(410 sq. miles; 2010 pop. 19,220). By an act of the General Assembly in 1897, Lee County was created from portions of Sumter, Darlington, and Kershaw Counties and named in honor of General Robert E. Lee. The movement to create a new county came from the northeast section of Sumter County in a region known as Old Salem, whose residents generally supported the political machine of Benjamin R. Tillman. To meet the constitutional size requirement, additional land had to be taken from other counties. Neighboring Darlington County contested the legality of the act, and the state supreme court subsequently annulled it on the grounds that the commissioners of elections had not certified the election. After waiting the required four years for a new election, the majority of area citizens voted in favor of the new county on February 25, 1902. Again the election was contested, and it was not until December 15, 1902, that the supreme court ruled that all requirements had been met and that Bishopville would be the county seat. Residents of the new county celebrated with speeches and by firing a Civil War cannon that had been brought up from the bank of Lynches River. Although natural boundaries were mentioned in the act, the old roads and lines surveyed in 1898 were used to form the new county. In 1914 a small area of land was restored to Sumter County. Another section was returned to Kershaw County in 1921. Since then the boundaries have remained the same.
The first court convened in the Bishopville Opera House on March 2, 1903. The Atlanta architects Edwards and Walters designed a new county courthouse, which the contractor Nicholas Itner completed in 1909. Four years later the people of Lee County erected a granite monument in front of the courthouse to honor the Confederates who died in the war. Adding to the courthouse memorials, the Lynches River cannon was mounted on a concrete pedestal. County government took a council-administrator form, with a council comprised of seven members elected in a general election and representing specific districts.
Throughout its existence Lee County has been an agricultural community and sometimes is referred to as the “Garden Spot of the Carolinas.” Cotton has been the leading crop, and Lee County was the state’s largest producer of the staple at the end of the twentieth century. In the early 1900s the county was a major horse and mule market. During the Depression of the 1930s, the federal government purchased 12,500 acres in Lee County to relocate displaced farmers. Named Ashwood, the settlement grew to over twelve hundred residents before poor harvests and a withdrawal of government support forced the abandonment of the project in 1944. With the diversification of farming after World War II, county farmers began to work more than one crop. Soybeans, peanuts, and corn enjoyed increased production, with wheat and cattle gaining in importance as well. Many farmers began to plant small quantities of tobacco. After decades of decline, the horse industry enjoyed renewed growth, while poultry (chickens, turkeys, and quail) claimed a growing share of Lee County’s agricultural production.
Many Lee County natives achieved both statewide and national recognition. Mary McLeod Bethune, born in 1875 near Mayesville, became a nationally recognized African American educator and leader. Ellison D. Smith grew up on his family’s plantation, Tanglewood, near Lynchburg. First elected to the U.S. Senate in 1908, “Cotton Ed” Smith became a colorful and controversial figure who championed agricultural interests in the South. Corporal James Davison Heriot was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty” in the fighting at Vauz Andigny, France, on October 11, 1918. Pearl Fryar’s Topiary Garden is a carefully sculpted work created by the skill and artistry of a self-taught topiary sculptor. Fryar appeared on national television and in several international publications for his interesting insights and stories that complement his garden.
Lee County abounds with community events and institutions to commemorate its past and present. The county is the site of the Annual Lynchburg Magnolia Festival, as well as the Lynches River Festival held at Lee State Natural Area in May. Every October the Cotton Festival in Bishopville celebrates the county’s cotton heritage, while a weekend-long festival of the life and achievements of Mary McLeod Bethune is held annually at the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Park. Cotton is also the unifying theme of the South Carolina Cotton Trail, which starts in Bishopville and winds through Lee and four other counties. A driving tour takes visitors through historic towns that cotton built, as well as through two centuries of mansions, scientific breakthroughs, beautiful fields, and natural areas.
Industry grew in importance in the latter decades of the twentieth century. Two industrial parks were located near the Interstate 20 exits. The county government gained a probusiness reputation and coordinated its efforts at regional economic development with neighboring counties. Leading industrial employers in the county came to include the textile giant Burlington Industries and South Atlantic Canning. Other major employers included the Lee Correctional Institute, located south of Bishopville and operated by the South Carolina Department of Corrections; and the Lee County
Landfill administered by Allied Waste Industries, whose operations increased rail traffic through Bishopville and necessitated a major upgrading of the roadbed and track.
Gregorie, Anne King. History of Sumter County, South Carolina. Sumter, S.C.: Library Board of Sumter County, 1954.
Lee County Bicentennial Commission. Lee County, South Carolina: A Bicentennial Look at Its Land, People, Heritage & Future. N.p.: Reeves, 1976.
Lee County Chamber of Commerce. Lee County, South Carolina: Past and Present. Dallas, Tex.: Taylor Publishing, 1992.