During his remarkable tenure in office, Sawyer survived many political controversies while superintending the steady growth of the Highway Department.

Public official. Born in Aiken County near Salley on October 22, 1890, Sawyer received undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of South Carolina. After a brief teaching stint, he enlisted in the army in 1917 and rose to the rank of first lieutenant before his discharge in 1919. In 1918 he married Ruth Louise Simmons, and they eventually had three children. After departing the army, Sawyer became the first secretary of the State Budget Commission. In 1921 he also became clerk of the South Carolina House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee. In 1925 Sawyer became secretary-treasurer of the Highway Commission.

Politically astute, Sawyer became chief highway commissioner in 1926. During his remarkable tenure in office, Sawyer survived many political controversies while superintending the steady growth of the Highway Department. In his fourteen years as chief commissioner, Sawyer successfully laid the underpinnings for the modern State Highway Department. He lobbied for bond funding to construct a statewide network of highways, survived the ensuing controversy, resisted the efforts of Governor Olin D. Johnston to deprive him and his commissioners of their offices, and defended the highway fund from diversion by Governor Burnet Maybank.

The 1929 bond controversy concerned legislation that made the state of South Carolina one district for issuing highway construction bonds. Moving from local funding to statewide funding was a quantum leap for highway construction in South Carolina. Bond bill opponent Olin D. Johnston became governor in 1935. Johnston initiated a lengthy period of unrest when he attempted to remove commission members, used the National Guard to bar Sawyer from office, declared the department in a state of “insurrection,” and tried to replace Sawyer and the commissioners with his own appointees. Numerous court challenges and legislative maneuverings left Sawyer in office and local districts electing the members of the commission.

With the dust barely settled from the Johnston challenge, in 1939 Governor Burnet Maybank and the General Assembly attempted to divert highway funds to pay teachers, balance the state budget, and fund other New Deal projects. Twice the legislature enacted such legislation, and twice the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the highway fund was a special fund created by license fees and gasoline taxes paid by users of the highways and could not be diverted to the general fund.

Despite these challenges, Sawyer remained focused on his department and on improving South Carolina roads. During his tenure, the miles of roadways doubled and two out of three of those miles were paved.

As a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, Sawyer was on active service in 1940 at Fort Jackson as an ordnance officer. Despite his military duties, Sawyer continued to serve as chief highway commissioner. On December 22, 1940, Sawyer, pursuing a weight-loss regimen in the office of a Columbia chiropractor, was accidentally asphyxiated. He was buried in Elmwood Cemetery.

Moore, John Hammond. The South Carolina Highway Department, 1917– 1987. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Sawyer, Benjamin Mack
  • Author Alexia Jones Helsley
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/sawyer-benjamin-mack/
  • Access Date July 10, 2020
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date August 1, 2016
  • Date of Last Update October 26, 2016