Lowcountry’s orange groves gone with the frost

  • Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A woodcut from Samuel Pepys’ diary (1640) of a woman in London selling oranges. PHOTO PROVIDED

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Here’s something to think about while you’re enjoying that cool glass of frozen-fresh orange juice with your morning paper. Imagine that the year is 1724. You are a wealthy Charlestonian planning a banquet, a formal affair with multiple courses. Following the suckling pig and just before the partridge, you need a course to cleanse the palate. Oranges would do, you think. Yes, a pyramid of sweet oranges, peeled and sliced, perhaps decorated with an array of crystallized fruit.

Ah, but the closest orange grove is a thousand miles away. Remember, this is 1724. There is no Piggy Wiggly right around the corner. Oranges are a luxury. But you, a person of wealth, would willingly pay a pretty penny to have oranges at your soiree. In fact, you’d pay top dollar. You’d invest as much on oranges as you’d spend for the two dozen bottles of champagne which would accompany that one course.

If you’ve ever wondered why there is an “Orange Street” in downtown Charleston and why West Ashley has “Orange Grove Road,” the previous scenario offers an answer. Just as we enjoy oranges in our day and time, so did those who lived in earlier centuries. The problem in those days of sailing ships, however, was getting them here. Consequently, it wasn’t long before those with an astute sense of supply and demand began to experiment with growing oranges. Moreover, with the city’s direct trade links to London, Boston and New York, a person might make a small fortune by supplying such cities with fresh oranges.

One of these men was merchant Robert Pringle. Pringle had already made a tidy bundle importing and exporting goods and specialties. Pringle was also somewhat of an amateur botanist. The cultivation of oranges intrigued him as much as their economic potential. Establishing a small orange grove behind his house on Tradd Street, Pringle made his first major harvest of over 10,000 oranges in 1744. He wrote his brother, Andrew, “This Province having been for Some years past improving in the Planting of Orange Trees, especially in this Town & about it, so now they have brought them to Such Maturity that this Year a Very Considerable Quantity of Oranges are produc’d.” He went on to explain that he was exporting his oranges to the northern colonies for sale on trial and, “there is a Sloop now Going to New York which will have 200 Chests of Oranges on Board on Freight for Sale, whereof which I am One of the Adventurers, My Garden having produc’d Ten thousand Oranges & Upwards.”

Orange groves were soon established throughout the Lowcountry. The eminently successful merchant, Henry Laurens, also began to experiment with the cultivation and exportation of oranges. When Captain John Gasçoigne advertised his Mt. Edgecombe plantation on Hog Island (now Patriot’s Point) for sale in 1734, a major selling point was the grove of orange trees. When the island was later owned by Stephen Townsend it had an orange grove of more than 1,000 trees. In 1747, some 296,000 oranges were exported from Charleston. It looked as if oranges might become a profitable, regular export. Then, in January 1748, the Lowcountry was hit with a disastrous cold spell. “We have very Lately had a severe Frost,” wrote Laurens, “which in one Night has to present appearance destroy’d all our Orange Trees, so that I fear we shall have none of that Fruit of our own Growth for two or three Years hereafter.” He went on to say that he had, himself, grown a large crop in his own garden, but being a “Batchelor & no house Keeper, I have given to one & another till I have not Left myself an Orange, & since that Frost the Price is advanc’d 100 per Cent & but few to be had anywhere....” In fact, according to the book, Early American Winters, the freeze of February 17, 1748, was the coldest period in Charleston during the 18th century. The temperature was recorded at a frigid ten degrees above zero

Undaunted, the growers tried again. By 1758, Pringle was exporting another 10,000 oranges from his garden. Then, in January 1766, Charleston was hit by another cold spell, this time accompanied by a deep snow. “The frost has been excessive here” wrote the now-married Henry Laurens, adding that the blast was the worst in 19 years. “Mrs. Lauren’s Garden suffer’d greatly during the extremity of the weather but it begins to recover its former aspect, except the Orange Trees. If those do not revive we shall be much in the dumps.”

It wasn’t simply oranges the colony was losing from the cold. What was being grown in Charleston were good oranges, oranges with an exceptionally sweet taste and which demanded higher prices. These were the so-called Seville or “sweet” oranges, unlike the tart, “sour” oranges imported from the Caribbean. The following year Charleston was hit with yet another frigid blast of arctic air. Enough was enough. One finds very few references to oranges in either Pringle’s “Letterbook” or Henry Laurens’ papers after this date. In 1767, the former Orange Garden section of downtown Charleston (bounded by Tradd, King, Broad and Logan streets) was divided into lots and Orange Street was laid out, giving access to lots for homes.

In 1817, visitor Ebenezer Hazzard stayed at the home of the Reverend Dr. Aaron Whitney Leland and wrote that in his garden was “...a large orange tree almost killed by the uncommon cold of the last winter.” He added that a Colonel So goes the story of orange growing in Charleston. It is a story of “gone with the cold,” not the wind. All that remains today of this period in Charleston’s agricultural history are street names. Yes, a pyramid of sweet oranges would do. They would do very nicely, indeed.

Suzannah Smith Miles is a writer and Lowcountry and Civil War historian.

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