On a chilly fall morning, park ranger Corinne Fenner gathered visitors on the boardwalk to share as much as she had been able to glean about small groups of survivalist former slaves who lived in the swamp, south of Columbia, for a century leading up to the 1830s.
This year’s Swampfest was her first opportunity to explore the maroon communities with visitors to Congaree National Park. Africans enslaved to work on coastal rice plantations followed creeks and rivers inland, making their way into the swamp, where they could escape capture, she said.
Lower Richland’s cultural history is still a little unfamiliar to Fenner, a naturalist more knowledgeable about trees and owls.
“This is a story the park is just starting to tell, and starting to learn about,” she told the group, many of them RVers from across the Southeast spending a three-day weekend in Lower Richland.
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The annual Swampfest is one part of efforts to attract more visitors interested in history and the environment to Lower Richland. Advocates say its cultural and natural attractions are opening to the public more frequently, drawing tourists to scenic two-lane roads that pass humble country churches, expansive plantation homes and silent trails through the shady floodplain.
The potential for tourism is growing, observers say, limited only by the lack of publicity about its assets and its special events.
“I didn’t even know there was a national park here,” said Doris Pugh of Greer, who visited for the first time during October’s Swampfest. She intends to return.
Pugh came here with the New Horizon RVers. The group set up at the Harriet Barber House for a weekend of blues and jazz, history and barbecue that had people circulating among the park, Mt. Moriah Baptist Church and the Barber House. The restored Reconstruction-era farmhouse has been owned by the same black family since the end of the Civil War.
“We grew from a little parking lot festival to the thousands we see today,” said Marie Adams, chairwoman of the Southeast Rural Community Outreach. The group, known as SERCO, started Swampfest in 2003.
A descendent, Adams uses the Barber House as a springboard to community programs, events and attractions. With the coming year, SERCO expects to roll out package tours originating from the convention center in downtown Columbia.
Adams met with tourism officials this summer to give them a taste of what’s available in a day: Visits to Goodwill Plantation; Wavering Place, a plantation with meticulous grounds; Congaree Baptist Church, which has the old slave gallery upstairs; and the Barber House.
“The entire staff of 15 people came out for the day, because they said they get quite a number of calls asking about heritage tourism. So we’ve created a package for them that we’re trying to finalize,” Adams said.
Geneologists searching for family history naturally are attracted to Lower Richland, Adams said.
“Richland County has a number of plantations ... and a lot of African-American families are still searching for information about their families, where they started out and where their ancestors were buried,” she said.
John Sherrer, with the Historic Columbia Foundation, sees Lower Richland as a collection of rural communities with a variety of stories to tell.
“While the antebellum period is well-represented through remaining plantation houses and farms and what not, Lower Richland offers heritage tourism opportunities that speak to the entire experience of our past,” Sherrer said.
“It’s the era of Jim Crow and the New South. It’s the era of truck farming into Columbia. It’s the era in which small communities were vitally tied to the railroad.”
The 150th anniversary of the burning of Columbia and the end of the Civil War provide an opportunity for Lower Richland to capitalize on heritage tourism, said Andrea Mensink, communications director at the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports & Tourism.
She said attractions in the countryside that haven’t routinely been open to the public seem to be moving in that direction. “The stars are aligning.”
Much of it has to do with the efforts of Adams and SERCO, observers said.
Still, there’s more to be done.
Jeremy Thomas, owner of Laurelwood Plantation, said attractions need to be promoted at the airport and other public places. The people who visit Laurelwood typically are those with a connection to it, he said.
“I don’t think there’s publicity around some of the resources here, or the stories behind them,” Thomas said.
Efforts are under way. New window panels reading, “Wilderness is closer than you think,” soon will promote the national park to travelers stopping at select welcome centers.
Lauren Gurniewicz, chief of interpretation, said the park doesn’t have an advertising budget; the panels are being underwritten by a Richland County grant to Friends of Congaree Swamp.
Still, she and others see potential in collaboration — among the managers of public land, local farms, cultural groups and Midlands visitors centers — to develop suggested iteneraries that would keep visitors here overnight. The beauty of the Congaree National Park, Gurniewicz said, is that it’s set “in a wonderful rural area, right by a city.”
A stunning addition to the itenerary should occur early next year, when the S.C. Department of Natural Resources takes ownership of 3,691 acres devoted to hunting, canoeing and wildlife observation at Cook’s Mountain and the adjacent Goodwill Plantation.
DNR will be given the land for a heritage preserve open for the public’s enjoyment.
“There will be a lot of available uses in the spring and summer” of 2015, with trails marked fairly quickly for hiking, said Bob Perry, DNR’s director of environmental programs. “It’s going to be very unique, and we think it’s going to be something the Central Midlands is going to be very proud of.”