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The Rice Museum is a fascinating treasure within the Downtown Georgetown scene which is impossible to miss, and hard to forget. Detailing one of the darkest periods in American history, with a mixture of local prominent residents and maritime history that will fascinate any museum patron, this prominent local museum is a gem of a destination which has received rave reviews from Georgetown residents and new visitors alike.
Granted, while the general subject of "rice" may not necessarily turn a potential visitor's head, the fascinating stories behind Georgetown's formative product, combined with equally fascinating exhibits chronicling different aspects of Georgetown life, make this museum a genuine South Carolina treasure.
The experience begins with the museum's trademark building, the Old Market Building, which is an unmistakable landmark in the heart of downtown. Located adjacent to a cluster of pastel colored20thcentury era shops and offices, the brick structure stands out with two stories of clay-colored facade and black shutters, and a clock tower that extends into the sky and hovers above the city block.
The building is a historical exhibit in its own right, as it serves as a perfect example of mid-1800s structures that were constructed to provide both a political and economic purpose. In its lifespan, the building and bell tower served as a slave auction venue, a town hall, a local jail, and an open market. Built in the mid 1830s, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, and became an official museum shortly after it was nominated for said honor.
In order to understand why rice would be an obvious subject for a local museum, it's important to first understand what a vital role the product has had in the local Georgetown society. The town was originally formed and developed on its Indigo trade, with rice a meager secondary business, but by the time the region had made the full transition from Indigo to rice as the main product for export in the mid-1800s, the county was producing approximately half of the United States' rice supply.
While this was good news to the wealthy plantation owners, it also produced a dark chapter in local history, as Georgetown was subsequently home to some of the largest slave-holding plantations in the entire south. The biggest of these plantations held anywhere from 200-500 slaves to work the rice fields, which were located in humid and mosquito infested marshy areas of the Lowcountry. Plantation owners would come and go, often abandoning the plantations temporarily in the summer to vacation on the cooler barrier islands, and all the while rice remained the lifeblood of the region, feeding families, livestock, and producing enough revenue to build the town up into the small city it is today.
The clock tower itself is home to extensive maps, dioramas, artifacts and other permanent exhibits that allow visitors to understand a now long-gone society that was once based on a singular agricultural crop. Meanwhile, the Old Market and neighboring Kaminski Hardware Buildings takes patrons through an extensive tour of this chapter of Georgetown, from the early roots to the last successful plantings of the late 1800s, and everywhere, or rather every season, in between.
These stories are shared in detail at the rice museum, in addition to a number of other seasonal and full-time exhibits that captivate its patrons. Several local residents are celebrated in detail, including Joseph Hayne Rainey, a Georgetown-born slave who, after the Civil War, rose to power as the first African-American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and Miss Ruby Forsythe, an African American educator who headed a one-room school house at Pawley's Island, South Carolina.
One of the museum's most remarkable and certainly largest exhibits bypasses this era completely, and is resting comfortably in the adjacent Kaminski Building. The remains of the "Browns Ferry Vessel" is easily one of the museum's most impressive exhibits, encompassing an entire showroom with its eerie wooden skeletal remains. The 18th century cargo ship has been carefully restored as much as possible to its original condition, and has been deemed one of the most important strictly American archeological finds to date. Uncovered in 1976 by a team of divers scouring the bottom of the Black River, the ship spent 16 years undergoing restoration before finding its permanent home on the third floor of the Kaminski Building. Deemed the oldest vessel in existence of colonial manufacture, and pre-dating other finds of its kind by 50 years, the ship and its subsequent on-board artifacts, including belt buckels, pieces of china, and era coins, are deemed worth the trip to Georgetown alone by both maritime and history fans.
Seasonal exhibits also make an appearance at the museum, including regional artworks, travelling historic exhibits, and other displays that are sure to illicit fascination and awe. The museum is also home to an extensive gift shop, with trinkets, treasures and books that shed new light on Georgetown's pre-Civil War "rice era."
In addition, the museum is located within blocks of nearly 50 of the town's most historically important structures, (which date back before the onset of the Civil War), allowing patrons to spend a full day steeped in local history and culture.
The Rice Museum is open daily, from Monday through Saturday, 10:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., and Sundays from 11:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Admission generally runs around $7.00 for adults, $5.00 for seniors age 60 or over, and $3.00 for students 6-21 years old. Children under 6 are free when accompanied by an adult, and visitors should plan on spending at least an hour perusing through the multiple galleries that the main bell tower and bordering buildings provide.
Group rates are available, and requests for special tours, field trips, or group discounts can be directed to the museum via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The museum also hosts special sales at its gift shop, as well as seasonal art exhibits or events, including artists' receptions and book signings.
It might seem strange that the diverse little city of Georgetown was once tied to the success or failure of a single product, but for over 100 years, the city thrived as the main rice producer in the country. A stormy history which chronicles both individual successes and dark periods of slavery, the Rice Museum sheds an engaging new light on an otherwise moderate subject, and will surely leave guests with a wealth of new information, history, and unique stories that will illuminate this historical southern town.