The Gardens Near the Beach
Climb out of those beach chairs, put down the sun screen, and take a small side trip.
For those of you traveling to the Myrtle Beach, S.C., area this summer, please take some time to explore the spellbinding Brookgreen Gardens. Tucked just below the giant beach resort on Route 17, the gardens, once the site of four Southern rice plantations, is now the largest collection of outdoor figurative American sculpture in the world.
When we visited recently, we first watched a 10-minute film, “Gray Oaks of Mystery,” to get an overview, then strolled for several hours by massive Spanish moss-laden live oaks and bald cypress; old-fashioned flowers bordering splashing fountains; and, of course, amazing sculptures of playing children, fairies, and the classic man-fighting-beast.
We then took a pontoon boat cruise down tributaries of the Waccamaw River, past sleeping (maybe) alligators and blue herons to learn the plantations’ history. The narrator described how English settlers from Barbados wanted to expand their rice plantations, and found the right environment here. Rice is not an easy crop, and the farms were literally built and harvested on the sweat of African slaves. After the Civil War, the plantation owners struggled; and then a series of hurricanes forced them to abandon the land.
The stately homes and gardens were deserted for many years, until 1931, when artists Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington – he helped build the first transcontinental railroad – bought the land to preserve the gardens and history, and display American sculpture.
Aside from the rambling trails, there also is a labyrinth, a zoo, restaurants, and special exhibits. While we were there, there was an exhibit of “The Wild West in American Art.” It will be there until July 22. As the brochure states: “This exhibit presents the panorama of western life as seen through artists’ views” and includes a piece by well known Western artist Frederic Remington and an amazing artwork by Michael Naranjo, a bronze titled “White Buffalo’s Vision.”
Naranjo was blinded by a grenade and lost the use of a hand in Vietnam. He began to mold clay while recuperating and, today, uses touch and memory to give his art delightful movement and detail. A number of the artworks in the gardens have patriotic themes or were originally designed as war memorials.
There is so much to see and do at Brookgreen that the admission tickets are good for seven consecutive days. The mission of the non-profit organization, designated a National Historic Landmark for the way it interprets the heritage of the United States, is to preserve American sculpture, regional plants, animals, and history. And is so worth a day away from the sea.