Beaufort, S.C.

Historic homes and gracious gardens are the star attractions in October in Beaufort, S.C., when visitors get an insider’s look at properties usually admired from the outside.

The 2014 Fall Festival of Houses and Gardens, Oct. 24-26, takes you through the city’s National Historic Landmark District and inside more than a dozen historic properties. Historic Beaufort Foundation puts on the festival as its main fundraiser to aid its work of preserving the past. (Tickets:

The homes are more than beautiful. They also tell stories, like the McKee-Smalls House, open that Saturday.

The house – with its gracious double veranda out front – was built around 1834 and was purchased in 1863 by Robert Smalls, who had been born on the property as a slave to the McKee family. As an adult, Smalls managed to escape north to freedom when he piloted a Confederate gunboat on a daring journey out of the Charleston harbor. His bravery in taking his wife and children to freedom and turning over the boat to Union forces won Smalls a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln. After the Civil War, he returned to Beaufort and with Civil War prize money bought the home of his former master. Smalls became a congressman, spearheading reforms that helped African-Americans retain the right to vote.

After Smalls moved into his Beaufort home, said Isabella Reeves, director of the festival, he went on to buy up most of the surrounding block. Visitors on Friday can view one of those houses, once home to Smalls’ daughter and her husband.

Another tour highlight: The George Moss Stoney house. At one point the historic riverfront home was split into a duplex. Later owners restored it as a single-family dwelling.

“The interesting thing about historic Beaufort is its variety,” said Reeves. “It’s got (everything from) big mansions on fairly large lots that sometimes overlook the river to small homes such as a freedman’s cottage (that’s) on the tour.” The architectural variety, she said, displays both the wealth of Beaufort before the Civil War and the cash-strapped state of the city after.

One property that made its way through that transition is a star of the Saturday tour lineup. Chelsea Plantation, located about 20 minutes outside town, is a home built on the site of a historic plantation whose house burned in the 1930s. The present structure was built as what’s sometimes referred to as a “Depression plantation,” Reeves says – homes bought or built by well-off Northerners for use as vacation or hunting spots.

In case all that history makes tour-goers hungry, Sunday is the day the festival focuses on the culinary wonders of Beaufort. Visitors will tour five contemporary home kitchens where local chefs will be stationed to create regional dishes and pour wine.

Area information: Amber Veverka