Families Ties

Each day on my tour, I typically show people the work of Sweetgrass basket weavers such as Betty Manigualt and Marilyn Dingle. Both Betty and Marilyn learned this ancient African weaving method as children, carrying on a long-standing tradition that has been handed down among local families for many generations. I have also been fortunate to have as friends the Wigfall family out in Six Mile, and have been invited on several occasions to document their interesting work in keeping this art work alive. The Wigfalls showed me how they gathered sweetgrass by hand in wetlands on Dewees Island, where they had to stoop over bundles of the wispy green plant and reach down into areas where cottonmouth moccasins often lurk. The key is to twist the bundles of sweetgrass above the roots and harvest it in a way that the plant can continue to grow. The grass has to be dried before weaving, and one of the more interesting methods that the Wigfalls used was to throw bundles up on a gable roof to dry in the sun without blowing away. We also cut some palmetto fronds and bull rush as well as picking up long leaf pine, all of which complement the sweetgrass in a typical basket.
I’ve learned from all the weavers that stitching all these materials together is a laborious process that take a great deal of patience and skill. I was particularly impressed that Betty and Marilyn learned to stitch as children using 10-penny nails and beef bones. Today, most weavers stitch with a broken fork or spoon handle that is filed down to a narrow point, and they still call the tool a “nailbone”, with the obvious reference to days when all their enslaved ancestors had to work with was a discarded nail or animal bone.
The Wigfall’s have a family Marilyn sets up along the sidewalk next to St. Michael’s church, where she weaves in front of passersby. She is a very good-natured person who has been weaving for 64 years, so I tell people on the tour that she started when she was two, which always gets a laugh out of her. Betty is also a very pleasant, engaging person who sets up in front of the Historic Charleston Foundation shop at 108 Meeting Street, where she weaves each day and sometimes includes her daughter and grand daughter. She always tells the tour group “come back and let’s make a deal!”
In buying sweetgrass baskets, it is a acceptable to barter, but people should remember that some of these creations are painstakingly done by hand stitch by stitch, and that some more elaborate baskets will take weeks to weave, working until hands get aching and weary. So I hope all will remember Betty, Marilyn, and the Wigfall family and that the sweetgrass tradition will remain in such good hands.

Ghost of the Whistling Doctor

Charleston is famous for stories of ghosts who supposedly haunt houses, graveyards and alleys. One of the most often-told tales is about the “Ghost of the Whistling Doctor” at 59 Church Street. After the Revolutionary War, upstairs rooms in this house were offered for rent, and a New England physician named Joseph Brown Ladd became a tenant. Dr. Ladd quickly became a recognized figure in Charleston, writing popular poetry for local publications under the pen name Arouet. The doctor was known as a pleasant individual who whistled as he walked to his office down the street, where his practice included free medical treatment for the poor from two hours each morning.
Doctor Ladd did not get along with everyone, however, and was embroiled in a heated personal dispute that ended in a deadly duel. On October 19th, 1786, a Charlestonian named Ralph Isaacs wrote a scathing public letter denouncing Dr. Ladd as a fraud and accusing him of assault with a pistol. Two days later, Ladd and Isaacs squared off with pistols behind the old barracks at the site of the present College of Charleston. Dr. Ladd was shot in both knees, which was a particularly cruel and vengeful thing for Isaacs to do. The doctor was carried back to his room at 59 Church Street, where he died of infection two weeks later.
In a story published shortly after his death, it was written that Dr. Ladd’s “soul serenely seems to soar”, and since then 59 Church Street is legendary as being haunted by Doctor Ladd’s ghostly whistling as he comes up and down the stairs and down the street. On a recent tour, a nice family from New Jersey took a picture of the house while I told the tale, and the interesting image appeared. I have always said that I know why the house is haunted. The plaque near its door tells the story, but has Dr. Ladd’s name wrong, and I think he’s just whistling in an attempt to get his name right when people pass by and read.

CHARLESTON EARTHQUAKE

The great Charleston earthquake of August 31st, 1886, was among the city’s most calamitous events, with a series of violent tremors that continued into November, killing at least 60 people, destroying or damaging thousands of buildings, and felt over 5 million square miles. Occurring before the Richter scale, geologists estimate the magnitude of the quake at 7.3, based on reports and pictures of damage.
Newspaper reports of the event mention what sounded like a massive locomotive running under ground, and giant fissures and sink holes appeared in the ground in many locations. Charleston had experienced earthquakes before and has since, but nothing has compared to the extensive damage that crumbled more than 10,000 chimneys and smashed historic buildings all over town.
The city Guard House at Broad and Meeting was so badly damaged that it was eventually razed and replaced by the Federal Post Office building that stands on the spot today. St. Michael’s Church was ripped with giant cracks in its walls and floors, and its steeple had been shaken so badly it was expected to collapse – but never did.
Open areas such as Washington Park filled up for weeks after the quake with frightened families rendered homeless by crumbling walls due to the shocks. Pulling mattresses, sheets and blankets into the public spaces that were safe from collapsing walls, Charlestonians carried on daily activites from these “tent cities”, which provided a business opportunity for my great grandfather, Paul E. Trouche, who was 19 at the time and started what would become a million-dollar retail business by selling sundry items such as handkerchiefs to those displaced in the parks.

Crescent is Gorget

South Carolina’s “palmetto flag” was officially made the state banner in 1861. The crescent and tree symbolize the defense of Charleston in 1776, shortly after the colony of South Carolina had declared its independence from England. Troops wearing the crescent symbol on their caps built a fort of palmetto logs overlooking the city’s harbor entrance on Sullivan’s Island, and their famous victory over the British on June 28, 1776 was largely attributed to the soft palmetto core that absorbed and smothered English cannonballs.

Although the crescent is recognized to be a symbol of the troops and not the moon, some disagreement persists as to its origin.

From what I have found, there seems to be little doubt that it is the “gorget.” The motif was derived from the throat plate of the medieval knight in armor, and during the 18th century became popular with King George II as a military symbol worn around the necks of English officers. One of South Carolina’s staunch loyalists was William Bull, who was named Lt. Governor by King George in 1755, and who personally designed the uniforms of a newly-reorganized South Carolina militia in 1760, adding the gorget symbol to their caps.

Bull’s own family crescent includes the gorget symbol and it was he who commissioned William Moultrie as an officer of the 2nd South Carolina regiment. Moultrie is credited with designing a crescent flag as a symbol of his troops in 1775, and he later wrote that it conformed to the crescent symbol worn on their caps.

This chain of evidence far outweighs anything that can be offered in opposition to this theory, and why I firmly stand by the research that proves the crescent comes from the gorget. Some confusion has been caused by the fact that the crescent on the state flag was tilted in the 1890’s to resemble the moon. Fortunately, one of the original flgas (and perhaps THE original state flag) still exists from the 1860’s. This large banner features a crescent straight up and down in the manner of the gorget. Ironically, this flag was stolen from the state capitol in Columbia in 1865 by Iowa troops under Sherman, who burned and ransacked that city. It is still kept at the Historical Society of Iowa, which should be willing to give back the property of a sister state (after all Iowa, wasn’t the Union “preserved” by those troops?) Thus far, no offering from Iowa, so the old flag remains in limbo.

Bull Family Crest1860’s Flag

Pineapple Gates actually Finials

Finial detail
Pineaple Gates

 The statuesque brick single-house at 14 Legare Street is famously known for the its unusual “Pineapple” gates. Unlike the Sword Gates up the street, the namesake motif is not in swinging parts of the structure, but atop the brick frame from which the gates are hung. The main gates and two side gates are made of oak, and date to the early 1800’s when the house was built by James Simmons. He sold the house in 1815 to George Edwards, a wealthy shipping merchant who imported, among others goods, a hugely-popular novelty of the post-Revolutionary period called pineapple cheese.

    Pineapples had been become symbolic of gracious hospitality since the 1670’s, when King Charles II famously posed for a painting in which he was presented a luscious fruit borne from America. In the years  that followed, pineapple motifs appeared in wood and stone on exterior walls as a show of such hospitality. Edwards commissioned an Italian sculptor from Philadelphia to carve four stone finials his gates, which were added along with Edwards initials. Presumably Edwards asked for pineapples, which would have been the most logical motif, and in keeping with other pineapple shapes on walls and gates around old Charleston.

  Yet a close look at the so-called Pineapple Gates reveals no pineapples, but what look more like four peeled Brussels sprouts. Some writers have suggested over the years that what Edwards called for are Italian acorns, but pictures of Italian acorns look nothing like these. No, it’s safe to say that Edwards meant to get pineapples, but that his sculptor took artistic license in creating the look. It really doesn’t matter that they don’t resemble pineapples, because the “Pineapple Gates” is a misnomer anyway, as they should be more correctly called “The Pineapple Finials”.

Fireproof Building…not!

We call the Romanesque Revival structure at the Northwest corner of Washington Park the Fireproof Building – even though it has actually caught fire.

 The massive building with the Roman “tetra” style portico (that’s four columns) was designed by Charleston native Robert Mills as the winning entry for a city competition to create a non-combustible structure to house official documents. The area on which the Fireproof building was finished in 1827 had been home to a brick beef market, and had burned twice in 1796, and city officials simply left it open as a fire break. In 1801, an Adamesque style Federal bank was built on the site of the old beef market, but when it closed and was sold to Charleston, it became our City Hall in 1818, and the open area behind it was designated as City Hall Park.

 An architectural competition ensued to build a structure on the park opposite the new City Hall that would be impervious to fire, and Mills’ design was the winner. He created a two-story building on a raised basement that would feature Neo-Classical features built of red sandstone, brick, iron and glass. As the Fireproof Building, the temple-like building famously survived through fire, bombardment, and earthquake as one of Charleston’s iconic structures, and became home to the South Carolina Historical Society after World War II.

  Ironically, or woodenly, the building’s simple fire insurance policy was allowed to lapse, and sure enough, an office fire swept through its furnishings, paper and interior framing in 1955, scarring the old edifice.

The Fireproof Building

  The Fireproof Building survives today with name intact, but its legacy as a structure impervious to burning has certainly gone down in flames.

Memories of the Dock Street Theatre

Cast of "Relatively Speaking"
Dock Street Theatre

Performances at The Dock Street Theatre are held on Church Street at the original stage location on Queen Street – a confusing past with which I have a personal history.

  The first American structure built for theatrical performances was opened in 1736 on a street originally known for its shipping docks, but two years before, the city had flattered King George II by redubbing the street in honor of his expecting wife Anne, but the theatre continued to be called by the old street name.

  The term Dock Street lived on, but the building was short-lived, destroyed by fire in 1754. Rebuilt and damaged by fire again, the property was sold in 1809 as part of The Planter’s Hotel, whose entrance was around the corner on Church Street, but did include a small stage in keeping with other city taverns and public dining rooms of that era that often featured itinerant actors, singers and acrobats.

   The hotel was refurbished during the mid 19th century with distinctive ribbed brownstone columns and an intricate second-floor balcony, on which Charleston horse-racing jet-set were known to gather after events for libations that local legend says included a concoction called Planters Punch.

   With a fading post-Civil War economy and more modern hotel competition, the old structure entered the 20th century like many faded Charleston landmarks – dilapidated and ripe for demolition. A plan to revive the long-vanished theater would bring salvation in the form of a federal grant from the depression-era New Deal program, and in 1937, a The Dock Street Theatre reopened with a performance of The Recruiting Officer – the same play performed when the theatre first raised its curtains in 1736.  The new theatre has performed far better than its original namesake, as home to local stage companies and host to musical and theatrical events for more than a century. First of these community companies was the Footlight Players, and as a “footlight” I played leading roles in five plays on the Dock Street stage, incuding this picture from “The Match Maker”. That’s me in the upper right, flanked by from left to right, Kit Lyons, Jo Anne Marcell, and Oliver Bowman.

Sword Gates

Sword Gates 32 Legare Street

The famous Sword Gates at 32 Legare Street offer one historic case in which misinterpretation of the English language proved to be Charleston’s blessing. In 1838, city authorities commissioned German-born ironsmith Christopher Werner to create a “pair of gates” for the old Guard House at the corner of Meeting and Broad streets.

  Werner apparently assumed that meant two separate gates, rather than two halves of the same gate. He diligently went to work with his apprentices, pounding out an incredibly detailed pair of wrought iron masterpieces that featured two large swords facing inward horizontally on either side, as well as spears pointing vertically on either side. Both motifs were old Roman symbols of strength and power, well-suited for the Guard House, which was home to the city police.

  Upon presentation to the city, Werner was informed that there was only need for one set of “gates”, not two separate ones. One set was mounted at the entrance to the Guard House, and the other was put up for sale. Merchant George Hopley bought the extra gates for his home on Legare Street, replacing a large wooden gate that dated to the early 19th century, when Madame Talvande kept the house as an academy for young girls from elite families.

  Hopley’s gates survive today as the most photographed and famed set of gates in a city renowned for wrought iron, and no doubt add significantly to the $23 million price tag on 32 Legare today. The original Guard House gates were removed from the Broad Street location after the building was severely damaged in the earthquake of 1886 that wrecked much of old Charleston. The police were moved to the Central Station on Hutson street in 1887, and the gates were put in storage, eventually to be remounted at the Citadel, when the military academy moved from Marion Square to its present site along the Ashley River. Today, those gates, painted gold, flank the entrance to the campus, but are not as imposing because they are separated by the street entrance.

 As it turns out, the unwanted extra gates are by far the most noticed and famous today, all thanks to a slight misunderstanding in 1838.

St. Michael’s Steeple

St. Michael's painted during Civil War

The gleaming Spire of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church stands as a great testimonial to Charleston’s ability to survive disaster. The belfry on the 1761 church was used for many years as a fire lookout. A “steepleman” was posted in the open arcaded area, and if he saw evidence of a fire, would go down the narrow stairs to the “ringing room” and pull eight strokes on a rope attached to the largest bell above. This 1900-pound bell could be heard throughout the old city, and firemen on the old “engine companies” were trained to listen for the signal. From almost any vantage point, they could have seen St. Michael’s steeple, and the steepleman’s next job was to climb back up to the arcade, light a lantern, and hang it on a pole pointing in the direction of the fire. This method was used until the city put up separate fire bell towers in the 1880’s as part of Charleston’s first municipal fire department.

  S. Michael’s steeple was also used during wars as a military look-out, manned by local soldiers during the Revolution and War Between the States to observe besieging forces around Charleston. By 1863, Union troops on Morris Island were bombarding the city regularly with rifled cannons that could easily hit the glaring target that St. Michael;s made, so the city painted church and steeple a slate gray so that it would blend in with the horizon from a distance.

  Since the bombardment in the 1860’s, the steeple survived direct hits during the earthquake of 1886, when it was supported with huge beams to prevent its collapse, and when a 1938 hurricane struck on ironically, St. Michael’s Day, Sept. 29th.

Stars and Bars/Battle Flag

Stars and Bars
Confederate Battle Flag

 As we approach the sesquicentennial of the firing on Fort Sumter and the remembrance of Charleston’s Confederate history, I’d like to clarify the popular names of famous Southern flags that are often confused. Many people have heard the name “Stars and Bars” and understandably associate that name with the famed Confederate banner that features the blue cross of St. Andrews on a red field, with white trim and white stars. In fact the “Stars and Bars” is the first national Confederate flag, created in March, 1861, featuring red and white “bars”, or stripes, and seven stars inside a blue field in the dexter corner.

There were four versions of the Stars and Bars, representing differing numbers of stars for states in the Confederacy, or sympathizing with the Confederacy at different times during the War Between the States.

The St. Andrews cross flag is the Confederate battle flag, which was first unfurled in November, 1861, as a soldier’s flag. It was created to distinguish Confederates from Union troops, whose Stars and Stripes and Stars and Bars looked similar when hanging limp from a flag pole. Originally, the army battle flag was square, with navy blue in its cross, or saltire, and the rectangular version was actually first created as a naval jack for ships, with a brighter blue saltire. But the rectangular flag became popular among many infantry units, and what is commonly flown today has the navy blue cross.