The cultivation of rice with the tidal flow method transformed the coastal Southeast between 1783 and the early nineteenth century. This highly productive method was practical only on the lower stretches of a few rivers from the Cape Fear in North Carolina to the St. Johns in north Florida. The creation of a tidal rice plantation required a substantial capital investment and a tremendous amount of back-breaking labor. Slaves under planter direction cleared riverside swamps of timber and undergrowth, surrounded them with earthen levees, and then constructed an intricate system of dams, dikes, floodgates, ditches, and drains. The planters relied on the rise and fall of the tide to irrigate their fields several times during the growing season to encourage rice growth and control weeds and pests.
The entire hydraulic apparatus of a rice plantation required constant maintenance by skilled slaves. Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, on the Georgia coast, offers the rare opportunity to enter the world of a rice plantation. The Civil War and Reconstruction seriously affected rice culture. No longer able to compel work in the harsh environment of the rice fields, planters faced chronic labor shortages. Finally, a series of devastating hurricanes in the 1890s ruined the rice fields and put an end to commercial rice growing in the Southeast.