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Bellwood Plantation and the Southern Swept Yard

If you can bear one more post derived from Bellwood...

I'm particularly fascinated by the two yards created in this landscape, as defined by the two picket fences. The bare dirt in the outer section, surrounding the small house, may be a classic southern swept yard. And all 'sensitive aesthetic' aside, the cottage is likely in this place and time to have been slave quarters.

My first glimpse at the swept yard was the description of the Radley place in To Kill a Mockingbird:

"The house was low, was once white with a deep front porch and green shutters, but had long ago darkened to the color of the slate-gray yard around it. Rain-rotted shingles drooped over the eaves of the veranda; oak trees kept the sun away. The remains of a picket drunkenly guarded the front yard-a "swept" yard that was never swept-where Johnson grass and rabbit-tobacco grew in abundance. "

It could be a description of Bellwood after a Civil War and fifty years of neglect.

The swept yard is a unique vernacular landscape tradition once common in the deep South: a bare dirt area denuded of any grass, kept 'clean' by sweeping with a broom made of twigs (dogwood seems to have been preferred). The hard red clay of the yard would eventually become almost stone like, though still muddy when it rained. Its practical purpose was to keep away bugs and critters and reduce the fire danger next the house.

[Examples above are from the re-created boyhood home of former president Jimmy Carter in Plains, Georgia, and the Atlanta History Center's Tullie Smith farm, both open to the public]

But any practical purpose may have been secondary to its cultural one, for the swept yard was an African tradition transplanted to the South by slaves longing for home.

From an article in the NYT on the dying tradition of the swept yard:

"I have no doubt that the swept yard did come from Africa -- and then was adopted by white folks," said Mr. Westmacott, whose book, "African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South," was published last year by the University of Tennessee. "Almost everybody had swept yards, including the plantations, which were swept by slaves or servants."

"People swept their yards long before the age of mowers, and nobody liked grass. "Any weed was called grass," Mr. Westmacott said. "And people battled against it because cotton didn't compete well with weeds. The swept yard was the most important "room" of the household, the heart of the home. Slave quarters were cramped and hot. So you washed and cooked outside, and when the meal was over, everything could be swept into the fire. "

This series of posts has me longing to be back in the South. I'm thinking of a place in my landscape for a small swept yard, and shall dream tonight of the courtyards of Savannah.
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Les, Zone 8a said...

Thank you for your posts, I find them very interesting. I lived for a time on the Sea Islands in South Carolina and saw many of the swept yards you mentioned. I asked my friends who were raised there why people burn their dirt. What they did was sweep or rake the yard, and all the detrius was burned on a regular basis, but to me it looked like piles of dirt were on fire. Unfortunately no one could answer my question beyond saying that it was what some people did.

Great Dame said...

Thanks for this reminder of the past - both my own and the southern tradition. I have a BLA from the University of GA., and I had a few classes with (then) Professor Westmacott way back when. He was an interesting teacher, and it's fascinating to hear how the swept yard tradition has carried on. You definitely still see it in the rural South today.

David in Greensboro, NC said...

Interesting history of swept yards. I'm from SC and have wondered about this, but like Les, never got a satisfactory answer as to its origins and purposes.

Patricia said...

My great grandmother kept a swept yard, even after she and her husband moved from more rural Luling, TX, into a house on a city lot in Houston, TX. She kept a couple of formal flower beds within the fence, but not a single blade of grass was allowed. The dirt was swept in even patterns every morning. Personally, I don't care for grass myself, but only because it takes up valuable gardening space.

Muddy Mary said...

Wonderful information. It fits perfectly with comments my grandmother made about the swept yard of her childhood and I wanted to share. She said, "We didn't have any grass growing in our yard. We would have brooms made from dogwood limbs. Brush brooms. Every Saturday we would scrub all the floors in the house. Then we'd sweep the yard. Usually, the day before, we would wash and we didn't have clothes lines so we hung our clothes on the fence." My grandmother was born in Nacogdoches TX in 1899. Her people were 18th century Spanish settlers in East TX.

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