Assault with a rice spoon and other stories from Drayton Hall

***image2left***When I first met Booie Chappell, she threatened to beat me with a spoon.

Booie is a tour guide at Drayton Hall, one of America’s oldest preserved plantation houses, which is located on West Ashley River Road. My wife, Mary, and I decided spontaneously to visit Drayton while on our way to Costco.

I was lolling on a bench, waiting for the tour to begin, when Booie appeared, wielding a large silver Carolina rice spoon.

"What’s the spoon for?" I asked.

"Just misbehave on the tour and you’ll find out," she said with a wry smile.

It was love at first sight.

With that, Booie led our small group into Drayton Hall, a Georgian-Palladian home built between 1738 and 1742. What makes this house a marvel is that it is devoid of modern conveniences. It has passed through the hands of seven generations with no electricity, running water or central heating.

***image1***Booie’s technical title is architectural interpreter. It should be conjurer. Standing in the great hall, she transported us back to the 18th century, summoning vivid images of Lowcountry plantation life.

Connecting with her audience is her gift. This is not rote performance. It is the practiced art of a former schoolteacher: speak softly and keep it interesting.

"Of course I’m prejudiced, but she’s the best," said husband Chris, an amiable retired realtor. They have lived on the plantation grounds for 20 years. "What impresses so many people is her quiet voice and how she enunciates. Foreigners will say, ‘I could understand you’ after a tour. Of course, she yells at me at home. Quiet over there; loud over here. I usually go on tour with her about once a month and I’ll see some people standing there with a big grin on their faces. That’s when I know she’s hit their hot button."

Booie said she’d be bored out of her skull if she had to give the same presentation day in and day out.

"There are the basic facts everybody has to learn but then you’re encouraged to do it your own way. If I have lots of children, I will do it differently," she said. "If I know ahead of time that someone is interested in architecture and construction, I’ll talk more about that."

Booie recalled the time she guided a group of attorneys through Drayton Hall. She told the story of Rebecca Drayton, who in the late 1700s allowed some slaves to choose their new masters because she was moving to Charleston.

"When I said that they chose Rebecca’s lawyer, Mr. Porcher, the lawyers all cheered," Booie said, noting that not all tour groups are on their best behavior. "I think one of the hardest tours was with a bunch of Italian senators. They were all having a blast, having fun and misbehaving. It can get rambunctious."

Sometimes guides even get hecklers. Booie recounted how an obnoxious character tormented a new guide during her presentation. At the conclusion, the man asked her, "So, how many bricks did it take to complete this house?" The guide replied dryly, "One."

"That was brilliant," Booie laughed. "I wouldn’t have thought of that comeback until the next day."

She remembered the elderly Charleston woman she encountered back when she was a new guide in the mid-1980s.

"I was talking about the Civil War and slaves and finally this woman couldn’t take it any longer. She said, ‘Darlin’, we don’t say Civil War in Charleston. We say War Between the States. And we don’t say slave, we say field hand or house servant.’ I just nodded politely and said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’"

Then there was Barbra Streisand, who got a special tour when she was filming "Prince of Tides" in the Lowcountry. Overdue by more than an hour, Booie’s first words to her were, "You’re late!" a phrase the diva is probably not used to hearing. The tour finished in record time, with Streisand hurrying her along, saying curtly, "Fine. What’s next?"

Booie has given tours to luminaries such as Strom Thurmond and Gen. William Westmoreland. But the most notable was probably when a fellow guide showed Jacqueline Kennedy through Drayton Hall years ago. The former First Lady’s well-known passion for history and preservation was on full display.

"At the time there was scaffolding in the stairway hall, but she was determined to see the second floor," Booie said. "So she climbed the scaffolding. She was wearing a black silk skirt and when she came down that skirt was gray from all the dust."

Drayton Hall is like a big old radio, according to Chris. You walk in and it’s an empty house. But then it seizes your imagination and you begin to visualize what life was like in centuries past.

"Sometimes I expect to see Scarlett O’Hara coming down the staircase," he said.

Occasionally, a visitor will suggest that the National Trust for Historic Preservation should paint the walls and put furniture inside Drayton Hall.

"I say, ‘Bite your tongue,’" Booie said. "The beauty of Drayton Hall is the building, just as it is."

The house is a grand survivor, having weathered hurricanes, wars and an earthquake. Booie said its conservation and renovation is due, in part, to a remarkable Indianapolis woman named Sally Reahard, who provided matching funds to the National Trust for Historic Preservation for its purchase and upkeep. In addition, she left $15 million to Drayton Hall after she died two years ago at age 95.

"Miss Sally" first visited Charleston in 1934 and fell in love with the city. Although she never returned after a 1940 trip here, she left millions to support various charitable causes. Why didn’t she come back to the Lowcountry? She wanted to remember it as it was.

"We developed the most wonderful friendship over the phone," Booie said. "She was just a fantastic lady."

The two corresponded for more than 20 years and Booie saved every letter. One particularly poignant piece was Miss Sally’s account of her first train trip to Charleston. Here is a brief passage:

I was fascinated by the miles and miles of pine trees slipping past in the deepening twilight. Can you imagine us emerging from this 29-hour confinement, wobbling on our sea legs through the clouds of steam as we walked out beside the panting, hissing engine and suddenly finding ourselves at the curb of a Charleston street? I can never forget the warm soft air, the glow of streetlights, the friendly greeting of the driver sent for us by the hotel and the drive through those enchanting streets of stunning houses. One could see through open windows a glimpse of crystal chandeliers and lace curtains. It was a fairyland and I was HOOKED when we rounded The Battery and I saw the harbor.

I wish I had a picture of our arrival at the Sumter Hotel, now the Sumter Condominiums. Not only were we travel-worn and not very cheerful, but we were bundled up in our Indiana clothes – hats, coats, gloves, fur scarves. Four darkly swathed creatures in off the streets into a brightly lit flower-filled lobby humming with music, laughter, talk and everyone in summer clothes.

During a visit to Indianapolis a few years ago, Booie asked Miss Sally if it would be OK to publish her letters in a book.

"She closed her eyes, tapped her foot and thought a while. Then she said, ‘That would be all right. I’ll help you. I’ll make up some stuff.’"

Booie is no stranger to publishing. Ten years ago, she collaborated with her sister, Bess Paterson Shipe, and Maryland illustrator Dean Wroth to create "The Mysterious Tail of a Charleston Cat." This children’s book is in its second edition. Wroth and Booie then published a children’s ABC book called "All ‘Bout Charleston." Its second edition will be in bookstores in January. They also published a numbers book for children called "Counting the Ways to Love Charleston." These books are for sale in Drayton Hall’s museum store.

"It’s a thrill," Booie said. "Just the fact that you can go into the library and see your name on a book. It’s really nifty."

At the conclusion of our tour, I was standing next to Booie when she suddenly held her rice spoon aloft. I flinched and stepped out of harm’s way, wondering if I’d sinned in some way. I learned, to my relief, that the spoon was not an enforcer, but a gift for purchasing a National Trust for Historic Preservation membership to support Drayton Hall.

Today I have my very own Carolina rice spoon sitting on my fireplace mantel. It’s a nice memento from a Lowcountry landmark. But, first and foremost, that spoon will forever rekindle memories of a wonderful morning spent with a conjurer named Booie.

Daniel Island Publishing

225 Seven Farms Drive
Unit 108
Daniel Island, SC 29492 

Office Number: 843-856-1999
Fax Number: 843-856-8555


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