Living

Home grown: How one man’s history brought him back to the family farm

An occasional series about South Carolina’s farms and products. Send suggestions to Susan Ardis, sardis@thestate.com.

Head out of Kingstree toward Hemingway on S.C. 261, and you start to see the small white and red signs pointing the way to Williams Family Vineyard & Farm.

What the signs won’t tell you is that you’ll have to make a “slight right and continue on 261” where it intersects with S.C. 512. From there it’s about another 8 to 10 minutes of twisting and turning down the two-lane road before you finally reach the farm, in the small community of Nesmith.

David Williams’ father, the Rev. Gabriel Williams, was the first generation of the family born free from slavery. He bought this land in 1924 where sharecroppers worked and lived until the family home was built in 1934.

That’s the year Gabriel Williams and his second wife, Mary Nesmith Williams, took up residence with his 12 children and her 10 children – along with David, then age 7, the only child of both Gabriel and Mary. The couple and their 23 children thrived in the modest wood-framed home that today still stands on the property.

Over the years the family grew cotton and tobacco and raised mules, horses, goats, cows, sheep and chickens.

But today, the farm has been turned over to the muscadine.

David Williams, 87, has five acres of almost every variety of muscadine, and he tends his prized crop by hand. His farm is among the largest African-American owned vineyards in the state with sweet champagne- and bronze-colored grapes growing alongside the almost black, not as sweet variety. The farm has been designated as an agritourisim destination by the S.C. Department of Agriculture and a certified heritage site by the Eastern SC Heritage Region.

This time every year, when the muscadines are ready for picking, the Williams open their farm for a Labor Day festival. The family shares with visitors what life was like in the not-too-distant past with talks and demonstrations of how black family farms were self-sustaining, growing their own produce or bartering for goods and services they needed. The vineyard is open for picking and juice is available for tasting and purchase.

Parent’s values

Growing up, David Williams was influenced by his parents’ values.

His parents could read and write at a time when many around them could not, so their home became a meeting place for neighbors to come and have their letters and other documents read, with responses written by his parents.

Williams realized having an education was important and, at age 15, decided he wanted to continue schooling past the 10th grade, the average stopping point at the time for many living in rural/farming communities.

He enrolled himself in Morris College in Sumter, a boarding school at the time, and after graduating, he attended S.C. State University, known then as the Colored Normal, Industrial and Mechanical College. Upon receiving a degree in vocational agriculture in 1950, Williams became the first African-American from Nesmith to have a college degree.

Williams went on to teach agriculture in schools throughout Williamsburg County for 37 years, finally retiring in 1987. He is proud to say that six of his seven children have graduated college and his wife, Edith, is a retired school teacher.

Williams’ mother died the year after his retirement, at the age of 106, following her husband who had passed in 1948. His father left a will, unusual for African-Americans at that time, giving David 10 acres of the family land, with roughly 36 more acres owned by other family members.

Williams decided to spend his retirement on the farm, and began thinking about what to grow. He had researched grapes and their health benefits and noticed the growth of native vines.

He settled on muscadines.

“I had a friend that was growing the grapes in the Upstate and I told him that I’d like to get a few plants from him,” he said. “I didn’t ask him how much the plants would cost.”

It was the first time Williams had tried growing grapes. It wasn’t until he had picked his first crop and sold the sweet berries at area farmers markets that he finally told his wife that had paid $400 for the plants.

Williams tended and harvested crops on his own until roughly 2003, when daughter Cassandra Williams Rush thought her 76-year-old father might need a hand.

So the next year, the Williams Family Muscadine Festival was born. For $1.50 a pound, folks came out and picked their fill of ripe berries (grapes are $2/pound if picked by the Williamses).

Over the years the Labor Day festival has grown from one day to an entire weekend, including a birthday celebration for Williams, who is turning 88 this year.

Some of his children and grandchildren help out on the farm when they can. Sons and grandsons grow peas and beans, okra and melons on a portion of the land and Rush helps market and organize tours of the farm.

Even great-grandson, Tremayne, lends a hand harvesting grapes.

The family is gearing up for the festival this weekend, as the two month-long harvest period continues.

One of the farming techniques Williams has learned over the years is how to prune and nurture the vines to coax a second production of muscadines. During a visit in mid-August, Williams already was beginning to fill orders for ripe grapes, and his vines should continue producing through October – or until the vines are picked clean by human as well as wildlife visitors such as deer and raccoons.

Williams’ berries can be found distributed locally through GrowFood Charleston and nearby IGA stores.

Muscadine grape juice, jams and jellies are bottled and sold at the farm during growing season and year-round at Cassandra’s C. Williams Rush Gallery in Kingstree.

Williams has a special relationship with his farm.

“Anything that has a life responds to you ... to the human presence. Whatever it is knows who feeds and takes care of it,” Williams said. “Plants are no different.”

If you go

12th Annual Williams Muscadine Festival

Williams Family Vineyard & Farm, 21 Gabriel Place, Nesmith (about a 2 hour drive from Columbia)

Friday, Sept. 4: 8 a.m.-8 p.m.: U-pick muscadines all day; 7:30-10 p.m. wine tasting

Saturday, Sept. 5: 8 a.m. to dark: U-pick muscadines, family fun day with children’s activities, farm tours and tastings; Friendship UMC Picnic, 4 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 6: 8 a.m. to dark: U-pick muscadines, family fun day with children’s activities, farm tours and tastings; Mr. Williams’ 88th birthday celebration, 7 p.m.; fireworks after dark

Monday, Sept. 7: 8 a.m.-8 p.m.: U-pick muscadines all day; children’s activities, farm tours

U-pick schedule Sept. 8-Oct. 10: Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday, 1-8 p.m.

U-pick muscadines $1.50/pound; we-pick $2/pound

Groups welcome. To schedule a private tour, contact Cassandra Williams Rush (803) 397-1859, crushcolumbia@aol.com or cassandra.w.rush@aol.com or Wendell Williams (843) 354-2169; follow on Facebook

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