Ruins, rice mills and cursed trees: Adventure in Bonneau Ferry WMA

greenkayak73@gmail.comFebruary 5, 2014 

"I dare you to touch this tree!" Normally one would not think twice of touching a perfectly fine live oak tree in the Lowcountry. However, this was no ordinary tree. This was the legendary "Robintation Tree" of Comingtee Plantation, and it was home to a terrible curse. Evil tree or not, it was causing a group of grown men to happily taunt each other like schoolkids. As the sky blackened with an approaching winter storm, laughter echoed through the forest. We were deep in the wilds of Bonneau Ferry Wild Management Area near Charleston and about to become lost in time.

Bonneau Ferry WMA is on the Cooper River at Moncks Corner. A little over two hours from Bluffton and seemingly in sight of the spires of the Holy City, it is a wild and wonderful world. Covering more than 10,000 acres, the refuge covers pine flatwoods, hardwood groves, wetlands and impoundments for the conservation of wildlife.

Deer, turkey and waterfowl abound in the deep beauty of this place. This area is not just for wildlife, it is rich in cultural and historic significance as well. On a wooded rise above the river at the edge of a dirt road stand the majestic ruins of a once prosperous plantation house. Comingtee Plantation was built in 1738, but is now a gaping shell of brick and wood, open to the elements and memory alone.

Finding and visiting the ruins of Comingtee can be a challenge. Recently, a group of friends and I ventured into the winter quiet of Bonneau Ferry WMA in search of it ... and we found a little more than we had planned.

Accessible by forest road, the ruins are at the far reaches of the refuge if traveling by motorized vehicle. Hunting season can close the reserve to casual visitors, and many areas are restricted at times as waterfowl preserves. The closest route for us was from the nearby settlement of Childsbury -- a place with its own stories to tell. We parked at the old Strawberry Chapel of Ease, a stucco-covered church built in 1725. From its silent graveyard and grove we bicycled to the permanently locked back gate of Bonneau Ferry WMA at the edge of town.

Two brick columns braced the gate and were inset with the name "Rice Hope." Nature and the past lay across its threshold. As we pedaled along a flat sandy road, the beauty and solitude of the refuge closed around us. Less than two miles from the gate we encountered Comingtee Plantation. At the top of the rise, the ruins rose silently before us. Empty windows gazed out over a pine-choked forest where lawn and fields once swept to the river. Here, the Ball family had settled since 1698 and the once-proud homeplace constructed in 1738.

Across from the house we biked a quarter mile to the river where the ruins of the large rice-pounding mill still stood. Here, the rice plantation had its outlet to the world as its golden product was processed and shipped. Standing next to the tall brick structure it was not hard to imagine a schooner tied to the wharf and wonder at the back-breaking labor required of this system. Plantation life here was described in the 1998 best-selling book "Slaves in the Family." In it, the author, Edward Ball, investigated 175 years of slave ownership by his ancestors and the personal, human impact of the institution.

As we biked back to Childsbury we ventured into the woods to seek a legend: The mysterious "Robintation Tree."

This ancient tree was supposedly the site of an Indian burial ground and home to a ghost. A curse supposedly accompanied the tree, claiming death for all who touched it. Locals and slaves heeded this tale so closely that a wrought iron fence was once erected around it.

Using an old photo of the tree, we trudged about in the woods, inspecting several candidates. As storm clouds brewed and distant thunder rumbled, we finally spotted it. A massive live oak, the right distance and direction from the old house ruins rose from the pines and palmetto. Embedded in the heart of its mottled bark was a wrought-iron post and ring. Was this the tree? Possibly.

Being adventurers, several of us risked the curse and touched the ancient tree to find out. As of this writing, I am happy to say that the entire group is still alive --but the legend lives on.

For a day of adventure amid the beauty of the Lowcountry and the mysteries of the past, Bonneau Plantation is a fine destination to discover.

GETTING THERE

The main entrance to Bonneau Ferry WMA is on Highway 402 Cordesville. And is little over two hours from Bluffton. Take Interstate 95 to I-26 or US 176/17 to Moncks Corner. Cross the Tailrace Canal and turn right on Highway 402. At 1.8 miles turn right on Dr. Evans Road. Childsbury is approximately seven miles down at the end of the road. The back gate, the "Rice Hope" entrance, is on Dr. Evans Road and, though blocked to vehicles, is accessible most of the year on foot or by bicycle. The ruins are about five miles by car from the main entrance on Highway 402. Please remember this is not a park but a wildlife management area. There are no facilities in the area, so bring water, bug repellent and have a plan. Contact SCDNR at 843-825-3387 to inquire about hunting schedules and conditions.

THE CURSE OF THE "ROBINTATION TREE"

The Lowcountry is filled with old takes of "haints" and spirits. Spooky tales of ghosts and slave legends of the "Plat Eye" and shape-changers abound in the quiet corners of the land. Highlighted in the popular "Weird U.S." books, the tale of the haunted tree of Comingtee comes to the fore in modern times. This book describes the tree as being the burial site of an Indian chief and cursed to all who touch it. The "Journal of American Folk-lore" printed in 1894 recalls the tree as home to a shape-changing spirit that appears to travelers in the road at night and rapidly grows in shape until the viewer flees in terror. The 1909 "Recollections of the Ball family of South Carolina and the Comingtee plantation" the ghost or "Robintation" is described in similar fashion. In our search for the tree we were only chasing slave tales ... but the possibility of discovery was thrilling nonetheless. Whether we located the mysterious "Robintation Tree" or not did not seem to matter. Spirits, seen and unseen may still haunt the woods, but enjoying a Lowcountry winter day with friends surely raised ours.

Bluffton resident Matt Richardson enjoys taking day trips with his family and exploring the Lowcountry. To see more pictures from his adventures, go to www.Flickr.com and search the username "greenkayak73." He can be reached at greenkayak73@yahoo.com.

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