Explore county’s history along the beautiful 11-mile Plantersville Scenic Byway
Adventurous visitors to Georgetown County, also known as South Carolina’s Hammock Coast, may be looking for something different – after enjoying the beaches, golf courses, shopping, and dining – like exploring more remote parts of the area.
Well, a great option is the Plantersville Scenic Byway, an 11-mile-long route adjacent to the Great Pee Dee River that runs along secondary roads S-22-4 and S-22-52 and winds through former rice plantations, historic church sites and even a wildlife refuge.
For Nanci Conley, these roads, less traveled than the often-jammed U.S. Highway 17 (also known as Ocean Highway), are nothing short of awe-inspiring. “The breathtaking beauty and serenity,” she said, “always blows me away.”
Conley is the chief operating officer of The Village Group, a nonprofit organization in Plantersville that promotes the scenic byway, one of 21 official Scenic Byways in South Carolina. Beyond its beauty, she notes, the area holds an important place in the history of Georgetown County.
“There is a lot of history here,” she said. “Riding down the Scenic Byway, you realize this is where the largest rice-producing area of the country was and there is still a plantation here today that produces rice.”
Rice from White House Plantation can be purchased at the Plantersville Cultural Center, a visitors center and gift shop that serves as a gateway to the community. It is located at the beginning of the Plantersville Scenic Byway at 7 Plantersville Road.
South Carolina’s Hammock Coast, as the moniker implies, is best known for its coastal areas of Pawleys Island, Litchfield Beach, Murrells Inlet and southern Garden City, but it’s also rich in history and natural beauty inland, as well.
“I have a tremendous respect for the people of the Plantersville area, the environment, the beauty of the wildlife, as well as the tranquility, peace and quiet,” Conley said. “People can come to the Plantersville Cultural Center, relax, rent bikes, use the picnic area, and view beautiful local artwork.”
Marsh Deane, a former intern with the Village Group who now owns his own photography and videography company, MLNL Media, has explored and photographed areas along the Plantersville Scenic Byway for years. But, he said, in a county that boasts some of the most beautiful beaches on the East Coast and even a dozen, highly rated golf courses, the Plantersville areas is often overlooked.
“It is definitely a favorite area for me, with a lot of go-to spots,” he said. “There are a number of beautiful old plantations to visit, as well as well-known landmarks like Old Gunn Church.”
There’s even a legend surrounding the towering ruins of Prince Frederick’s Chapel, known as Old Gunn Church. It’s said to be haunted by the Gunn brothers, who were rebuilding the chapel after the original structure was destroyed by fire in the early 1800s.
“During construction or renovations, the Gunn brothers were working on the roof when they both fell and died,” Deane explained. “Alcohol, an argument and a physical confrontation were involved.”
Deane said he even experienced what he felt was a paranormal encounter while photographing the façade of the chapel late one night.
“I was taking photos when I heard something moving in the darkness behind me,” he said. “I can tell you that I got out of there as quickly as I could.”
Conley agreed that chapel ruins is an interesting place to visit, tantalizingly adding, “Some people say it has a life of its own.”
But there’s certainly more to Plantersville than ghostly legends. Its natural beauty takes center stage along the Samworth Wildlife Management Area, which includes the former Dirleton Plantation.
“There you’ll find walking trails, natural amenities, preserved rice fields, and more,” Deane said. “It is a nice spot to get a closeup look at rice culture.”
Samworth Wildlife Management Area, a 1,588-acre tract of land in the Plantersville area, was a gift to the public from Thomas G. Samworth, accoreding to sctrails.net. Originally 500 acres in 1962, Samworth Wildlife Management Area has increased to 1,588 acres through state acquisitions (1963-1966) and North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant acquisitions (1996).
Currently, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources manages about 1,300 acres of wetland impoundments, 200 acres of uplands and agricultural fields and 88 acres of longleaf pine. A public boat launch, hunting and fishing opportunities, bird watching opportunities, a nature trail and river access for canoeing and kayaking are all available on this property.
Other former rice plantations in the area include Bates Hill Plantation, Belle Rive Plantation, Breakwater Plantation, Chicora Wood Plantation, Exchange Plantation, Glenmore Plantation, Guendalos Plantation (also called Bereen’s Plantation), Hasty Point Plantation, Holly Grove Plantation, Rosebank Plantation (also called Ditchford Plantation), Springfield Plantation, and White House Plantation.
Conley warns that people who are visiting the area need to keep in mind that many of these former plantations are private and off-limits to the public, other than what can be seen from the road. She urges people to check for signs before venturing into these areas.
The Plantersville Scenic Byway is one of 21 official scenic roadways in South Carolina, four designated as National Scenic Byways and 17 designated as State Scenic Byways by the federal government through the National Scenic Byways Program. That program is a voluntary, community-based program administered through the Federal Highway Administration to recognize, protect, and promote America’s most outstanding roads. Through their state departments of transportation, communities can apply for designation as a State or National Scenic Byway.
The four National Scenic Byways in South Carolina are: Ashley River Road, Cherokee Foothills, Edisto Island, and Savannah River. State Scenic Byways in South Carolina, in addition to the one in Plantersville, are: Bohicket Road, Cowpens Battlefield, Edisto Beach, Falling Waters, Fort Johnson Road, Hilton Head Scenic Highway, Hilton Head Island Scenic Highway, Long Point Road, Mathis Ferry Road, May River, McTeer Bridge, Old Sheldon Church, Riverland Drive, SC 170 Scenic Highway, US 21 Scenic Highway, and Western York Scenic Byway.
According to the National Scenic Byways Foundation website, nsbfoundation.com, there are 150 roads in 46 states designated as either National Scenic Byways or All – American Roads as of 2020. To be considered for designation as a National Scenic Byway, a road must exhibit one or more of six core intrinsic qualities— scenic, natural, historic, recreational, archaeological, or cultural – contributing toward a unique travel experience. The byway must also demonstrate substantial community support and develop a corridor management plan that describes the preservation, marketing, and improvement strategies for the byway.
All-American Roads are the very best of the National Scenic Byways, so it must meet the same criteria as a National Scenic Byway but possess multiple intrinsic qualities of national significance. The byway must be considered a destination and reason for travel unto itself.
Officials with South Carolina Department of Transportation who are involved with the Scenic Byways Program urge people to explore these scenic byways and others throughout the country.
“Scenic Byways are a great way to get off the beaten path,” said Amy Blinson, scenic byways coordinator for SCDOT. “Some people are interested in taking a slower drive than the interstate, a route that highlights the natural beauty of an area, and they call them scenic byways for a reason.”
Hal Stevenson, chairman of the South Carolina Scenic Highways Committee, helped designate the scenic byway in the Plantersville community about five years ago.
“I had no idea about that section of Georgetown County,” Stevenson said. “My impression of it was an absolutely gorgeous area that was a real throwback in history to Colonial days when the river was life.”
He suggests that people visiting the area and looking for things to do in Georgetown County away from the coastal areas should not miss exploring the Plantersville Scenic Byway. “Anyone visiting Huntington Beach State Park or Brookgreen Gardens should take a day trip to check out this scenic byway,” he said.
First established in 1991 by Congress in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, the National Scenic Byways Program was strengthened by the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century in 1998 and the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act – A Legacy for Users in 2005.
The first designations were announced in September of 1996. Designations continued for the next 13 years until the last designations were made in October of 2009. Funding was cut for the program in 2012, but in 2019, Scenic America led an advocacy effort to revitalize the program, which culminated in the passage of the Reviving America’s Scenic Byways Act.
In December 2020, the 116th Congress passed a stimulus bill, which included authorizing $16 million in funding for the Scenic Byways program, its first dedicated funding since 2012. The program’s future funding will be addressed by the 117th Congress.
Conley urges people to attend the annual Tour de Plantersville Discovery Ride & Cultural Festival, to be held on Saturday, Oct. 30, in 2021, so they can experience the scenic byway themselves. Registration is now open for 12-, 25- or 62-mile bike rides along the scenic byway and surrounding areas. She noted that the bike ride is not a race.
“The Tour de Plantersville is a wonderful opportunity for people of all ages to come out and take a leisurely ride through a very historic area,” Conley said. “It is a wonderful event for everyone. You don’t want to miss it.”
For more information about the National Scenic Byways Program, visit nsbfoundation.com. For a map of scenic byways by state, visit www.fhwa.dot.gov/byways/.
By Clayton Stairs/tourism manager for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce
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