Friday, April 28, 2017

21 Open Air & Groc., Saint Helena, Island, SC

Photographer facing west
Hwy 21 from Beaufort, SC to Hunting Island, SC in Beaufort County, travels through some of the most fertile farmland in the southeastern U.S.

Dotting the highway along this route are several markets which consist of a variety of structures, from old packing warehouses, pole buildings, a couple of canopies side by side, to covered shelving, the latter of which made up the 21 Open Air & Grocery.

To get to Saint Helena Island, you must cross the bridge over the Harbor River at Beaufort, landing on Lady's Island, then across a small bridge over a tidal tributary onto Saint Helena Island. The land is flat with wooded tracts and open farmland interspersed with the ever present tidal marshes. Called the "Lowcountry" for good reason, the elevation at the small town of Frogmore is approximately 30' above sea level.

Photographer facing  east
The islands were occupied by the Union Army very early on during the Civil War, in November of 1861. The islands 350 white inhabitants fled the island, leaving behind more than 2,000 slaves.

 Since this occurred before the January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the slaves that were left behind were considered contraband, or spoils of war, caught in limbo between being a slave and being free.

Considered abandoned property, they became wards of the Treasury Department, and Saint Helena Island became ground zero for an experiment in transitioning the enslaved people into independent members of society. The Penn Center in Frogmore was the hub for this experiment, and still exists today as a center for civil rights study. You can learn more about this fascinating place here.

Many of the former slaves stayed in the Lowcountry, and remained heavily involved in the area's agriculture. Many of the markets along Hwy 21 are operated by their descendants. Every spring, strawberry harvesting signals the beginning of the bounty that floods into these markets. Tomatoes, squash, green beans, bell peppers, sweet corn, watermelons, are among the produce that covers the shelves in an array of colorful goodness.

The 21 Open Air & Grocery has been closed for several years. The gates at the front have been locked, and the sign encouraging you to eat Sunbeam bread is fading. I'm not sure what became of the older gentleman that operated this market, or why it closed. Perhaps it was the opening of the Barefoot Farms, a larger pole-barn market situated across the road that offered too much competition. Hopefully, someone will open those gates and get it up and running again. You can never have too many fresh local produce markets.

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