Like many of America’s familiar delights, the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) was not native to these shores. Early colonists copied the British love and custom for afternoon tea, though all of the leaves were imported. With demand came greater taxes, ultimately leading to Boston’s Tea Party and the ensuing American Revolution.
According to the U.S. Patent Office, it wasn’t until well after the war that the tea plant had its first successful plantings in Georgia and South Carolina in the early 1800s. However, the production on these farms was short-lived and scarcely documented. In 1848, Dr. Junius Smith’s Golden Grove plantation in Greenville began America’s first well-documented tea cultivation experiment.
Prior to settling on Greenville for his tea-planting, Smith had a short career as a lawyer, then moved to London for 38 years as a merchant for a successful British importer. After many trips across the ocean, Smith’s entrepreneurial spirit was aroused by realizing that the newly developing steamship could make the transatlantic journey in half the time as current traditional fleets. He soon formed The English Company as a pioneering steamship-based transatlantic shipping firm.
At age 70, Smith moved to Greenville in pursuit of his second groundbreaking venture: the cultivation of the tea plant in America. His prior international experience and trading contacts helped secure tea plants and nuts and seeds as well as ready buyers once the products were ready.
In 1849 he published the first extensive American publication on the subject, “Essays on the Cultivation of the Tea Plant in the United States of America Addressed to the People of the United States Generally, and to the Planters and Farmers of the Southern & Western States Specifically.”
Smith published regular updates of his progress and planting experiments in national newspapers and with agricultural societies. He sought to establish proof and proper methods for successfully growing tea on American soil rather than continuing to pay the high cost of imported tea from China, Java and India.
On July 4, 1851, in the Charleston Daily Courier, he wrote, “I have now before me a pot of fresh Green Tea, from my own plantation, the first I have enjoyed. Having no experimental evidence in our country of the effect of curing tea by solar heat only, contrary to the Chinese, Indian and Javian mode of curing by firing, or roasting from iron kettles, I felt some reluctance to expose this my first experiment to the public gaze, and therefore conducted the whole, from the picking of leaves to drinking the tea, in a private way. I am much gratified with the result of this my first essay in manufacturing American Tea.”
Tragically, Junius Smith’s promising efforts were cut short after he was assaulted by an unknown intruder and died of his injuries in 1853. Commercial American tea production would wait until 1986 with the American Tea Plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, on Wadmalaw Island. Just across the Greenville County border in Pickens County, Steve and Jennifer Lorch brought tea-growing back to the Upstate with the wonderful Table Rock Tea Company.