(380 sq. miles; 2010 pop. 15,175). Named in honor of John C. Calhoun, the county was created in 1908 from parts of Orangeburg and Lexington Counties. Located near the center of the state and bound on the north by the Congaree River and on the east by the Santee River and Lake Marion, Calhoun is the fifth-youngest and second-smallest county in South Carolina. Though small in area, its geography is remarkably varied, ranging from red and sand hills, to deep river valleys, and to coastal plains with rich, loamy soils.
The original inhabitants of the area were the Congaree and Santee Indians. A handful of European traders arrived at the start of the eighteenth century. However, substantial settlement did not occur until the 1730s, when Swiss and German immigrants took up residence in the townships of Saxe-Gotha, Orangeburg, and Amelia. In 1768 the latter two townships were organized into St. Matthew’s Parish. The region saw considerable activity during the Revolutionary War and contributed several patriot leaders, including Colonel William Thomson, whose command played a vital role in the successful American defense of Sullivan’s Island in 1776; Alexander Gillon, commodore of the South Carolina Navy; and the heroines Rebecca Motte and Emily Geiger. Following the war, the Calhoun County region developed a flourishing plantation economy based on cotton and slave labor. In the 1840s a branch of the South Carolina Railroad was built through the area, sparking the growth of the town of Lewisville, which was renamed St. Matthews in 1876 and eventually became the Calhoun County seat. The Union army of General William T. Sherman blazed a destructive trail though the area in 1865, but it recovered in the decades that followed. In 1894 a second railroad, the Manchester and Augusta, arrived and spawned the towns of Creston, Lone Star, and Cameron.
The initial attempt to create Calhoun County came in 1890, but the measure was defeated in the General Assembly. Although a second effort failed in 1896, agitation for a new county continued among local business leaders and farmers, particularly in the vicinity of St. Matthews. In May 1907 they formed the Calhoun County Association to promote their cause. Its first president, the merchant Ed Wimberly, contracted pneumonia while campaigning for the county in a rainstorm and died in June. Inspired by Wimberly’s martyrdom, the movement gained momentum under the leadership of Dr. T. H. Dreher and J. E. Wannamaker. In December 1907 a referendum on the new county won an overwhelming public endorsement, 603 to 111. Opponents contested the results, but in January 1908 the state supreme court upheld the election and Calhoun became South Carolina’s forty-second county. The cornerstone of the courthouse was laid in St. Matthews on May 29, 1913. The Greek-revival structure was designed by W. A. Edwards and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. Donations by local citizens covered much of the building costs.
The first decade of Calhoun County’s existence was auspicious. By 1920 St. Matthews bustled with 1,780 residents, numerous stores, two banks, a school, cotton gins, a fertilizer factory, an ice factory, and a bottling plant. Creston, Lone Star, and Cameron emerged as important cotton and timber shipping points, with Lone Star also serving as the site of the Calsico Hardwood Lumber plant. The county’s prosperity evaporated with the arrival of the boll weevil in the early 1920s. The boll weevil touched off a downward economic spiral in Calhoun County that lasted through the Depression of the 1930s and into the decades beyond. A decline in cotton production was matched with a decline in population. Many farms failed and were sold for taxes, although a handful of farmers survived by diversifying their operations into pecan groves, cattle and hogs, and truck farming. Although the Bank of Cameron was one of the few in the state not to close in 1933, the overall trend remained gloomy. While the county population had been 18,380 in 1920, it had dwindled to 12,206 by 1980. Calhoun was one of the few counties in South Carolina to lose population between 1950 and 1980. While much of the state abandoned cotton in favor of industry after World War II, Calhoun County remained wed to cotton production. Calhoun, Dillon, Marlboro, and Orangeburg Counties harvested over 309,000 acres of cotton in 1945, almost one-third the state total. By 1982 the same counties devoted only 80,830 acres to cotton, but this represented eighty-five percent of South Carolina’s harvested cotton acreage.
The first major industry in Calhoun County was Carolina Eastman, a manufacturer of plastic materials and resins, in 1962. By the 1990s the county’s low tax rate, proximity to Columbia, and access to Interstate 26 had attracted additional industry, but none as large as Carolina Eastman, which employed more than seven hundred people. Although Calhoun County was recognized as one hundred percent rural by the U.S. Census Bureau as late as 1990, the inroads by industry nevertheless led to significant changes. By the end of the twentieth century, manufacturing funded more than half of Calhoun County’s property tax and provided almost half of its employment. Agriculture remained a vital part of the county economy. In 1999 crop and livestock receipts totaled $14,599,000 and Calhoun County ranked third in South Carolina in cotton production.
Despite its small size and relatively brief existence, Calhoun County is not without its share of accomplished residents and institutions. The Pulitzer Prize–winning author Julia Peterkin made her home at Lang Syne Plantation. The county also claimed the state supreme court justice J. G. Stabler and the legendary state legislator L. Marion Gressette, who represented Calhoun County in the S.C. Senate for forty-eight years. Since the 1950s St. Matthews has been home to the Calhoun County Museum and Cultural Center, a recipient of the prestigious Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Award for outstanding contributions to the arts in South Carolina.
Calhoun County Historical Commission. A Brief History of Calhoun County. St. Matthews, S.C.: Calhoun County Historical Commission, 1960.
Culler, Daniel Marchant. Orangeburgh District, 1768–1868: History and Records. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1995.