From Camellia to Cup: Summerville's Tea History

The History of Tea

Tea has a rich history in America, with its roots dating back to the late 1700s when French explorer and botanist Andre Michaux first planted tea at Middleton Place Plantation, which is in modern-day Summerville.

Beginning in 1880, despite two failed attempts to grow tea in South Carolina, the federal government became interested in this new tea experiment. It established an experimental tea farm at the former Newington Plantation, leasing 200 acres from Henry Middleton.

In 1888, Dr. Charles Shepard, a philanthropist and professor at the Medical College of SC acquired 600 acres of the Newington Plantation property. He established the Pinehurst Tea Plantation using plants from the government’s farm. He cultivated about 100 acres, built a factory, and began to sell his tea commercially, becoming the first successful commercial tea farm operation in the United States.

After Dr. Shepard's passing in 1915, his plantation became deserted and remained so for over four decades until the Lipton Company purchased it in 1960. They salvaged the remaining plants from Pinehurst and utilized them to open a research facility spanning 127 acres on Wadmalaw Island.

In 1987, an expert third-generation tea taster trained in London named William B. Hall, purchased the tea farm to establish what is now the Charleston Tea Garden. In 2003, Bigelow Tea Co. purchased the farm and partnered with Hall. 

The tea from the Charleston Tea Garden, all derivatives of Dr. Shepard's Camellia sinensis, is still growing there today and has earned the honor of the Official White House Tea and the Official Hospitality Beverage of South Carolina.

You can also see specimens of the tea plants from the Pinehurst Tea Gardens in the garden of the Summerville Museum.

Celebrating Sweet Tea

Summerville's passion for tea runs deep, and it is an integral part of the town's history and culture. Summerville holds the Guinness World Record for the World's Largest (Sweet) Iced Tea. The tea container, known as "Mason," stands over 15 feet tall and can hold up to 2,524 gallons of sweet tea. The record was set on National Iced Tea Day in 2016, and you can visit Mason near Town Hall.

Sweet Tea Festival held each September is another testament to Summerville’s love for its place in tea history. Celebrated with vendors, great local food, live music, and a sweet tea contest. 

Hold My Tea Bar Crawl & Cocktail Contest is held the week of the festival and features the sweet tea cocktails of local bartenders competing for the title of the year’s “Official Sweet Tea Cocktail.” 

Experience all the sights, sounds, and flavors that make life in Summerville so sweet while collecting prizes along the way. 
The Sweet Tea Trail was designed to help visitors and locals explore the wonderment of the town by offering a self-guided, sweet tea-centric trail.

Trail Guides are available at the Summerville Visitor Center and all participating businesses. Collecting stamps at each stop with a purchase can earn visitors Official Birthplace of Sweet Tea gifts at the Visitor Center.

Summerville's love for sweet tea continues to flourish, and the town's dedication to preserving and celebrating its tea heritage ensures that the legacy of this delicious Southern beverage will be passed down for generations to come.

This article was first published in the Greater Summerville/Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce quarterly magazine.