Businessman, entrepreneur, philanthropist. Son of Caleb Coker and Hannah Lide, Coker was born on January 3, 1837, near Society Hill, where his father was a planter and a merchant. He was educated at the local St. David’s Academy, the Citadel, and Harvard. At Harvard he spent 1857 studying with Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray to better prepare himself for managing agricultural property. When his father gave Coker property in Hartsville, he became one of the first in the state to adapt scientific methods to agriculture, an interest his son David R. Coker later expanded into Coker’s Pedigreed Seed Company. On March 28, 1860, Coker married Susan Stout, daughter of a Baptist minister. Their marriage produced a remarkable set of sons—James Jr., David, William, and Charles—who became state and regional leaders in business, agriculture, and education.
During the Civil War, Coker served in the Ninth (later the Sixth) South Carolina Infantry, reaching the rank of major. Seriously wounded at Lookout Mountain in 1863, he took nearly a year to recover. After a torturous journey home, Coker found the area devastated and began the task of rebuilding his farm and his community. J. L. Coker and Company, a general merchandise store, opened in 1865. The store prospered, serving an extensive cotton-growing region of the state and eventually becoming one of the South’s largest stores.
Coker’s work with cotton farmers led him into the business of cotton factoring and manufacturing. He founded a cotton mill, a cotton gin, and a cottonseed-oil mill, and with G. A. Norwood he established a cotton firm at Charleston with which he was associated from 1874 to 1881. After this time he focused most of his enterprises in Darlington County, where he established the Darlington National Bank (1884) and the Bank of Hartsville (1903) and built a railroad (1889) to connect his Hartsville businesses to the world. With son James Jr. he organized the Carolina Fiber Company (1889), the first plant to commercially produce wood pulp from pine. His textile interests led him to establish, with son Charles, the Southern Novelty Company (1899) to manufacture the paper cones and tubes needed in yarn mills. Eventually these two firms were merged to form Sonoco, a major international producer of packaging products. The seed company, incorporated in 1913 with his son David, became a renowned southern seed and plant producer. Coker’s business activities did much to influence and promote industrial, commercial, and agricultural development in the state.
Along with his varied business concerns, Coker took a strong interest in promoting education. Largely through his efforts and financing, Coker College, originally a liberal arts college for women (later coeducational), was established in Hartsville in 1908. Coker’s long and successful career provided a human face to the state’s successful transition from the Old South to the New South. At the time of his death on June 25, 1918, Coker was considered the wealthiest citizen of the state and, perhaps, its most versatile postbellum entrepreneur. He was buried in the First Baptist Church Cemetery, Hartsville.
Coker, James Lide. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Recollections of the Major: James Lide Coker, 1837–1918. Hartsville, S.C.: Hartsville Museum, 1997.
Simpson, George Lee, Jr. The Cokers of Carolina: A Social Biography of a Family. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956.