Sunny Side Plantation is perched upon its own two acre island on the northwest bank of Edisto, where it houses its very special owner—a pair joined together by fate. The current owner is a member of a club whose numbers are perpetually dwindling, yet she is as joyful and happy as her homes sunny name describes. For you see, Sunny Side Plantation, built shortly after the Civil War around 1868, is owned and occupied by direct descendants of its original builder, Townsend Mikell, and has been since his death.
The first successful plantation to operate on the newly established wage system, Townsend Mikell’s Sunny Side Plantation consisted of 700 acres and a cotton gin. The gin’s foundation is still visible on the little island, situated just to the left of the big house. Throughout the past 150 years, the family of Townsend Mikell has maintained the original 700-acre tract. Keeping it within the safety of the family, the tracts do get smaller with the divisions of each generation, but this concerted effort to maintain a family estate would make any preservationist green with envy. In a day and age when it’s unusual to live in one house for more than 20 years, Sunny Side has witnessed the births, weddings and deaths of almost every one of Mikell’s offspring. The family history is literally written on its walls.
Sprawling 4,000 square feet and three stories high, Sunny Side features an architectural styling that is not your typical southern plantation. The mansard style roof on the second story is topped with a copula that is winged to the left and right with dual widows’ walks; Sunnyside at first glance appears to belong on a blustery New England shore line. But the deep set porches hugging its main floor and the hovering grand oaks holding back curtains of Spanish moss smother it in southern ambiance and grace.
Current owner and direct descendant of Townsend Mikell is Carroll Belser. Her petite frame is dwarfed by the towering ceilings and massive doors as she strolls through the modern kitchen addition into the dining room. She explains the first thing she and her husband did to the home when she inherited it was to have central heat and air put in. "They went through quite a few saw blades cutting the openings for the vents!” Carroll laughed and pulled out a piece of tongue and groove wood flooring. The 150-year-old piece of heart of pine was over two inches thick. It was just a small peek at the quality of materials and level of craftsmanship that went into the home. When the decision was made by Carroll’s grandmother to add windows to the dining room, multiple chains saws were sacrificed to create the openings where the windows would go. The amount of care and craftsmanship given during the home’s building is apparent all around. The thick walls that kept the house a few degrees cooler in the radiant Edisto summertime also worked against keeping the inhabitants warm in the winter. Despite the multiple fireplaces on all floors, warmth in the wintertime would have been a luxury.
Where the central heat and air has only just become a new (though infrequently used) luxury to the Sunny Side house, Townsend Mikell was a fan of the latest technologies, an innovator, and a community leader. He was the first on Edisto to utilize tiled drain fields to sweep away excess water from his crops. Some of these drain fields are still visible today. When the telephone came to use on the mainland, Mikell was the voice negotiating the service to come to Edisto. Sunny Side was the first of four homes to have a telephone. Each telephone would have been miles apart and used primarily for emergency situations or important messages. With the obsession over our personal smart phones today, it’s almost unfathomable to imagine walking a few miles to relay a message or alert of an emergency.
Townsend Mikell’s descendants, Carroll Belser, Gale Thompson, and Ritchie Belser, spent a lot of time growing up in the stately home their father, Ritchie H. Belser, had inherited. A surgeon in Charleston and the fourth of his siblings, Ritchie inherited the home in the 1960s. The old fashioned rule of heir apparent doesn’t seem to have applied to this family much at all. Perhaps that is the contributing factor to the family’s ability to stick together and maintain the original tract in its entirety over many generations. While each person inherits a parcel, the heavy weight of responsibility of a massive and aging home cannot be taken lightly.
Carroll, even though she is the oldest of three, confessed she had no idea until much later in life that she would inherit the house. She reveals it’s not just inheriting a home. "It is a responsibility to the history of the home and to our family. We are obligated to keep it ready and open for family in the case of a death or wedding and all holidays. But it’s not too hard to keep it ready, since it’s just the two of us!”
Carroll was and always has been a huge supporter of the Edisto Island Open Land Trust. Currently 50 percent of Edisto Island is protected under conservation easement. Carroll wanted the same for Sunny Side. She admits that her father was a hard sell on it at first. Eventually she convinced him of the need to protect Sunny Side and its 60 acres against development. The plantation was placed in conservation before his death. When it comes to the home’s care and well-being, Carroll always wonders what her daddy would have done. All in all she thinks he would be pleased with the care she has given to the grand old home. Sunny Side Plantation shines on its little island, partially from the sun and partially because it is so loved by one very, very lucky family.
Please be respectful and remember that Sunny Side is a private and full time residence. The home is occasionally on tour through events with the Edisto Island Museum or the Edisto Island Open Land Trust; please check their websites for more information.