Archive | July 2012

The Grand Tour – Day 5 – Fort Sumter!

The next day we awoke hoping that the rain would be gone for our visit to Fort Sumter. Fort Sumter was a site that my mom and I pondered when we visited Charleston back in 2004, but didn’t end up visiting. Since then, I’ve become much more interested in Civil War history, and this time around I was super-excited about seeing where the Civil War began.  Fort Sumter is run by the National Park Service, who operates a contract with a vendor to run the ferry that takes tourists out to the fort.

Fort Sumter was unoccupied when South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860. Six days later, on December 26, Major Robert Anderson secretly moved his troops from the indefensible Fort Moultrie, located nearby, to the more fortified Fort Sumter. He worked to shore up the still incomplete fort, but it was a bit of a lost cause from the beginning, because the fort was only supplied with half of the cannons that it was supposed to have. The battle began when the Confederates threatened to bombard the fort if the union sent supply ships to resupply the fort. Lincoln, wanting the Confederates to make the first move if there was going to be war, contacted the Governor of South Carolina and stated that it was a peaceful supply mission and if the Confederates held their fire, then the mission would only deliver food. However, if the fort was attacked, then Lincoln announced that he would reinforce the fort. The rest is history…

The Confederates fired the first shot on Fort Sumter at 4:30 am on April 11, 1861. Major Anderson waited more than 2 hours to return fire, and at 7:00 am, Captain Abner Doubleday fired the first cannon shot towards the Confederates. Doubleday, if you can’t remember where you have heard that name before, is also attributed with inventing the game of baseball.  No Union soldiers were killed or injured during the bombardment, but two Union soldiers were killed when the cannon they were firing misfired during the surrender ceremony.

Fort Sumter Visitor's Center

Fort Sumter Visitor’s Center

The Fort is out in Charleston Harbor, built on seventy thousand tons of granite that were transported to the site and dumped there to build up the sandbar. To get to the fort, you have to take a ferry, which takes about 30 minutes. The ride out was very smooth and an audio tape gives you the history of the other forts in the harbor, including Castle Pinckney, Fort Moultrie and Fort Wagner – although Fort Wagner doesn’t exist anymore.  If you have seen the film Glory, Fort Wagner was the fort that the 54th was trying to capture. Once you are at Fort Sumter and you get off the ferry, you have 1 hour at the site. It isn’t really enough time.

Fort Sumter

Fort Sumter Cannon and Fort Walls

Jon and I focused our time on the outer walls, and then spend the time we had left in the onsite museum. It would have been better if we had two hours. The Fort was almost entirely obliterated during the 34 hours of shelling, so the fort you see today is the version that was rebuilt after the war.  You can still see places in the fort’s walls where shrapnel is embedded in the walls.

Fort Sumter Shrapnel – You can also see the Tabby Mortar!

There is also a concrete and steel structure that was built during the Spanish American War in 1898.  The National Parks Service understands that the later steel structure isn’t all that historic, but unfortunately it would cost so much to remove it that there it stays.  It is much more indestructible than the original Fort!  It was powerful to see Fort Sumter and to imagine how difficult it would be to defend – there are basically forts on all sides from which to blast you with cannon fire! Fort Sumter was very vulnerable. We walked around and looked at everything and read all the signs and I took pictures of everything. I was a bit surprised at how small it was – you would have had cabin fever in a bad way if you were stuck there for a long period of time.

Me with a Fort Sumter Cannon

Fort Sumter Flags

After our hour, we reluctantly got back on the boat…  On the ferry back in, we sat outside on the deck, enjoying the warm breeze.  We felt a few big drops of rain, but it held off. And while we were sitting outside on the boat enjoying the view, we saw some dolphins playing in the wake! It was pretty neat to see, but unfortunately, they didn’t stick around long enough to get pictures of them!

Brothels – Oh My!

This evening I had an evening with the girls… literally and figuratively.  A friend of mine invited me to go with another friend of hers on a “Sin and Gin” historic walking tour in my hometown.  The tour explores the seedier side of town, from the earliest founding of the communities that eventually formed Bellingham, all the way up to World War II.  Most of it was concentrated around the turn of the 20th century – the Victorian era.  Obviously the Gin part is the history of the drinking establishments in the area.  The Sin part is prostitution.  Yep… Brothels.  Who knew that up until 1910, Bellingham had a legal red light district?  It was complete with a police and health department registration process, and weekly medical checks.

Our Tour Guides for the Evening – Decked out in their Victorian Underwear

So, I had always known that Bellingham was founded on three main industries: logging, mining and fishing, and that the four communities that eventually merged into Bellingham (Whatcom, Sehome, Fairhaven and Bellingham) were rough and tumble communities.  And I even knew that there were brothels and a red light district.  But I had no idea that the brothels were so widespread!  This tour focused only on what is now downtown Bellingham (there is a separate tour for Fairhaven).

As a prostitute, you worked for a madam, who provided you with room, board, and meals in exchange for  a cut of your profits.  However, if you were a man, it was illegal in Bellingham to be a pimp.  In fact, if it was found out that you were profiting from a “fallen woman”, you would literally be run out of town.  And apparently there are documented occurrences of men being run out of town.

There were two main areas in Bellingham that housed brothels.  One was the legal red light district, running approximately from C Street to F Street out along the piers.  All of the area from C to F along Holly was actually over the water at that time (we filled in this whole area of town with scrap lumber and other garbage later) and the brothels were built on pilings over the water, along with lots of other businesses.  As this was the designated area for prostitution, you could be seen out and about and get your business done in that section of town – have your clothes laundered, get a bite to eat, pick up some groceries, etc.  However, most of the brothels employed errand boys to do that work for you, if you so chose.  This is where the lowliest ladies worked, because a respectable gentleman wouldn’t dare be seen going into the red light district, because you would know what he was up to!

So, for those more respectable gentleman, there were also at least a dozen brothels in the upper part of downtown Bellingham, generally along what is now Railroad Avenue.  It was illegal to operate a brothel here, but apparently the police were well aware and did little to stop it.  In fact, they filled the City’s coffers with revenues from the raids on brothels.  All the prostitutes’ money would be seized and a fine would be levied, and then the brothel would go right back to business as usual.  Prostitutes in this area were also required to register with the police and the health department, so it would be hard to say the police didn’t know these prostitutes were operating outside of the legal district.  The fact is, as long as the City got its revenues, they didn’t care.  11% of the City’s budget came from revenue from the prostitution industry!  Apparently they didn’t consider that to be ‘profiting from a fallen woman’, as long as they could pay for a new fire truck.

It was a bit different up in this area though.  Bellingham had a law against street-walking outside of the red light district, so if you were a known prostitute (and remember you had to register), you could be arrested for even being out on the street.  Your madam would have errand boys do your errands for you.  The madams had an ingenious way of advertising though – when they had a new girl and they wanted to get the word out, they would take the girl shopping.  This wasn’t illegal street-walking because the girl wasn’t a prostitute – yet.  Men would know if you were out walking with a madam, then they would soon be able to find you at that madam’s brothel.

There were different societal levels for prostitutes here too.  The upper strata of prostitution was to work in a parlor house, basically where you live in the madam’s house and men would come and socialize with the ladies in the parlor, before choosing their fun for the evening.  These women were educated and sophisticated, and could play instruments and speak multiple languages.

Then came the boarding house ladies.  The upper rooms of a hotel or boarding house would be dedicated to prostitution.  Men came in the back staircase, to avoid calling attention to themselves and what they were doing.  The brothels along Railroad Avenue, outside of the red-light district, were boarding house brothels.  Many of the buildings along Railroad had boarding house brothels on the second floor, including, the Avenue Bread Company, and the Helena, which is now low income housing.  I’ve never been inside the Helena, but the guide told us that if you go upstairs, the windows in the rooms face the hallway.  This was so the men could go upstairs, check out the girls available through the windows into the rooms, and then come back downstairs to settle up with the madam.

The Front of the Hotel Laube – There Was a Grocery on the First Floor

The Back of the Hotel Laube – Shows the Rear Entrance to the Rooms of the Brothels From the Alley

The lowest level were the cribs.  These were the brothels on the waterfront, with rows of small rooms that housed the prostitutes. Men here paid by the minute, rather than by the act.  15 minutes of sex cost about $1.  To put it in perspective, a female teacher during that time could make $60 per month.  So even the lowest level of prostitute could make more than a teacher if she had two clients per day, for a total of 30 minutes.  A cannery worker, stuffing salmon into cans by hand for 10 hours per day, made $1.25.  So, whatever your thought is on the red light industry, a lot of women were drawn to the idea of being able to make more money more quickly.  The “cribs” along the waterfront are all gone now, demolished when all the turn-of-the-century pilings and docks came down.

I asked the guide about the ages of these girls, and she explained that no madam in Bellingham would employ a local girl.  So this lowered the rate of young girls becoming prostitutes, because you had to be from out of town, and you had to have gotten yourself here.  The guide said that most of the women listed on the registration records of the time indicated that they were in their late teens to early twenties.

And one last story… Up to World War II, even though the brothels were technically illegal now, business went on as it always had, with the police and health department registration and the weekly health checks.  And the police raids and fines to fill the City’s coffers.  Navy officials at the Navy base in Oak Harbor told the sailors to go on leave in Bellingham, rather than Seattle or Vancouver, because they knew that prostitution was regulated here.  And when you got back from your leave, you had to report who you had slept with – her full name.  That way, if you got syphilis or another STD, they could go back to the source.  And if you were the unlucky girl who got the finger pointed at you, you could look forward to a 30 day quarantine in the basement of the old City Hall.

So that’s what I learned – at the end of our tour, we were treated to cocktails at Bayou on the Bay.  My girlfriends and I all had the No Shrinking Violet, a delicious concoction made of gin, simple syrup, Creme de Violette, and one other ingredient that slips my mind.  We had a great time with lots of laughter, and gained a new appreciation for the seedier history of my hometown.

Our Post-Tour Cocktail – the No Shrinking Violet

The Grand Tour – Day 4 – Charleston (Afternoon)

After our Blind Tiger experience, we headed back out to continue touristing.  We headed over to the Old Slave Mart Museum.  The Old Slave Mart was Ryan’s Mart, which operated as a slave market for domestic slaves (born in the US, not brought from Africa).  The market operated from 1856 to 1863, after Charleston banned public slave auctions (which used to occur on the north side of the Exchange building – I talked about this building in my previous post).  Slave auctions were getting to be a bit controversial at that point – by the 1850s abolitionists like Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, were beginning to cover slave auctions and provide a social commentary about the cruel conditions that the slaves were subjected to.  The legal trans-Atlantic slave trade had already come to an end in 1807 – although that did little to curb illegal transport of slaves to the U.S.  In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which brought the cruelty and barbarity of slavery to Americans who had likely not thought about it much.  Ryan’s Mart opened as an indoor “gallery-style” slave market, because by the mid to late 1850s, abolitionists were gaining a foothold in the court of public opinion, and Charlestonians thought it best to move these disturbing auctions behind closed doors.

To be honest though, I found the museum a bit disappointing.  It goes through the basics of slavery in South Carolina, but it was really information that I already knew.  Sadly, the building doesn’t have any of the original features remaining – I think the exhibit would have been much more compelling if they had restored the building to what it had been at the time.  Instead, they have covered it up with drywall and poster board exhibits.  It was a decent basic overview of slavery, but I wanted to see more that was specific to this slave market and how it affected the lives of those passing through here.  One interesting fact that I learned though, is that only 15 men in the U.S. owned more than 500 slaves (9 of them were in South Carolina).  Another interesting fact (from online), is that there were about 385,000 slave owners in the U.S. in 1860, which was about 1.4 percent of the population.

Old Slave Mart Museum

What is very interesting about the building is the fact that it was converted to a tenement dwelling after the Civil War, and operated as a tenement until Miriam Wilson purchased the building in 1938 and turned it into a museum of African American history, arts and crafts.  I always love when people have the foresight to realize the historical value of a place and do what they can to protect it.  Without Miriam Wilson, I’m sure the building would have been torn down long ago…

Closeup of the Slave Mart Museum Sign – Maybe the Lettering is from Miriam Wilson’s Day?

After the Slave Mart, Jon and I decided that instead of going back to the Edmonton-Alston house, which was now further away than we wanted to walk, we would go to the Nathaniel Russell house.  Nathaniel Russell was the wealthiest merchant in Charleston in the early 1800s.  He had already made his fortune by the time he made this town house his home, having it designed and built in 1820.  Impressive features of the home include a 3 story completely free flying staircase.  It balances its weight completely on the steps below and is not attached to the wall or supported by columns or a wall down to the floor.  And it has withstood hurricanes for almost 2 centuries and the 1886 earthquake!  The home also has trompe l’oeil doors and baseboards.  The doors are painted to look like expensive hardwood, when in fact they are pine, which was plain but was frequently used because it withstood the barrage of southern insects.  The baseboards around the home were painted to look like marble – they were very realistic looking!  Can you imagine – we could all just have our counter-tops painted to look like granite, instead of paying for the real thing!  Honestly, I’m not sure that would be any less expensive, thinking about the hours it must have taken to do all that painting.  The tour guide at the Nathaniel Russell house was great, with lots of excellent information about the house and the family.  He was a true southern gentleman.  I wanted to call him Ashley… like in Gone with the Wind!

The Front View of the Nathaniel Russell House

The Side View of the Nathaniel Russell House – Inside the Rooms in This Area Are Circular!

A Close Up of the Wrought Iron Balcony – Nathaniel Russell Had His Monogram Worked into the Iron

The Front Door of the Nathaniel Russell House

Close Up of the Front Door – Showing Trompe L’oeil Painting

The heat and humidity were starting to get the best of us by this time, so we found a frozen yogurt place and cooled down with a bit of a treat.  Cece’s yogurt shop is across from the City Market and we had admired some sweet grass baskets earlier, which are hand woven from sweet grass, and also using bull rush, palms and pine needles.  The are truly works of art, taking lots of time to complete one basket.  As a result, there are baskets ranging from $30 up to several hundreds of dollars for the very large, ornate ones.  One day I’ll be able to afford one of those.  In the meantime, Jon and I chose one to bring home that is medium sized; we think it is beautiful.  An excellent memento from our trip.

Our Sweet Grass Treasure

Then we made our back (a little more slowly now) to the Visitor’s Center on very sore feet and legs.  We didn’t feel like having a restaurant meal (getting a little burned out on restaurant food), so we got a dinner of sandwiches, yogurt and fruit from the local Piggly Wiggly.  We got back to our hotel just as a new thunderstorm rolled in, and the torrential downpour began again.  We soothed our tired backs and aching feet with some true crime TV and Biltmore Estate wine – the Chenin Blanc this time!  And I was happy that we made so much of the day!

The Grand Tour – Day 4 – Charleston (Mid-day)

When I last left you, I had wanted to tour the Edmonton-Alston house, but it was still 2 hours before it opened its doors for the day.  So instead, we made our way over to the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, which was one of the attractions that Jon wanted to visit.  This building was built on the waterfront between 1768 and 1771.  It was originally built as an Exchange and Customs House, on the site of a former building which served as the community jail (Charleston officials housed the pirates in that former building before they executed Stede Bonnet and others at White Point Garden in December 1718).  In 1791, George Washington visited the Exchange while on a week-long visit to Charleston.  He addressed the townspeople from the balcony, and they held a ball in the ballroom there in his honor.  It’s pretty neat to know you are standing in a room where George Washington dined and danced and gave speeches to the people. Southerners really liked George, as you’ll see in my upcoming post on Savannah, where he also visited during his Presidency.  The ballroom upstairs is beautiful and well lit, with the original floors and beautiful windows with original glass panes.

The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon – Built 1768 to 1771 – Palladian Architectural Style

The Ballroom at the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon – George Washington Danced Here!

The ballroom also housed an interesting exhibit on George Washington and the time period in which he lived.  The exhibit was set up on panels, with all sorts of information.  Normally I find that museum exhibits don’t give me enough detail, but this exhibit you could spend hours reading!  Kudos to the curators!  Unfortunately, we were getting a little hungry, so my body wouldn’t allow for all the reading I wanted to do.  I skimmed…

An Exhibit on the First Floor of the Old Exchange

One of the most fascinating parts is the basement of the building, for several reasons.  It is in complete contrast to the second floor ballroom.  Built of brick with natural arches, it has withstood almost 250 years of hurricanes and the only earthquake to hit the south (in 1886), somewhere between a 6.6 and a 7.3 on the Ritcher Scale.  But it is dark, with an uneven brick floor and a palpable dampness.  The windows down there are small and barred.  The basement also served as the dungeon, and housed both male and female prisoners together, in deplorable conditions.  Similar to most prisons of the time period, many prisoners died of disease.  Due to the high death rate in the prison, the dungeon is said to be haunted by spirits who make the lights swing back and forth and rattle the chains on the wall.  In reality, most prisoners were not chained to the wall though – they were allowed to wander around freely in the dungeon (although many were probably malnourished and sick, so they may not have felt much like walking around).  You would also be tripping over dozens of other prisoners if you tried to take a leisurely stroll.

Also, interestingly, during the Revolutionary War, the Americans moved all of their gunpowder from the regular powder magazine elsewhere in Charleston to the Exchange Building, where they bricked it up behind a wall in the dungeon to hide it from the occupying British.  Even though the British occupied Charleston for four years during the Revolution, and used the Exchange Building for their own troops and activities during that time, they never found the hidden gunpowder.

The tour of the dungeon is a little cheesy, with the docents dressed in period clothing, but they give some good information about the history of the building.  They showed us where excavations in the dungeon revealed where the original wall surrounding Charleston was (did you know Charleston was a walled city?)  Other “improvements” to the building include a staircase that was built from the dungeon to the first floor in the 1800s, but was cut off when they were doing the most recent excavation, because it blocked the view of the original town wall.  It is kind of a stairway to nowhere, like in the Winchester Mystery House!

After our visit to the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, we asked the docent  where to eat.  She recommended the Blind Tiger Pub, which had also been recommended by the docent at the Robert Mills House in Columbia, SC, who had lived in Charleston before moving to Columbia.  We decided to check it out.  The food was fantastic – I had a Greek Gyro with fried okra, and Jon had the spicy blackened Triggerfish with blueberries and mango salsa, and served with fresh fruit.  The history of the building was also very neat too.  The building was built in 1803, and over the years, it served as a haberdashery, restaurant and pub, and was even a speakeasy during Prohibition.  Legend says that parlors opened during Prohibition where patrons could pay an admission fee to see the mythical Blind Tiger, and also get some complimentary cocktails while they were there.  Something tells me the authorities might have known what was going on…  The Blind Tiger had a neat historic pressed tin ceiling and nice historic detailing.  The service was fast and the server friendly, and it would have been nice to be around for their Happy Hour!  But no, we still had a lot of sightseeing to do – no time for slacking!

Triggerfish and Fresh Fruit at the Blind Tiger Pub

The Grand Tour – Day 4 – Charleston, South Carolina (Morning)

Today was our only full day in Charleston, and I was DETERMINED! to make the most of it.  I was prepared to go out and get my tourist on, rain or shine, sun or storm!  Fortunately, when we woke up, the weather was overcast, but not raining!  And I succeeded, because as you will notice in the coming days – I had to make this day into three posts because we packed so much in!  We headed up to the Holiday Inn restaurant for their breakfast buffet – most of the hotels we stay at have a continental breakfast, so this was a bit out of the ordinary for us, but it wasn’t included in the hotel price either.  The food was good, with scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and lots of fresh fruit and pastries.  Sadly, the Diet Coke (yes, I like to drink soda with breakfast – but I don’t smoke or do drugs, so I figure I have to have one vice!) was flat, and the server said they had already changed out the tank and the new soda wasn’t any less flat, so I had to settle for hot tea.

Begin Off Topic Rant Here:  I’m not sure why 80% of restaurants use those little stainless steel teapots for your extra hot water.  There is no human on earth that can pour the water out of those without dripping hot water all over everywhere.  Do restaurant management types not understand this?  Would you settle for a coffee pot that dripped coffee every time you tried to pour it?  Why do you buy these?  End rant.  We ate our breakfast efficiently, and Jon looked up the day’s weather in the paper.  No time for lingering though – because we were on a mission!

We drove into downtown to the Visitor’s Center to see if they had any package deals on the things we wanted to see.  There wasn’t.  Apparently because we have eclectic tastes in touristing (at least that’s what my mom says…).   But it’s a great place to start your day – and they have lots of postcards!  Jon makes fun that I like to look in all the gift shops – he’s never traveled with my mom though, who can out-gift-shop me any day of the week!  We decided to walk from the Visitor’s Center where we parked (you can park all day there for $12) to the far end of “Museum Mile” and then work our way back, seeing the sights along the way.

The Joseph Manigault House – Built in 1803 – Federal Style Architecture

Museum Mile is what the Charleston Tourism folks have dubbed one of their main historic thoroughfares in downtown, because it features a lot the historic homes and buildings that you can visit and tour.  I’m not sure if it really is a mile long from end to end, but if you don’t stay on the main drag, and end up going down side streets like we did, it seemed like a bit further.  We made our way down, taking lots of pictures along the way and reading the plaques on all the historic homes.  Charleston has done a great job of pointing out which homes were built when, and giving a bit of information about historic homes and other relevant sites.

The Joseph Verree House – Behind the Door is an Open Air Porch – Built 1767 – Georgian Single House Architectural Style

The George Eveleigh House – Built 1743 – Architectural Style Unknown (by me anyway!)

Charleston Home Garden!

We went all the way down to The Battery and took in the view.  The Battery is a seawall promenade that was built up to provide protection from the surf for the stately homes that were being built there.  Also along the water is White Point Garden, which is a park with beautiful live oak trees.  During Charleston’s more violent past, White Point Garden was the location for the hanging of Stede Bonnet and Richard Worley and their gangs of pirates, which terrorized Charleston in 1718 and 1719.  The Battery and White Point Garden were fortified with cannons during the Civil War to protect the city.  Technically, the park and the promenade are two separate attractions, but it seems that most people, tourists and citizens alike, refer to the two together as Battery Park, or The Battery.

White Point Garden – in Charleston – Aren’t Those Oaks Awesome!?

When we got to The Battery, Jon wanted to sit down and rest, as it was already pretty hot out and it was only 11 am.  I kept snapping pictures – walking over to the promenade, and enjoying the cooling shading underneath the beautiful oak trees.

Charleston Harbor – That’s a Pelican!

I have to be honest though, while I thought White Point Garden was really nice, I wasn’t all that wowed by the view of Charleston Harbor.  After all, I live in a town on a beautiful bay, with cool islands in the distance and gorgeous sunsets!  But not every sight can be amazing, I guess – it was really neat to wander around and imagine the Civil War years, with troops in the park and homeowners inviting friends over to watch the bombardments from their porches!  You have to remember, in the beginning, both sides thought they would win the war in about three months – so wrong they were…

After visiting The Battery, I wanted to go to the Edmonton-Alston house, but I hadn’t realized that it didn’t open until 1 pm.  So we came up with a new plan!

The Grand Tour – Day 3 – Columbia to Charleston

After leaving Columbia, South Carolina, it was just starting to rain again.  We continued on to Charleston, where by this time it was dumping buckets.  We passed by Congaree National Park on the way, which looked like an interesting stop (it’s a national forest swamp – there could be alligators!), but it was raining so hard it wouldn’t have been very much fun.  It’s too bad really, because it is a swamp with some of the tallest tress in the world.  The trees thrive because the area floods periodically and provides lots of nutrients for the trees.  You can hike or canoe, and see lots of plants and wildlife.  And I bet they would have a stamp!  But we will have to visit on another trip.

We got to our hotel, a Holiday Inn, which is a tower shaped hotel just over the Ashley River from downtown Charleston.  You can just tell it was built during the 1960s space race!  We got checked in (in the rain) and then drove downtown (in the rain) and checked out the historic district by car (in the rain).  By this time we were getting really hungry, so we settled for dinner at the hotel restaurant.  We got a bowl of the she crab soup – they serve it with sherry that you are supposed to dump in it.  It might have been the sherry (I even only dumped in half of the sherry), but neither of us liked it much – let’s just say it must be an acquired taste.  Jon loved his oysters though and I really liked my baby back ribs!  They hit the spot!  We looked out at the city from the top floor windows watching the rain and hoping the sun would be back out the next day…

She Crab Soup

My Ribs and Jon’s Oysters

The Grand Tour – Day 3 – Asheville to Columbia, SC

On Sunday morning, we got up and headed out for our long drive to Charleston.  It is a four and a half hour drive, so we planned to make the trip a bit more leisurely, and not plan to be in Charleston before the tourist attractions closed for the day.  We got our hotel breakfast buffet, packed up and checked out, and headed out.  Soon, it started raining.  Then it started dumping huge buckets of water onto our car.  The drive became pretty frustrating, because it alternated between light rain and a torrential downpour.  We drove for a couple of hours, and then stopped for lunch in Columbia, South Carolina.  We drove around for a few minutes in the business district (which was absolutely deserted on a Sunday) and found the Liberty Bar and Grill.  I found out later that it is a chain, but at the time, we didn’t know that.  It is in an old restored warehouse (they did a good job with the restoration).  I had a Cobb salad and Jon had the Ahi Tuna Salad.  We asked our server to recommend a local brew, and ended up trying the Sweetwater 420 Pale Ale from Atlanta, Georgia.  It was light and hoppy and a teensy bit bland.  It certainly wasn’t on the same level as West Coast microbrews – I think they might get there though!

I thought we were leaving this behind in Washington!

My Cobb Salad at the Liberty Bar and Grill

After lunch we went over to the Robert Mills house before getting back on the road.  I knew nothing about Robert Mills, but I read in the guidebook that the Columbia Historic Society owns and operates four home museums that are open for tours.  We thought they all looked interesting, but we only had time for one, so we chose the Robert Mills house.  Confusingly, Robert Mills didn’t own the house, and never lived in it – he was the architect.  The home was actually owned by Ainsley Hall – his 2nd large mansion in Columbia – the first is across the street.

Robert Mills House in Columbia, SC

Ainsley Hall and his wife Sarah lived in the beautiful home across the street.  As the story goes, one evening in 1823 Mr. Hall was chatting with a colleague who offered to buy the home and asked Mr. Hall to throw out a price.  Mr. Hall responded with $35,000, what he thought was an astronomical price (about $750,000 in today’s dollars – he clearly hadn’t lived through a real estate bubble if he thought that was an unheard of sum, but that’s how the story goes).  You can see where this is going, right?  The colleague accepted the deal, then had his slaves come down and move Ainsley and Sarah Hall out of their home THAT NIGHT.  The record is silent on what Sarah thought of this, but one can assume she was PISSED!  I would be really torqued off!  Now Ainsley really had to kiss ass, so he promised Sarah that he would build her a better house across the street that looked down upon their old home.  He bought the lot and made a deal with Robert Mills to build the home.

The Side View of the Robert Mills House

The Back of the Robert Mills House

Robert Mills has an impressive resume.  He was a federal architect under seven different Presidents, designing and building the US Patent Office (modeled after the Parthenon), the US Treasury Building, and the Washington Monument.  He was an early advocate of fireproofing measures (this is significant later in this post – trust me).  Actually, nobody is really sure what sort of deal he had with Ainsley Hall to build the home, because he mostly designed public buildings.  When you look at the home, you certainly see the public building influence.

So Mr. Mills set about building the home, and when it was almost complete, Ainsley sent Sarah off to New York to go shopping to furnish and decorate their new abode.  He was going to follow her there shortly.  Well, Ainsley set out, then got sick on the journey and died.  And sadly, since he had neglected to update his will to give Sarah the new home in the event of his death, she got NOTHING!  Sarah had to go home and live with her parents…  She never remarried.  The home was sold to a Presbyterian Seminary, and was eventually purchased by a Bible College.

The tour of the house is pretty cool.  The first thing that you notice upon entering the front door is that this home has no grand staircase in the entryway.  In fact, there is no staircase in the entryway at all.  There are two reasons for this.  Mills wanted the entry to be symmetrical with matching doors.  He even put in an extra false door so they would be symmetrical!  Strangely, he could have just had two doors going into the dining room, but apparently that wasn’t what he wanted.  The other reason was that Mills knew grand staircases were a huge fire hazard.  If a house caught fire (which they frequently did back then), the oxygen would race right up the staircase and trap the occupants upstairs.  So instead, Mills put in a staircase that was enclosed in brick.  Interestingly, this is the home’s only staircase.  For the time period, it was highly unusual to not have a separate staircase for the slaves.  The grand entry is also curved, and even the doors are curved!  When you go into the rooms off the grand entry, they have curved walls – it would have been tough to curve the molding in those rooms!

The tour also took us into the basement, where the living would have taken place during the hot summer months (if you didn’t take off for Europe during the summer).  While it certainly was cooler downstairs, it was a bit dreary.  Terra cotta tile floors and less light.  But I suppose you can’t live the glam life all the time.  Megan, our guide, was cheerful and talkative and answered all my questions (we were the only two people on the tour so I could ask whatever I wanted!)

At the end of the tour, Megan showed us where Mr. Mills, had the brick walls on the outside of the home painted red and relined.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The natural work of brick and mortar didn’t create lines that were straight or perfect enough for the obsessive-compulsive Mills.  So he had the brick painted and relined, so they could give it the look of perfectly straight mortar lines running through the brick.  And Jon thought I was particular!

The Painted Lines on the Brick – Look in the Center Section

After we finished our tour at the Robert Mills house, it was time to get back on the road and head the rest of the way to Charleston.  And right about then, it started raining again!

The Grand Tour – Day 2 – Downtown Asheville!

After leaving the Biltmore Estate, we went into downtown Asheville to check out the local flavor. It was actually a lot like home, certainly a bit different than other Southern cities I have visited. I hadn’t heard much about Asheville except that is was a cool city, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.  There were lots of hippies and tattooed, pierced people with dyed black and pink hair, and several crystal (the spiritual stones, not meth) and head shops.

Downtown Asheville

Asheville Side Street – So Quaint!

We wandered around for awhile and looked in the galleries and bookshops and eventually settled down for dinner at a restaurant called The Market Place. Our meal was amazing! Chef William Dissen’s goal is to make healthful food that is locally sourced, and he succeeds! If you ever have an opportunity, GO TO THIS RESTAURANT! I had the wood grilled coulotte steak, duck fat fingerling potato hash, local farm egg, and house made thyme ketchup. My steak was so wonderfully tender! Jon had the Wreckfish, with caramelized mushrooms on a bed of Swiss chard.  Wreckfish is so named because they are frequently found in and around shipwrecks – I had never heard of this fish before – but they are apparently also known as Stone Bass.  I paired my meal with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc called The Seeker. It was so fantastic that Jon tried to trade his Chardonnay with me. I said no, so he had to order his own glass. We sat outside at our table near the sidewalk where it was warm but not hot, and enjoyed our meal. We felt a couple of raindrops, but it didn’t rain!  You can find The Market Place website here, if you want to drool over the other meals you can find there.

The Market Place Restaurant – Amazing Food!

Waiting for Dinner at The Market Place

Jon’s Wreckfish Meal

My Grilled Steak – YUM!

After dinner, we did some more wandering and then went back to our home for the night and had a swim in the pool. We horsed around like kids and swam laps, and watched some cable TV before bed. That’s a real luxury for us, since we only get limited cable at home!

Martha Stewart I A’int!

Last night I hosted a Bachelorette Party for my darling friend Katie.  It was a bit last minute, because last weekend I realized that she isn’t having any attendants at her wedding, and her family is out of town, and maybe I ought to throw something together because it didn’t look like anyone else is going to.

What you need to know about me is that party planning is not my forte.  I have a number of strengths, mind you.  I can go head to head with labor unions and deal with a contentious negotiation.  I can analyze compensation and make a recommendation to the Board on whether your pay plan is going to hinder your effort to recruit the candidates you want to hire.  I can pick a Riesling from a Chardonnay and a Gewürztraminer during a blind wine tasting.  I can pronounce (and spell) Gewürztraminer!  I even have some fair photography skills (which I will be using at the wedding next weekend!)  But when it comes to domestic diva stuff, I’m out of my element.

I’m much more likely to decorate my home based on whether I like something or think it is cool, than consider whether it matches.  I have four different kinds of dinnerware, and none of them coordinate!  I’m not a great cook, and I envy people who can throw together an entire Thanksgiving meal effortlessly, and it all tastes delicious and comes out at the same time.  Until I’ve made something 400 times, I still have to follow the recipe.  And don’t get me started on crafting.  I have a friend who has a craft closet, with neatly labeled rows of boxes containing papers, embellishments, different kinds of scissors and 10,000 stamps.  That will never be me.  She has 3 young kids and a full-time job and still manages to send out handmade invitations – to book club!

So, there were no fancy handmade invitations for this Bachelorette.  There were no placecards, no cleverly handmade t-shirt for the bride, and no artful penis cake.  My coworker was appalled that I was not throwing together a signature drink…  Instead, there were fun ladies, lots of laughter, and a cut-throat game of croquet on the lawn.  I did come up with some games, and some prizes for the games, so you can’t say I’m totally incompetent!

Shelley is so Cute When She Plays Croquet!

Katie Plays Fast – It Was Hard to Catch Her on Film!

Somehow, I Won the Croquet Game! This is my Victory Lap.

Fortunately, my friends love me for who I am.  And we celebrated, and talked and enjoyed the evening, and no one thought twice about the fact that was no cupcake stand on my table, and no dessert in wedding colors…  Katie doesn’t care.  Because she ain’t Martha either…  As long as there is spanking wine (that is an inside joke!), we’re all good!

The Biltmore Estate Wine Tasting

Included in our Biltmore Estate admission was a free tasting at the Biltmore Winery. I knew Biltmore had a winery, but they don’t have distribution on the West Coast, so I had never had any of their wines before, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect… On walking into the winery, you are immediately struck by how big it is. There are at least 6 islands, with tasting space for at least 20 people at each island. Wow!

On Our Way to the Winery – Jon on a Mission

It wasn’t super busy, and we were led over to an island with about 8 other people.  The interesting thing about the Biltmore tasting is that you can taste everything if you want. And it is no small selection – they have 24 wines on their complimentary tasting menu! I figured that since I wasn’t driving, I would take them up on the offer!

The Biltmore’s Tasting Room

The Tasting Room building used to be the estate’s dairy barn.  The wooden beams on the ceiling and the steel cross bars are leftover from the dairy days – I don’t know why they decorated the steel structure with white banners, I think it looks weird.  I think that they should have tried to retain more of the original dairy barn features, because you would never guess that it was a dairy barn when you walk into the building now.

Our server was a young man who looked to be about 21. I wondered if the Biltmore wines are the only wines he’s ever had. He was friendly and knew the answers to basic questions about the wines, but was stumped when I asked him anything more in-depth.  I imagine our server sees mostly tourists, and not many tourists who are serious about their wine, so he probably isn’t used to questions like mine.  He commented a couple of times on the detailed notes I took. I didn’t think they were that detailed – certainly not as detailed as what I’ve included below, this is after I went back and expanded them a bit. So, without further ado, my take on the Biltmore wines (and see Dad, I didn’t try them all!)


  • Sauvignon Blanc – This wine was very floral, like a Viognier, with a grassy flavor. Not my favorite.
  • Limited Release Sauvignon Blanc – didn’t try, assuming it would also be very floral
  • Reserve Chardonnay 2009 North Carolina – Very buttery. I prefer a crisper stainless aged Chardonnay, but Jon liked this one.
  • Chardonnay Sur Lies – the server explained that Sur Lie means that the yeast settles on top for a couple of months, like beer. This wine was light, with a hint of carbonation. Interesting, but not a knockout wine.
  • Pinot Grigio – This one had a honeysuckle nose, with a light citrus flavor, a slight tartness and a hint of honey. Pretty decent!
  • Riesling – This wine was honey sweet and syrupy, with not crispness at all. I was not a fan.
  • Century White – I didn’t try this one.
  • Chenin Blanc – This wine was sweet with a slight syrupy feel. It tasted of pineapple and honey.  It was decent, but I like my Chenin Blanc more on the crisp side.
  • Limited Release Chenin Blanc – Our server told me that this wine was sweeter than the regular Chenin Blanc, but I found it to be less sweet. It has more of a tropical fruit taste, without the honey of the regular Chenin Blanc. I liked this one quite a bit!
  • House White – This wine was very floral, and sweet at the same time. An interesting combination. Our server told us that it is a blend with Malvasia, which is a sweet white. I hadn’t heard of Malvasia grape before – it originated in the Mediterranean and is typically used in white blends, sweet wines, and some dessert and fortified wines. I didn’t love the Biltmore House White, but I’ll have to keep an eye out for this grape in the future.


  • Century Rosé – This is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, and Grenache. This wine has a very light taste of strawberry. It was good, but almost didn’t taste like a wine – more like a fruit juice.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon Blanc de Noir – This wine was a light melon flavor. It was very enjoyable!
  • Zinfandel Blanc de Noir – This wine was very good, with raspberry and tropical fruit. It was sweet, and I imagine it would be a wonderful summer wine with chocolate!
  • 2012 Festival of Flowers Rose – This wine was sold out, so we didn’t get to try it. The name implies it is a floral wine, which I’m not a bit fan of, but the description said it is sweet and fruity. I guess I’ll never know.


  • Pinot Noir – This Pinot was very light and seemed watered down and lacked much flavor. It was pretty disappointing.
  • Cardinal’s Crest – This wine was a blend of the kitchen sink – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Grenache, but it works! It has a taste of blackberry with light oak. It is fairly tart, it needs to age just a bit to settle some. It would be a great wine with a meal, the perfect spaghetti wine!
  • Merlot – I didn’t try this one.
  • Sangiovese – This wine smelled strongly of smoke, and had a berry and plum flavor. It was ok, but not spectacular.
  • Century Red – This wine is a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot. Jon didn’t like this wine, but I did. It has the taste of plum and vanilla and smoke on the nose.
  • Syrah – I didn’t try this one.
  • Zinfandel – This wine has a lot of berry taste and tart acidity with a light mouth feel. The tasting notes described it as having tobacco and caramel aromas, which I did not get from it though. It was decent, but not great.
  • Limited Release Merlot – This wine was very bitter on the back of the throat. It was heavily oaked, and I didn’t like it at all.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon – Jon didn’t like this one, which was odd as he typically likes Cabs best. I thought it was nice, as it was not very oaked.
  • House Red – I didn’t try this one either.

The winery has some premium wines that you can taste for a fee, but we decided not to.  Maybe if the complimentary wines had been a bit more impressive…  All in all, I thought that the Biltmore wines were very drinkable, but not great wines.  I liked the Rosés the best, perhaps because a Rosé is supposed to be a light, refreshing summer wine, and it doesn’t need the structure to age.  It seems that Biltmore still has a way to go in order to get to where many of the Oregon, California and Washington wines are. And that’s ok, since wine tasting wasn’t the focus of this trip. And we had plenty of historic sites still to come!

The Biltmore wines are all reasonably priced, so I did walk away with 3 bottles – my favorites from the tasting.  As we were only on the second day of our trip, I knew we would have an opportunity to drink them before we got back on the plane to come home…  I bought the Limited Release Chenin Blanc, the Zinfandel Blanc de Noir, and the Cardinal’s Crest.  We brought home a couple of their logo glasses too, to remember the trip long after those bottles were gone.