(360 sq. miles; 2010 pop. 10,233). Named in honor of Cyrus Hall McCormick, inventor of the mechanical reaper, McCormick County was formed in 1916 from portions of Greenwood, Abbeville, and Edgefield Counties. Lying geographically in the forested lower Piedmont of South Carolina and bordering Lake Thurmond and the Savannah River, McCormick is South Carolina’s smallest and second-youngest county.
Native Americans, principally of the Cherokee Nation, used the area for hunting grounds prior to European immigration. This practice was disturbed in the 1750s by the arrival of Scots-Irish migrants, led by Patrick Calhoun, who settled at Long Cane Creek in 1756. In the 1760s Huguenots and German Palatines followed, establishing settlements at New Bordeaux and Londonborough, where they experimented with silk, wine, and hemp production. At Willington Academy, established in 1801, Dr. Moses Waddel educated a future generation of South Carolina statesmen, including John C. Calhoun, George McDuffie, and Patrick Noble. After the Revolutionary War a cotton economy, using African American slave labor, began to develop, and by the 1860s it had grown to be the region’s dominant institution and source of income. Prominent planters from the area included Dr. John de la Howe, whose estate became a manual training school bearing his name, and the Unionist sympathizer James Louis Petigru.
Gold was first taken from the area between 1847 and 1852 by a local planter named William “Fool Billy” Dorn. As legend has it, Dorn’s foxhounds unearthed a gold vein while hunting close to the site of the present-day town. Using slave labor to work his mine, Dorn reputedly extracted between $900,000 and $2 million in profits within ten years. During the Civil War it was claimed that Dorn outfitted an entire regiment of Confederate soldiers. With slave labor no longer available following the South’s defeat, the output of Dorn’s mine diminished greatly. In the 1980s McCormick County made a serious attempt to capitalize on its history of gold mining. Local history and industrial archaeology, evidenced in the remains of old pits and tunnels scattered around the town of McCormick, were celebrated and explored in the town’s Gold Rush festival.
The settlement that developed near mines was known initially as Dorn’s Gold Mines and later as Dorn Mine Post Office. In 1871 Cyrus McCormick bought the mines for $20,000 and spent the remainder of his life trying to realize a profit, despite extensive capital outlays for new mining equipment. However, McCormick did give the town an orderly shape and the area a new economic prosperity that ultimately led to a new county. First, McCormick ordered that forty acres be surveyed and laid out in squares, auctioning the thirty-by-one-hundred-foot lots and donating property for churches, a school, and a cemetery. Next, he brought the area into the railway age by purchasing stock in the Augusta and Knoxville Railroad to encourage a rail spur to his mines, which subsequently created thriving railroad stops such as Modoc, Meriwether, Mt. Carmel, and Parksville. In 1882 the Dorn’s Gold Mines settlement was incorporated as the town of McCormick, which became the first village in the state to be incorporated as “dry,” prohibiting the open sale of liquor for a century. However, prohibition never managed to drain the demand for liquor, and tipplers in the county continued the tradition of supplying their needs and the needs of others by building ingenious, but nevertheless illicit, stills.
The first effort to form the county of McCormick came at the 1895 constitutional convention. By the early 1900s, encouraged by a flourishing agricultural economy, “new county” committee leaders promoted their campaign to the electorate through a new weekly newspaper, the McCormick Messenger. By 1916 they had overcome all opposition. However, prosperity in the new county was relatively short-lived. The diminishing importance of mining and the double blow of the boll weevil and the Great Depression devastated the McCormick County economy by the 1930s. Federal projects addressed the county’s worst problems, including massive population loss and soil erosion. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted 48,000 acres of pine trees that formed the nucleus of the Long Cane Division of the Sumter National Forest. Community-building programs, such as the Works Progress Administration–built town hall in McCormick, provided jobs for unemployed residents. To solve flooding in Augusta, Georgia, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Clarks Hill (later Lake Thurmond) Dam in the 1940s, providing hydroelectric power and water-based recreation. With the pines came the timber-processing industry, and following World War II textile mills appeared. These remained major employers throughout the remainder of the century.
Two new communities added two thousand residents to McCormick County’s population in the 1990s. The state housed more than eleven hundred inmates at the McCormick Correctional Institute (MCI), a maximum-security penal facility, while upward of eight hundred retirees moved to the recreational and retirement community of Savannah Lakes Village on the shores of Lake Thurmond. Although slow to join the South’s historic preservation movement, county politicians and planners fully embraced the idea of heritage tourism in the 1980s as an important source of future revenue and employment, especially as more traditional economic activities rapidly disappeared from the county. These developments included the formation of the McCormick Arts Council, the county’s participation in South Carolina Heritage Corridor projects, the refurbishment of the town of McCormick’s Main Street and the Dorn Mill and Cotton Gin (later the Dorn Mill Center for History and Art), and plans to revive the town of Willington.
In the late 1990s McCormick continued to be designated one hundred percent rural by the U.S. Census Bureau and boasted the greatest proportion of forestland in the state, totaling over ninety percent of all available acreage. The proximity to over seventy thousand acres of lake and river gave rise to the promotion of the county as South Carolina’s “Freshwater Coast” and the development of recreational tourism. Recreational and heritage tourism, textiles, and the timber industry comprised McCormick’s economic foundation at the end of the twentieth century.
Edmonds, Bobby F. The Making of McCormick County. McCormick, S.C.: Cedar Hill, 1999.
Fortenberry, Ken H. Kill the Messenger: One Man’s Fight against Bigotry and Greed. Atlanta: Peachtree, 1989.