For its first 150 years, the Barnwell economy had an agricultural base, but in 1950 the U.S. Government announced plans for the Savannah River Site, a massive nuclear weapons facility that would be located in Aiken and Barnwell Counties. This had a profound effect on Barnwell’s geography and economy.
(548 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 20,805). Barnwell District, now Barnwell County, was created in 1798 from the area formerly known as Winton County. Located at the southwestern edge of South Carolina, the district originally encompassed 1,440 square miles but lost most of its territory to the creation of Aiken County (1871), Bamberg County (1897), and Allendale County (1919). The district was named for John Barnwell of Beaufort in recognition of his military service to South Carolina.
For its first 150 years, the Barnwell economy had an agricultural base. Thick pine forests blanketing the district slowed the expansion of agriculture somewhat, but by 1850 only neighboring Edgefield District produced more cotton than Barnwell. Cotton wealth led to a concomitant rise in the district’s slave population. Although whites comprised almost eighty percent of the Barnwell population in 1800, they had become a minority by 1850. The district’s wealth of waterways, including the Savannah, Edisto, and Salkehatchie Rivers and their many tributaries, were significant sources of timber and lumber for lowcountry markets. The completion of a railroad from Charleston to Hamburg through Barnwell District in 1833 spurred additional development, transforming quiet villages and turnouts into bustling centers of local trade, including the towns of Williston, Elko, and Blackville.
Federal troops destroyed most of the businesses in Barnwell County in February 1865. After the Civil War, Barnwell farmers continued to produce cotton. But as prices declined, many turned to truck farming, especially asparagus and melons. In 1880 a new railroad connected Blackville and Barnwell. In addition to its agriculture, Barnwell County became known in the twentieth century for its powerful political leaders, which critics dubbed the “Barnwell Ring.” Longtime S.C. Senate president Edgar A. Brown and House Speaker Solomon Blatt hailed from Barnwell County, as did Winchester C. Smith, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and Governor Emile Harley.
In 1950 the U.S. Government announced plans for the Savannah River Site, a massive nuclear weapons facility that would be located in Aiken and Barnwell Counties. This had a profound effect on Barnwell’s geography and economy. The western third of the county was taken by the federal facility, including most of Barnwell’s frontage on the Savannah River. Some six thousand people residing within the site’s boundaries were forced to relocate, including the entire town of Dunbarton. Many residents moved to other sections of Barnwell County. The influx of construction crews, plant employees, and their families transformed Barnwell.
At the start of the twenty-first century, Barnwell County had seven townships: Barnwell, Blackville, Elko, Hilda, Kline, Snelling, and Williston, with Barnwell being the largest. The county is governed by the Barnwell County Council, comprised of members representing the three school districts and one member at large. Besides three public school districts, the county also has a career center used by each. Higher education opportunities were made available by a branch of Denmark Technical College and the Salkehatchie branch campus of the University of South Carolina in nearby Allendale.
By 2000 manufacturing provided more than one-fourth of the jobs in Barnwell County (less than two percent of the workforce remained employed in agriculture). Industrial parks occupy locations in or near the towns of Barnwell, Blackville, Snelling, and Williston. Major employers included Chem-Nuclear Systems, Dayco Corporation, Milliken and Company, and EFCO, Inc. The Economic Development Commission, created in 1987, vigorously pursued new industries, and Barnwell, Bamberg, and Allendale Counties created the TriCounty Alliance to encourage economic development for the region. Barnwell County Airport in Barnwell accommodates private and corporate planes with two 5,000-foot lighted runways.
Barnwell County offers an abundance of sports and recreational opportunities, including excellent fishing, game hunting, and boating. The 135-acre Lake Edgar Brown located in Barnwell and Barnwell State Park near Blackville offer individual and group recreation. Three golf courses and several walking trails are popular with outdoor enthusiasts. Well-known historic sites in the county include the Church of the Holy Apostles in Barnwell, the 1858 sundial that was given by Joseph Duncan Allen and is situated in front of the courthouse, and Healing Springs near Blackville. The Heritage Corridor Nature Trail dissects Barnwell County, bringing additional visitors to the region.
Barnwell County Heritage Book Committee. Barnwell County Heritage, South Carolina. Marceline, Mo.: Walsworth, 1994.
Downey, Tom. Planting a Capitalist South: Masters, Merchants, and Manu- facturers in the Southern Interior, 1790–1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
Reynolds, Emily Bellinger, and Joan Reynolds Faunt, comps. The County Officers and Officers of Barnwell County, S.C., 1775–1975: A Record. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1976.