In Search of Bessie Pringle
A guest post by author Dorothy Love about her new book Carolina Gold, inspired by the life of a female rice planter in South Carolina.
Construction traffic on Highway 17 north of Charleston has made me late for my appointment with Captain Rod Singleton, who is to be my guide for a day of exploration on the storied Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers. But when I arrive at the waterfront in Georgetown, he’s there waiting. We board his small motorboat and head up the Sampit River to the Pee Dee.
For a novel set on a fictional Lowcountry rice plantation, I’m interested in a firsthand look at several antebellum rice plantations still standing along the banks of the tobacco-colored river. But my primary interest is Chicora Wood. Built by Robert F.W. Allston, a wealthy rice planter and governor of South Carolina, Chicora Wood is one of seven of the Allstons rice plantations comprising 15,000 acres that once produced millions of pounds of the superior strain of rice called Carolina Gold.
By the time Mr. Allston died in 1864, he was debt-ridden and bankrupt. Union gunboats had made regular forays upriver. Federal troops and former slaves stripped the house of doors, windows, woodwork. As his wife complained in a letter to Colonel Brown, the commander of U.S. forces in Georgetown in March of 1865, “not an article was left in the house, neither bed or sheet, table or chair.”
After the war, Allston’s daughter, Elizabeth Allston Pringle, called Bessie, was left to regain the property and position the family had once enjoyed. Bessie Pringle, a widow, returned to Chicora Wood to resume rice planting, relying on contracts with former slaves to supply the intense labor required to grow rice.
On this bright June morning, I’m following Bessie’s footsteps in hopes of learning more about her and her work.
Beginning in 1903, Bessie wrote a series of newspaper columns for the New York Sun, describing the difficulties of rice planting, her changed relationships with her father’s former slaves and the deplorable conditions in the Lowcountry during Reconstruction. Ten years later, she compiled her newspaper columns into a single volume called A Woman Rice Planter, published under the pseudonym Patience Pennington. It was the discovery of this book 10 years ago that fueled my desire to write a novel inspired by Bessie’s extraordinary life. In a time when many Southerners still held onto the Victorian notions of womanhood, Bessie revealed herself as a smart businesswoman, determined to succeed at what most people thought of as a man’s work.
As we head upriver, Captain Singleton, himself a devotee of Mrs. Pringle’s life and work, adds more detail to what I already know. We approach Chicora Wood, shining white in the harsh summer sunlight, and my breath catches. The imposing house with its deep piazza overlooking the river is even more beautiful than I imagined. As we cruise slowly past the original rice mill house and the remains of the old trunks — wooden gates that were used to flood and drain the rice fields — I can almost see Bessie standing there, one hand shading her eyes, worrying about whether a coming “freshet” will wipe out her crop.
Since I have chosen to set “Fairhaven,” my fictional version of Chicora Wood, on the adjacent Waccamaw River, we leave Chicora Wood. Captain Singleton nudges the boat through a narrow cut dotted with acid- green water lilies, and we emerge onto the broad and beautiful Waccamaw. I’m studying my maps and scribbling in my notebook, trying to capture it all as my guide points out a huge osprey’s nest so strong it survived a hurricane. He gives me a history lesson on the dozens of plantations that once flourished on the river. We cruise past Caledonia Plantation, now a private golfing club, and Captain Singleton laments the loss of so much of the land to private hands.
Back in Georgetown, he points me toward a local restaurant serving authentic Lowcountry fare and leaves me to my musings. This trip has only increased my admiration for Bessie Pringle. While my novel, Carolina Gold, is not a fictionalized account of her life, it is her life that has held me in thrall for more than 10 years. I hope the novel pays tribute to her courage and intelligence.
Bessie Pringle died on December 5, 1921. Her obituary noted that she passed away “at the scene of her life’s labors in the beautiful home overlooking the river”… and that her passing would be “read with sorrow by hundreds who had been entertained and strengthened by her published works … and had come to look upon her as almost belonging to their circle of friends.”
After spending so many years researching and writing the novel she inspired, I feel the same way.
Dorothy Love is the author of Carolina Gold, which releases December 10. She lives in the Texas Hill Country but grew up in McNairy County, Tennessee, and is currently working on her 17th book.