Jody Victor Talks About Teas Grown in America

Americans have not only been drinking tea for a long time but have actually grown it on our own soil.

Longing for exotic luxuries Queen Elizabeth of England founded the East India Company in 1600 in order to import fine woven cloths, spices, herbs and other riches from the East. The East India Company held exclusive rights to the English-Oriental trade until 1833. In the beginning of this enterprise the tea shipments were meager and subject to tariffs so enterprising merchants/pirates ignored the imposed monopoly and illegally imported tea themselves. These illegal shipments increased the supply of tea on mainland England and stimulated its sale by offering the forbidden tea at a lower price. Thus tea was no longer served exclusively to English high society but also to regular English subjects and by the middle of the eighteenth century tea had replaced ale as England’s national drink.

As tea drinking blossomed in England so it also blossomed in the English colonies. By the turn of the eighteenth century tea was publicly available in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The colonial tea trade was exclusively with England. King George III placed higher tariffs on tea imported to the American colonies as a way to pay for the expenses of the French and Indian War. The higher tea taxes caused the colonists to take action. On December 16, 1773, a band of sixty outraged colonists, dressed as Mohawk Indians, gathered at Griffin’s Wharf and boarded the Dartmouth, the Eleanor, and the Beaver, and tossed 342 crates (45 tons) of tea into Boston Harbor. Known as the Boston Tea Party this act of resistance ignited a series of events prompting the colonists’ fight for independence.

Commercial tea cultivation in America had been attempted since 1744, when tea seeds were sent to the Trust Garden in Savannah, South Carolina. The first recorded successful cultivation of the tea plant is recorded as growing on Skidaway Island near Savannah in 1772. As luck would have it, South Carolina has a small pocket of land suitable for tea plants, which need sandy soil bathed in heat, humidity and rain. Junius Smith, a horticultural pioneer, succeeded in growing tea commercially on his Golden Grove Plantation in Greenville, South Carolina, from 1848 until his death in 1853. Dr. Alexis Forster oversaw the next short-lived attempt in Georgetown, South Carolina, from 1874 until his death in 1879.

In 1884, almost ten years after Forster’s endeavor began the federal government became interested in the tea experiments down south. America’s fast clipper ships and its ability to settle debts in gold had made it the world’s largest importer of tea. Commissioner of Agriculture, William G. Le Duc wanted to find out if America could profit by producing its own tea. He planted an experimental farm outside Summerville, South Carolina. Four years later the government gave up the project. They concluded that the area’s climate was too unstable to sustain the tea crop.

Fortunately the dream of a prosperous tea plantation on home soil still lived in the imagination of a wealthy and scientific philanthropist named Dr. Charles Shepard. In 1888 he established the Pinehurst Tea Plantation not far from the government farm in Summerville. Dr. Shepard faced two challenges. The first was labor problems. It was estimated that it cost about eight times as much to pick one pound of tea in South Carolina than it did in Asia. Dr. Shepard solved this problem by opening a school and making tea-picking a part of the curriculum, essentially ensuring a force of child labor while providing them with an education they might not otherwise have obtained.

The second challenge was the need to produce the highest quality tea. The labor expense of hand-picking needed to be offset by the production of the freshest, top quality tea. The best teas grown abroad at that time were rarely shipped outside their country of origin because the journey took a great toll on the delicate premium leaves. Dr. Shepard was confident that South Carolina would fill the void. In an interview in an 1898 issue of Cosmopolitan, he assured that “in this field the American grower need fear no competition from the Orient. Such teas demand a high price; but if no better can be otherwise obtained, there will be no scarcity of buyers.” His persistence proved fruitful when he won the tea-drinking public’s attention at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair where his oolong tea took first prize. At that same World’s Fair, Richard Blechynden, a tea vendor, dropped ice into his hot cups of tea to boost sales in the summer heat. The result was the first iced tea, which has become a tradition of supper tables in the American South.

Dr. Shepard’s plantation thrived until his death in 1915, after which it remained unattended until 1960, when Thomas J. Lipton bought the property. Lipton rescued the remaining plants and used them to open a research facility on Wadmalaw Island. Mack Fleming, a horticultural researcher at Trident Technical College, was hired as manager of the operation and is credited with a more modern solution to the labor problem. He invented a mechanical harvester, which was a hybrid of a cotton picker and a tobacco reaper. It did the work of 500 pickers. Still, Lipton concluded, as the federal government had almost 150 years earlier, that the unstable climate and high cost of labor in South Carolina made tea production unfeasible.

Finally in 1987, Fleming with his tea horticulturist skills and William B. Hall, an expert, third generation tea taster purchased the farm from Lipton and established the 127-acre Charleston Tea Plantation. The Charleston Tea Plantation proclaimed that their tea was grown, withered, cured, manufactured, prepared, and packaged in America and was the freshest available to American consumers, containing no pesticides or fungicides. It was inspected by the FDA and the South Carolina Department of Agriculture and provided jobs for American workers. Along with being designated the Hospitality Beverage of South Carolina, the Charleston Tea Plantation’s American Classic Tea also earned the badge of an official White House tea in 1987.

An article in the September 13, 2000, Wall Street Journal titled, “US Tea Grower Is In Hot Water”, suggested that in spite of fourteen years of continued business the Charleston Tea Plantation was having trouble in the marketplace. The article quoted Fleming’s regret concerning their company’s inadequate advertising budget- “Call it entrepreneurial stupidity” and Hall was quoted as saying- “We’re just trying to hold our heads above water.” Eventually due to their differences of opinion and the financial stress, Fleming and Hall decided to sell the tea farm. In 2003 the Charleston Tea Plantation was auctioned off to R. C. Bigelow for $1.28 million. Bigelow stated that they wanted to “preserve a piece of American history”. They spent the next few years restoring the plantation and in January of 2006 the Charleston Tea Plantation was re-opened to the public.