Sweet tea is a powerful drink in the South. Some call it the “House Wine of the South,” while others refer to it as a lifeblood.
Sweet tea is so ingrained in our culture that the Convention and Visitors Bureau will showcase local tea brewers at Saturday’s Blues and BBQ with a people’s choice competition. Regardless of how you enjoy your tea, it is accepted as a part of the Southern culture.
However, tea has not always been just a preferred beverage in Liberty County. It also was a valued crop many years ago, proving just how versatile and valuable the soils and crop cultivators were in the heyday of plantations.
According to libertyhistory.org, shortly before the Civil War, William Jones planted the first tea plants on his Riceboro plantation. However, it wasn’t until after the war that he and his daughter, Rosa Jones Screven, were able to continue the effort.
Rosa Jones Screven, wife of Capt. Benjamin Screven (grandson of Gen. James Screven), and her father cultivated their own crop of tea for several years before garnering the attention of a Scottish man, John Jackson. Jackson immigrated to the U.S. in 1879, after serving as a manager of a tea plantation in India.
Jackson travelled to Liberty County to inspect the Jones/Screven tea crop and was impressed enough to rent part of the Jones Plantation to cultivate his own crop. Using his tea prowess, Jones collected specimens of his crop and sent them to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which then sent them to experts in New York City for further review. The experts determined the tea to be equal to the highest-quality teas of India and China.
Prompted by the quality of Liberty County tea, the USDA secured $30,000 in funding to establish a government-sponsored tea project. However, the political climate shifted, and the project was relocated to South Carolina.
Jackson followed the money trail and moved to a farm outside of Summerville, S.C. The farm was opened in 1844; however, Jackson, convinced the soil in South Carolina did not suit the tea, stayed only a year. The USDA concluded the climate was too unstable for tea, and the farm was closed in 1888.
Jackson returned to Liberty County but never was able to secure funds to cultivate a large tea crop. Although he was forced to abandon his tea farm, Jackson never left Liberty County. He remained a resident until his death.
Although tea crops are no longer a part of Liberty County’s agricultural endeavors, you can still enjoy the sweet taste of tea wherever you may venture. Be sure to visit Blues and BBQ on Saturday as local restaurants, caterers and individuals vie for the title of best sweet tea in the county.