Bounded on the west by the Savannah River, Aiken County lies at the western end of the state’s Sandhills region, whose poor soils necessitated the development of alternatives to farming. These nonagricultural alternatives defined much of the county’s history.
(1,073 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 172,895). Aiken County was created in 1871 from parts of Barnwell, Edgefield, Lexington, and Orangeburg Counties. Named for William Aiken, first president of the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company, it ranks fourth in land area among South Carolina counties. Bounded on the west by the Savannah River, the county lies at the western end of the state’s Sandhills region, whose poor soils necessitated the development of alternatives to farming. These nonagricultural alternatives defined much of the county’s history.
European settlement began in the late 1600s with the arrival of hunters and Indian traders. Early milestones included the building of Fort Moore in 1716 and the establishment of New Windsor township in the 1730s. Edgefield and Winton (later Barnwell) Districts were established in the region in 1785. These districts later claimed the commercial boomtown of Hamburg in 1821 as well as much of the South Carolina Railroad in the 1830s. Aiken, destined to be the seat of Aiken County, was chartered in 1835 and owed its existence to the railroad. Many early residents were refugees from the heat and disease of Charleston summers, and the town gained a reputation as a healthy retreat for sufferers of respiratory ailments. A pivotal event in the area’s economic history was the construction of William Gregg’s cotton mill at Graniteville in the late 1840s. Other entrepreneurs followed Gregg’s example, and by 1900 a string of textile factories occupied the banks of Horse Creek.
The Reconstruction era saw the formation of Aiken County in 1871. The new county quickly became infamous for racial violence and electoral corruption. The large black population of postbellum Hamburg made the town a Republican stronghold and a thorn in the side of militant white Democrats. Tensions culminated during the election campaign of 1876, in which Aiken County witnessed bloody race riots at Hamburg and Ellenton, as well as the birth of the “Red Shirts,” whose rough tactics thrilled whites, alarmed blacks, and ultimately defeated the Republicans and ended Reconstruction in the state.
Ironically, this volatile era also saw the arrival of wealthy northern families who found that Aiken County’s mild winters and sandy soil made it an ideal winter sports resort. Led by Thomas and Louise Hitchcock of Long Island, New York, and William C. Whitney of Boston, prominent businessmen and their families pursued a vigorous leisure centered around equine sports. Many built large “cottages,” and members of this “winter colony” continued their annual visits well into the twentieth century. Their legacy lives on in Aiken’s equestrian activities, including “drag” hunts, horse shows, polo, and the “Triple Crown” horse races every March.
The first half of the twentieth century brought little change to the county, with cotton mills remaining the only significant employment option for struggling rural residents. The town of North Augusta, across the river from Augusta, Georgia, emerged at the turn of the century and also catered to winter colonists with its elegant Hampton Terrace Hotel. Peaches, which William Gregg had grown fifty years earlier, became a commercial crop in the “Ridge” area of the northern part of the county with the advent of refrigerated railroad cars.
While county towns became known for leisure and the northern section for its peaches, the Horse Creek Valley gained notoriety for its textile mills and labor militancy. The first major strike among southern textile operatives occurred at Graniteville in 1876. Ten years later the Knights of Labor were active in the valley, and strikes erupted periodically in the first decades of the twentieth century. The inauguration of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 sparked a sharp increase in union membership among valley workers, and thousands went on strike that fall for higher wages and better working conditions. When violence broke out, Governor Ibra C. Blackwood called in the National Guard and federal labor officials arrived to mediate the dispute. They urged workers to return to the mills but did not order owners to rehire them. The results were job losses and evictions from company houses for many strikers.
The cold war that followed World War II brought dramatic change. Construction of a billion-dollar nuclear weapons facility, the Savannah River Plant (later Site), in Aiken and Barnwell Counties brought as many as 25,000 jobs to the region, including many science and engineering positions. The sheer number of new arrivals overwhelmed Aiken County’s infrastructure, schools, and housing, while cultural differences created tensions between “bombers” and natives. Thus the 1950s were a time of unprecedented adjustment for the county, whose population soared from 53,137 to 81,038 during the decade. By the end of the century, Aiken County reflected the impact of the “bomb plant” with income, education, and nonnative population figures well above state averages. In the 1970s higher education came with the opening of the Aiken campus of the University of South Carolina as well as Aiken Technical College.
Environmental concerns and the end of the cold war in the early 1990s halted nuclear production at the Savannah River Site and reduced the workforce to about twelve thousand. However, new capital investment in the 1980s and 1990s helped offset the loss of SRS jobs. Industrial diversity maintained the county’s economic vitality. Many Horse Creek textile mills closed after 1950, but the largest of them, Graniteville, underwent ownership changes and modernized its operations. Other large employers included Kimberly Clark, Advanced Glassfibers (formerly Owens Corning), and Bridgestone Firestone. The county’s newest industry, “assisted living” facilities, catered to senior citizens who came from across the country to Aiken to retire. While most of the county remained rural, farming employed only a small proportion of its people. Peaches, timber, soybeans, cotton, and livestock were the main commodities. In 1998 the county had 729 farms encompassing 134,000 acres, and its crop and livestock production (not including thoroughbred horses) was valued at $59 million. Entering the twenty first century, Aiken County’s population was concentrated in Aiken and North Augusta and along the corridor linking the two. Other communities included New Ellenton and Jackson abutting the Savannah River Site, and the rural towns Wagener, Salley (home of the “Chittlin’ Strut”), and Perry in the eastern part of the county.
Cole, Will. The Many Faces of Aiken. Norfolk, Va.: Donning, 1985.
Farmer, James O., Jr. “A Collision of Cultures: Aiken, South Carolina, Meets the Nuclear Age.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1995): 40–49.
Lawrence, Kay. Heroes, Horses, and High Society. Columbia: R. L. Bryan, 1971.
Vandervelde, Isabel. Aiken County: The Only South Carolina County Founded during Reconstruction. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1999.