The History of Tea in the U.S. From 1772 to Present

The United States certainly isn’t the first place you’d think of to find good quality tea, but you’d
probably be surprised to know that production goes back to 1772, with the first record of tea be-
ing grown commercially near Savannah, on Skidaway Island.
The next record of commercially grown tea was in
Greenville, South Carolina in 1848 by Junius Smith,
on his plantation, Golden Grove.  Smith proved
quite successful at growing tea, but unfortunately
he was fatally shot five years later in 1853, and his
plantation died with him.
The next attempt at growing tea commercially was
in 1879 in Georgetown, South Carolina where Dr.
Alexis Forster planted a new crop on his plantation,
Friendfield.  Dr. Forster also died prematurely when
his buggy flipped while trying to outrun a group of
bandits trying to rob him in 1879.

A surprising discovery of indigenous tea plants
found growing in Western Maryland and Pennsyl-
vania was reported in 1863 by the New York Times.
This discovery of wild tea growing natively sparked

the interest of the U.S. Department of Agriculture who planted an experimental tea farm outside
Summerville, South Carolina.
The program ran for four years, from 1884 to 1888, but a report
issued by the Department of Agriculture in 1877, “estimates the
minimum cost about eight times as much to pick one pound of
tea in South Carolina, as that paid for the same service in Asia.”

With the government’s tea farm scraped, the next effort at growing
tea commercially was made by Dr. Charles Shepard in 1888.  He established Pinehurst Tea
Plantation, close to where the government’s farm had been located.

To cover costs for labor, Shepard opened a school, making tea picking part of the curriculum, giv-
ing him cost free child labor, while offering an education that may have not been available to
them otherwise.

Pinehurst produced quality teas, including an oolong that won first prize at the

St. Louis World’s
Fair in 1904. Pinehurst closed after Shepard’s death in 1915, and lay untended for several years.
Pinehurst proved important, though, as it provided the ground
work for the American Tea Growing Company, begun by Major
Roswell Trimble and Colonel Augustus C. Tyler in the early 1900s
The two men transplanted thousands of tea bushes from Pine-
hurst, moving them from Summerville to nearby Rantowles in
South Carolina’s Lowcountry.

It’s said the venture failed primarily because of a quarrel
between Trimble and Tyler’s son, while others believe its failure
was because of Colonel Tyler’s death in 1903, along with the repeal of the Spanish-American
War import tax of ten cents per pound of tea.  Whatever it was, the American Tea Growing
Company was the fourth failure at growing tea commercially in the U.S..

In 1963 the Thomas J. Lipton Co., incorporated tea plants from Pine-
hurst and moved them to a research station established on a former
potato farm on Wadmalaw Island.  Worried about the instability of
many third world countries that produced tea, Lipton paid for the sur-
viving tea plants from Pinehurst to be moved to the experimental tea
farm until 1987, when it was sold to Mack Fleming and Bill Hall who
converted it to a working tea garden.

Called the Charleston Tea Plantation, Fleming and Hall converted a
used tobacco harvester to mechanically harvest their tea.  Known as
American Classic Tea, they sold it by mail order, and also produced
Sam’s Choice

Instant Tea, sold through Sam’s Club, and it was even
the official tea of the White House beginning in 1987.
Unfortunately the company was a losing endeavor, and facing bank-
ruptcy in 2003, it was sold to the Connecticut based, Bigelow Tea
Company, at auction for $1.28 million.

Bigelow closed the plantation for a short time to renovate, opening again
in 2006 where it now produces quality

blackgreen, and oolong teas, and
also gives tours of the factory and tea gardens to the public.
In other parts of the U.S., tea was also introduced in Hawaii in 1887, but
for reasons unknown was discontinued in 1892.  In 2003 tea cultivation
was once again introduced and by 2004 the Hawaii Tea Society had about
40 members or smallholders who had started small backyard tea gardens,
growing and producing small batches of

specialty teas.By 2010 several larger Hawaii tea producers showcased their unique, quality teas at the 2010
World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, beginning to market outside the U.S. to

world buyers.

There are also new established tea farms in Skagit Valley in Washington state, operated by brothers, Steve and
Richard Sakuma, and a tea garden in the mid-stages of preparation near the San Francisco Bay area in California,
operated by Ray Fong who also owns a successful retail tea business since 1993 in San Francisco, specializing in high
Chinese and Taiwanese teas.  Enjoy.