Jim Elliott and Joan Ann

Many Ottawans wintering in the South have discovered the joys of the Spring House and/or Garden Tours offering a more intimate glimpse of life in the upper social reaches of several Southern cities. Most of these tours take place in late March or early April when the azalea and wisteria blooms are at their height, with a few, later-blooming camellias still left and Canadians homeward-bound. They invariable include private homes, not just those establishments normally accessible to casual visitors.

The large Southern coastal cities of Charleston and Savannah have been doing this for a long time. The Savannah Tour of Homes celebrated its seventieth anniversary in 2005 while Charleston has several competing tours, perhaps because that city has more stately homes to display and suffered less destruction during the American Civil War.

Even smaller, and newer cities offer Home and Garden Tours. Athens and Macon in Georgia both have tours, as does Hilton Head in spite (in the case of Hilton Head) of having no homes older than about 1970. Perhaps size and pretension can make up for age.

The tours are strategically timed to appeal to Canadian snowbirds who often make their way home in late March, as well as to those who go South for the March break.

The tours with which I am most familiar are the Beaufort SC-based "Candlelight Tour of Homes" (held on a Friday evening for the last fifty years) and the "Driving Tour of Plantations" held the following Saturday. Both tours are to benefit St. Helena's Episcopal Church whose own building from 1724 is always a feature of the Candlelight Tour. (The main Savannah tour is also to benefit a local Episcopal Church, perhaps a reflection of the position the established, Anglican Church held during the Colonial period.)

Beaufort itself is a comfortably small city. It and the surrounding low country Sea Islands are home to a sizeable winter colony of Canadians, not all of whom are golfers. Many are from the Ottawa area. The city itself escaped the destruction of the American Civil War by being captured early in the war. The Southern defender, General Stephen Elliott (no known kin) apparently fired a volley from his battery for honour's sake, hitched them up and drove off to greater feats on other battlefields. The Elliott plot in St. Helena's churchyard is quite impressive and the old Elliott mansion is now home to the local Art League Gallery.

Beaufort became a major Union base and hospital centre enabling the survival of its many ante-bellum mansions and the establishment of the city's large National Cemetery, still in use.

This year's Tour was held March 31st and featured seven homes, in addition to St. Helena's Church with its colonial era silver service. The homes ranged in age from 1720 to relatively recent, all are private homes and in an easily walked six square block area. The best-known of the homes on this year's tour is undoubtedly "Tidalholm"" (1853) which appeared in no less than three major movies; "The Big Chill," "the Great Santini" and "The Prince of Tides."

I have been on the tour three years running, and can vouch for the quality of homes, and the fact that there is little overlap from year to year. Beaufort has a bounty of gracious homes to pick from in establishing each year's itinerary, in many of them the tourers are welcomed by the owner, frequently a parishioner of the church. There is always one stop where punch and cookies are served to a musical accompaniment. An additional treat this year, in addition to the uncharacteristically balmy weather, was the presence of fifty or so vehicles from the Horseless Carriage Club of America, all pre-dating 1916.

These great old machines, Reos, Fords, Locomobiles , Stanley Steamers and a Huppmobile, with their owners in period costume also participated in the next day's Plantation Driving Tour which took us to seven plantations in the surrounding area.

The plantations, unlike the City, were outside Union lines and were not spared the attentions of Sherman's army on its way from Savannah to Columbia. As a consequence the plantation buildings are all post Civil War, although the avenues of live oaks along which they are approached may be considerably older. A self-respecting plantation owner would have a mile long avenue of live oaks on his property from the road to his home. The life cycle of the typical low-country plantation went from indigo to rice to cotton before the Civil War, and to pine, quail and deer thereafter although some continued to grow rice until a hurricane in the 1890s destroyed most of the dike systems. Almost all of the southern plantations passed into the hands of wealthy Northern Families who used, and sometimes still use them as hunting lodges. Clarendon Plantation, perhaps the most impressive on this year's tour, was owned by the Corning glass family, and is now owned by Atlanta's Cox media family. Buckfield Plantation, also on this year's tour was owned by the Kress department store family.

I can heartily recommend spending a day or two on one or another of these tours, either as a destination in itself, or as a side trip on the homeward journey. Many tours, including those in Beaufort sell out in advance since the owners of the properties do not wish to welcome limitless numbers of visitors. A little time spent on the internet will give a good guide to next year's tours to see if your travel plans will fit.

Useful sites are:

For the Charleston tours:





For Savannah:


For Beaufort:


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