our market farming and eventually attained stature in Europe and on our tables. 

There is renewed interest in our rice cuisine, known today as the Carolina Rice Kitchen, and all of the plants and systems that once vaulted it onto the global stage. Dr. Shields is about to publish a definitive work on the plants and foods of our 19th century market farming. There has been explosive media interest in Carolina (including North and South) rice cuisine in the last 18 months since Dr. Shepard, Dr. Khush, and Dr. McClung released their new rice “Charleston Gold.”

We are witnessing our youth becoming aware of their own food legacies and we see them returning by the tens of thousands to their local tables nationally. This phenomenon is moving ahead with alacrity and is constant in homes, farmers markets, food kiosks, and restaurants. Everyone in the “older” generation in our major urban centers where these food systems are beginning to take hold economically, is adapting or being left behind. In the South, particularly the Virginia to Southern Georgia region, there is renewed global interest in our local food heritage beyond urban gardening and hobby cropping for the first time since the mid-nineteenth century. There are growing clusters of nascent heritage food farmers encircling our larger cities. 

The latest Southern entry onto the world stage sourcing quality ingredients from this movement is Husk Restaurant in Charleston and Husk’s Chef Sean Brock. Brock is equally a farmer and a chef and has been featured in major media here, in Europe and in Asia more than any other American chef over the last year. Brock’s food philosophy, garnered from his time with Dr. Shields, marries local food history and Brock’s modern locale. Brock is reviving lost foods at a rapid clip. Husk restaurant is living the Carolina Rice Kitchen and they are booked solid 30 days in advance right now. Brock is unabashedly drawing Carolina Rice and its companion foods back into the Southern pantry while the world watches.

Orton should be a major presence in this grand movement toward sense of place and local identity. Simply, there is deep cultural meaning in repatriating North Carolina rice for the people of North Carolina. Our rices were always Carolina rices. They were the legacy of the Lowcountry without cultural borders.

Comment on Landrace Genetics and Farming

Most modern breeders are focusing upon nano and GMO seed improvement and many of our young geneticists are no longer working in the public realm. It would be folly to deny that we must address carrying capacity and the rising challenge to feed a growing global population. This is a given within our pursuits.

But we are aware of adaptive weaknesses in these modern systems. The CGRF set out at our inception to explore our mission scientifically and apply the results to modern rice agriculture systems. We know that landrace cereals regress in small populations and can exhibit more vigor and new traits in large populations. We are also aware that large cereal populations increase frequency of beneficial mutation and sporting in unintuitive ways. We know that there is little chance for this genetic expression in a seed bank replication plot, especially when the stated purpose of the plot is true type replication.

Our position on landrace farming is that we should all keep focused upon the mission to feed the world while leaving scientific and practical breathing room to support and study landrace plant systems that have been adapting to pest pressure and climate change in larger populations for centuries and many times millennia. 

The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation is following this mission to the letter. Dr. Shepard, Dr. Khush, and Dr. McClung cooperated, pro bono, to develop Charleston Gold Rice, an effort stretching nearly a decade and a half. Last year, 100 acres of commercial Charleston Gold Rice came to harvest. This year, over 300 acres of Charleston Gold rice will go in and interest is growing. We expect over 500 acres for 2013.

Landrace plant systems are based upon survival through vigor and flavor. Dr. Shepard, et al, have certainly imbued Charleston Gold Rice with the best flavor traits of Carolina Gold Rice while improving its vigor and field performance four fold.

One last comment. Drayton recorded over 100 varieties of landrace rices grown in the Carolinas by 1800. All of our efforts should be focused upon obtaining local landrace rice food security by diversifying beyond the two rices we have in production now.

Interpretation — Heirloom Rice Agriculture and Culture

The cultural interpretation of rice husbandry at Drayton Hall, Magnolia Plantation, Middleton Place, and Brookgreen Gardens is impressive and enjoys international presence and respect. But none have working fields. Middleton Place stands alone in interpretation of Antebellum rice husbandry with a small plot of Carolina Gold rice below the butterfly ponds. The Middleton Place staff employs only authentic manual tillage with period implements, heel and toe manual planting, and manual harvest, threshing, pounding and winnowing... all with authentic implements. Middleton also engages authentic rice art and crafts, elite and common rice music and architecture within its interpretive programs. All of these historic plantation interpretive programs present and reflect upon the historic social justice issues and interpretive aspects of slavery as well.

But there are no scaled up interpretation fields of heirloom Carolina Gold Rice in America and no interpretation program focuses upon the importance of separate seed protocols in landrace rice husbandry. There is a growing awareness that the massive contributions and tribulations of slavery will not be embraced with respect to Antebellum rice production until a true vista of a working Antebellum rice field in scale can be part of our national experience. Orton Plantation, of all the Antebellum rice plantations, possesses this vista if her rice fields return to their original purpose, Carolina Gold Rice seed research and production. Orton’s facility and potential presence of scale are unmatched with respect to our surviving collection of Antebellum rice field landmarks.

Landrace Rice Seed — Demonstration of Need

The rapid increase of local food gardening and farming continues unabated across America. This movement is driving the establishment of mid-scale local and regional food hubs and is accelerating demand for local niche rices here in the South and elsewhere in America. In South Carolina and Georgia, these food hubs have lacked mid-scale cereal post-harvest handling and processing capabilities and there is no infra- structure for rice seed processing. In North Carolina, a similar deficit has impeded local cereal production. The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation helped develop a mid-scale heirloom rice seed cleaning, processing, and storage facility located in central South Carolina beginning in 2010.This facility is now operational.

We’re not aware that there is a local fully equipped facility for heirloom rice seed or production processing in North Carolina or Georgia at this time. There is a color sorter in the 2013 budget of the central South Carolina seed facility which will bring it fully online for quality seed (a dedicated color sorter is essential for rice seed quality and weedy rice prevention management, especially in landrace rice seed systems).

Regarding landrace rice seed production: There is no certified foundation rice seed production facility in North Carolina, South Carolina, or Georgia at this time, even though we have access to sufficient breeder seed stock to support at least one now. We envision the need for mid-scale certified foundation rice seed and rice production, processing and storage facilities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia by 2015 based upon current growth rates and the unpredictability of rice seed supply in the United States.

Orton Plantation is strategically and geographically situated to maximize rice seed and production security (if it is in production) against catastrophic loss due to storms in South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas. This was Orton Plantation’s strategic role during the first half of the 19th century as well. Without Orton, we cannot achieve rice seed and production continuity in our region in the future.

Landrace Rice Seed Market — Demonstration of Need

The growth of acreage planted to Carolina Gold and Charleston Gold production rice is about 10 percent per year over the last four years as the market for heirloom niche rices accelerates nationally. Landrace (heirloom) Carolina Gold Rice seed and Charleston Gold Rice seed, produced in head row, breeder, and certified foundation protocols has been produced only in one facility in the USA, the Texas Rice Improvement Association in Beaumont, Texas.

As of January this year, head row and breeder Carolina Gold and Charleston Gold Rice seed stock will be grown out at Dale Bumpers Institute in Stuttgart, Ark., only. TRIA will continue to produce certified foundation seed from DPI breeder. The CGRF asked TRIA to produce 300 cwt each of 2011 Certified Foundation Carolina Gold Rice seed and Charleston Gold Rice seed to serve niche landrace rice growers in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Texas. The CGRF produces an additional 300 cwt VNS rice seed per year to assist in seed availability and act as reserve against catastrophic loss.

The niche rice market is growing rapidly and this season, record acreage of Carolina Gold Rice and Charleston Gold Rice will be planted in the aforementioned Southern states. These acreages are split evenly between conventional and organic rice production management. TRIA will reach their maximum security allocation for Carolina Gold and Charleston Gold certified foundation seed production in 2014. We estimate this at 500/cwt for each rice. The CGRF has capability of producing another 500 cwt VNS as a backup. Although we may have additional VNS capability for these rices, we will need additional sources for certified foundation heirloom rice seed thereafter.

This overview does not account for our new variety research programs for Carolina Long Rice, a black Tribute rice and the Italian cultivar associated with first rices at Caw Caw wilderness south of Charlestowne by Italian growers in the late 1600s, tall straw Italian heirloom rices including Vialone Nano.

Having only one certified foundation seed production facility for the growing number of Carolina Gold and Charleston Gold rice farmers in the South is an increasing security risk. A hurricane in Beaumont could easily wipe out a year’s seed production. Weather completely wiped out our seed crops at TRIA once in the last decade and took down half of our seed crop two years ago.

The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation is funding the establishment of 50 acres of seed protocol fields off the Savannah River fed by well system and protected from coastal storm systems to a fair degree.

We need Orton rice seed production for strategic security against catastrophic loss as a landrace seed facility at the very least. We also project demand for local rice in North Carolina will grow vertically, once available. We advocate for the restoration of Orton Plantation’s full array of fields for rice seed production and, especially, Orton’s larger fields because they can be deployed for scale-up field trials to be able to assess genetic stability in landrace rice seed.

Part 2 — Orton Plantation Rice Production: Golden Seed Rice History

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]

PART 1 — Orton Plantation Rice Production: Past, Present & Future

Written By Glenn Roberts, David S. Shields, & B. Merle Shepard

Originally Published in the Rice Paper Newsletter, Spring 2012


Between 1700 and 1775 no colony in British America experienced more impressive growth than North Carolina, and no region within the colony developed as rapidly as the Lower Cape Fear. Totally uninhabited by Europeans in 1700, this isolated corner of North Carolina's southern coast is particularly noteworthy for its relatively late colonization and its rapid rise to economic prominence, first settled in 1725, the region grew to be the most prosperous in North Carolina by 1775. The study of the eighteenth-century settlement of the Lower Cape Fear is a prime example for understanding North Carolina and the entirety of colonial America as a patchwork of regional cultures (Bradford, J Wood, 2004).

One family, the Moore’s, proved to be pivotal in the development of the Lower Cape Fear. During early 1700s they shaped the regions political and economic importance within North Carolina. The Moores provide an instructive if exceptional example. As the most powerful family in the region, they articulated an elite model of behavior many other families no doubt emulated. The Moores, like many other settlers, clearly developed impressive and complex kinship ties to the Lower Cape Fear. Maurice and Roger Moore were powerful men, coming from one of South Carolina’s most prominent families. Maurice’s father, James Moore, came to South Carolina from Barbados in the 1670s and served as Governor of South Carolina between 1700 and 1703. These connections insured that two of the 10 siblings, Maurice and Roger, would become wealthy and influential plantation owners.

Orton and Kendall plantations were created on lands granted by the Lords Proprietors in 1725 to Maurice Moore, who along with brothers Roger, Nathaniel, and a group of settlers founded Brunswick Town (now within Historic Brunswick Town District). Maurice established lands further up river and passed ownership of the land to Roger. Although the Moore’s had originally emigrated from Ireland via Barbados, Orton and Kendall were named after the Moore’s ancestral homes in the Lake district of North of England. 

Roger Moore was among the first settlers to build a distinctive plantation system along the Cape Fear River. Some fragmentary business accounts reveal that by 1735 Moore already exported lumber, turpentine, and wood shingles from Lower Cape Fear. At this time Moore also traded with connections in both South Carolina and Barbados.

These accounts probably provide only a small glimpse of the range of activities on Moore’s Orton & Kendall plantations. Fifteen years later, Moore’s will revealed that his resources included “Twenty Odd Thousand Acres of Land & Near Two Hundred and Fifty Slaves,” making him almost certainly the wealthiest plantation owner in North Carolina.

Sometime between 1726 and 1730 Roger Moore established a modest house on the 10,000-acre site to be called Orton. The house was burned down by Cree Indians and his next home was established on neighboring land, which subsequently became Kendal Plantation. However, by 1735 he had moved his family to a more suitable brick mansion situated on the original Orton house site. Over time and subsequent ownerships the original brick structure was enveloped and extended to create a Greek Revival Antebellum house that is one of the most recognized in North Carolina today.

Orton Plantation’s rice fields as seen today were constructed sometime between 1726 and 1750 together with the damming and construction of Orton pond, which was essential as a reserve to supply the rice fields with water. 

The pond and rice field layout is recorded on many early historic navigation plans of the Cape Fear River. Research is ongoing and current thinking suggests that the ‘back’ rice fields contiguous to Orton pond, protected by higher ground and most easily fortified against the brackish Cape Fear River, were developed first as a beta test site to experiment with rice cultivation. 

Due to their success, a large dike impoundment was built out into a shallow portion of the Cape Fear River. This was equipped with extensive irrigation and water control structures to modulate water levels. At the same time sluices drained the fresh water of Orton pond through a series of paddies and canals within the original “Back” rice fields to the 200-plus acres of rice fields that provide the magnificent foreground view from the front of the plantation house. Although cultivation of rice and other crops has been intermittent in the last few decades, the original system of water controls, sluices, canals, and embankments are largely in place and functional.

Orton was the first rice plantation in the Lower Cape Fear Region and one of the largest in North Carolina and because of his vast land holdings, Roger Moore was referred to as “King” Roger. The amount of slave labor that was needed to build the original pond and back rice fields was significant, but with commercial success even more slaves were imported to build out and cultivate the massive front rice fields. This horrendous and cruel labor system gave way after the Civil War to large agrarian employment and eventually more mechanized cultivation.

Upon his death in 1750, Moore left his Orton and Kendal estates and 250 slaves to his sons, half-brothers George and William. William died seven years later and passed Orton to wife Mary and son Roger (the younger). Orton was thereafter passed through various ownerships:

  • Richard Quince: 1770-1796.
  • Benjamin Smith: 1796-1826, grandson of Roger Moore and Governor of North Carolina (1810- 11). 1800, Brunswick census lists 199 slaves
  • Dr Fredrick Jones Hill: 1826-1854. 1830 Brunswick census lists 55 slaves. 1850 census shows profitable Sawmill, Corn mill and Rice Threshing Machine producing 15000 bushels of rough rice (annual production of 325,000 pounds of Rice) with 77 slaves
  • Thomas Calezance Miller: 1854-1872. Rice plantation flourishes until end of Civil War. 1860 Brunswick census lists 144 slaves in 40 houses.
  • Isaac B Grainger: 1874 -1876
  • Currer Richardson Roundell: Feb 1876- July 1876
  • Col. Kenneth McKenzie Murchison: 1884 -1909
  • Luola Murchison Sprunt and James Sprunt: 1909-1924
  • James Laurance Sprunt: 1924-1973
  • James Laurance Sprunt Jr., Laurance Gray Sprunt, Kenneth Murchison Sprunt, Samuel Nash Sprunt
  • 1978-2010 Louis Moore Bacon (descendant of Roger Moore), as principal of parent company to Orton Plantation Holdings LLC.

Current rehabilitation of National Register-nominated Orton Plantation house and gardens together with the proposed rehabilitation and restoration of the rice fields highlighted the need to connect the plantation house, gardens, and rice fields as one historic entity, hence the desire and importance of including the rice fields on the National Register. In order to understand the rice field systems as agricultural features, the fields should be considered in context of the plantation, plantation house, slave villages, kitchens, outbuildings, and burial grounds. As cultural landscapes, rice fields consist of interconnected systems of land, water, vegetation, and wildlife that differentiate them from other cultural resources.

The rice grown and produced at Orton was of a high quality, fine grain which was highly prized and sought after as seed rice by the larger Southern plantations. The annual production of seed rice was critical in order to maintain the vast economies and rapid growth of rice plantations in the Southern states. Orton and other Lower Cape Fear plantations were a key factor in the maintaining the development and success of the Southern-based rice economy. Orton Rice fields have the potential to be primary sources from which researchers can gain understanding about Colonial and Antebellum periods of North Carolina and the Cape Fear Region.

Extensive slave labor made the economic development of the Lower Cape Fear possible and the circumstances surrounding slavery did as much to differentiate the Lower Cape Fear from other regions as anything else. Contemporaries acknowledged that there were many more slaves in the region than could be found on inland territories. Although fiercely independent of South Carolina, Governance and Tax structure, Lower Cape Fear rice plantations, represented the most northerly position of the Carolina Lowcountry and is known as the upper most limit of the “Deep South.”

Orton's rice fields are the last of the many rice plantations of North Carolina. They stand as tangible record of the skill and labor exerted by enslaved laborers. Although the noted Civil War battlefields of Fort Fisher and Fort Anderson flank the southern boundary of Orton, the reason for the war itself was the demands of the slave labor practice that built and cultivated the plantation's rice fields that will hopefully be restored as its own 'battleground' testimony.