Charming South Carolina town touted as the birthplace
of sweet tea.
As the Birthplace of Sweet Tea, Summerville, S.C., is distinctly Southern. French botanist Andre Michaux brought tea to the United States in the late 1700s. Tea was first planted just outside of Summerville, which is located 24 miles northwest of Charleston, in 1799.
South Carolina remains the only state that’s cultivated tea, and visitors to Summerville can follow the Sweet Tea Trail to discover the city’s fine dining, shops, and rich history.
The Good Eats Trolley Tour is a great option for exploring Summerville’s Sweet Tea Trail. The trolley departs from the historical Summerville Dorcester Museum and is led by national storyteller and folklorist, Tim Lowry. Wearing a red bow tie and straw hat, Lowry keeps everyone in stitches during his amusing and informative 90-minute presentation about the people, history, and food of Summerville. Afternoon tours are led by historian Barbara Hill.
“Southerners love to eat. The trolley, slated to visit selected downtown restaurants and gourmet shops, gives you sugar, sugar, and more sugar,” says Lowry.
Summerville Visitors Center is the trolley’s first stop. At the sound of the bell, Tina Zimmerman, the center’s director, and her interns step aboard with trays of sweet tea for the passengers to enjoy. Then the trolley heads to its next destination. During travel time, Lowry entertains with tidbits about Summerville, such as, “There are four seasons in Summerville: hot, hotter, still hot, and Christmas.”
Regular tour stops include Healthy Delights; Coastal Produce; Bubbie’s Bakery; The Eclectic Chef; Guerin’s Pharmacy; and West Farm Café. Check out the sweet tea bar at The Eclectic Chef.
“Everywhere in the South, sweet and unsweet tea is available, but not everyone offers multiple flavors,” says Chef Rocky Stech. “With the counter system, people choose their own beverage. If the sweet peach tea is a little too sweet, you can mix in some unsweet raspberry tea.”
Guests at The Eclectic Chef also will find fresh sandwiches, salads, and soups made with local produce.
But the tour’s highlight is a drive along majestic Sumter Avenue with its mansions and low-country architecture. The famed Elizabeth Arden home with its bright red door and palatial landscaping exhibits Queen Anne Victorian-style architecture. Double porches, reminiscent of pastel-painted Barbadian homes, and Carpenter’s Gothic with its heavy timbering and wood planks are other architecture styles along this quaint street.
The tour concludes at the Dorcester Museum.
More sights on the trail
After the tour, take a drive along picturesque Ashley River Road, a national byway. You’ll pass historical plantations such as Middleton, Magnolia Gardens, and Drayton Hall in the heart of the Mateeba Forest.
Stop at Wadmalaw Island and visit the Charleston Tea Plantation, owned by Bigelow. Inside the plantation’s gift shop, the strong aroma of tea brewing fills the air. Guests are encouraged to sample both hot and cold flavors.
Be sure to sign up for the complimentary factory tour and learn how tea is made. Did you know tea is an evergreen plant, and it is the second most-consumed beverage in the world?
Afterwards, take a narrated trolley tour through the plantation. You’ll see workers harvesting rows of lush green tea–the plantation has more than 25,000 tea plants–and visit a temperature-controlled greenhouse housing new tea cuttings. Tea loves shade, so there’s even a computer-controlled sunshade covering the ceiling of the greenhouse to adjust for environmental conditions. There’s also an automatic watering system.
Tea harvesting begins in May and ends late in September. Following the harvest, the tea plants bloom before going dormant. Then the process starts all over again.
Take another day to explore Summerville’s downtown shops. The Summerville Chamber of Commerce has partnered with many members to create sweet tea products for their stores.
Diane Frankenberger, owner of People, Places and Quilts, sells quilting patterns, books, and specialty fabrics. The business is housed in a hardware store and dates to the 1800s. A best-selling pattern is one that Frankenberger designed and can be made into a pillow, quilt, or keepsake. The pattern includes a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: “Women are like teabags. They don’t know how strong they are until they get into hot water.”
More shops with sweet tea products include Four Winds Gallery for sweet tea T-shirts and etched glass mason jars, Maggie Rose dress shop for Ken Burger’s book Baptized in Sweet Tea, Simple to Sublime’s sweet tea metal poster, and Homegrown Brewhouse for Sweet Tea Beer.
Rina’s Kitchen is about a 10-minute drive on the Sweet Tea Trail. The Accidental Kitchen began in 1992 when owner Rina Palmer took seven jars of jam to Summerville Farmer’s Market. The business snowballed from there.
In 24 years, Palmer, her daughter, Miriam, and workers have created more than 50 flavors of jellies and jams in their professional kitchen. Their products are requested nationwide. Summerville sweet tea jelly, introduced at the Flowertown Festival two years ago, is a huge success. Her jams and jellies are sold at the Summerville Farmer’s Market, which opens in April. The shop is closed Saturdays and Sundays; call ahead (843-875-6999 ) before visiting.
Longtime resident Lucille Limehouse, 84, said it best: “Summerville’s got everything a big city has with a small town atmosphere.”
Sheree K. Nielsen is a contributor from Wentzville, Mo.
May/June 2015 Issue
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