Economically, Cherokee was the heart of the “Old Iron District.” The iron industry that had flourished in the 1700s and 1800s was gone by the end of the Civil War. In the 1880s iron production gave way to railroad construction.
(393 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 57,316). With its county seat located at Gaffney, its largest town, Cherokee County was created in 1897. The county is named for the Cherokee Indians, who before the Revolutionary War used the area as one of their principal campgrounds. Carved out of Union, Spartanburg, and York Counties, Cherokee County was made possible by the coming of the railroad in 1873 and the simplified requirements to form new counties written into the South Carolina Constitution of 1895. The local secession movement, led by the citizens of the towns of Gaffney and Blacksburg and the townships of Limestone Springs, Draytonville, Gowdeysville, White Springs, and Morgan, won an election in December 1896, and Cherokee County was created by the General Assembly in January 1897.
Cherokee’s population, 21,359 in 1900, grew slowly and was concentrated in the northern part of the county. Despite an established agricultural economy and a developing textile industry, economic opportunities stagnated. In 1920 Cherokee had 27,570 residents, but the Depression and World War II delayed regional growth, and many sought opportunities elsewhere. By 1940 Cherokee had added only 6,000 people. It was not until 1980 that the population reached 40,983. Additional growth came between 1990 and 2000 as Cherokee added new industries and became a bedroom community for the adjacent counties of York and Spartanburg.
Economically, Cherokee was the heart of the “Old Iron District.” The iron industry that had flourished in the 1700s and 1800s was gone by the end of the Civil War. In the 1880s iron production gave way to railroad construction. By 1880 the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line crossed the county, establishing stations at Blacksburg and Gaffney. A flurry of local construction prepared hotels, restaurants, and shops for expected travelers. Following the railroad and dependent on its transportation facilities were textile mills, such as the Cherokee Falls Manufacturing Company (1882), the Gaffney Manufacturing Company (1892), Limestone Mills (1900), and Hamrick Mills (1907). These concerns, and others like them, were built by men such as J. A. Deal, Rufus P. Roberts, Joseph C. Plonk, L. Baker, Dr. Wylie C. Hamrick, and Adolphus N. Wood, who either lived in the community or moved there. They encouraged local investment in their mills, offered a more favorable wage than agriculture, provided improved living conditions, and furnished employment for thousands. However, many residents, especially those in the southern part of the county, were bound to agriculture and refused to sacrifice their way of life for the confinement of mill life. They continued to produce cotton and mixed grains as they had for nearly a century. Only the decline of cotton prices in the 1880s forced farmers to explore other options. One possibility that became a reality was fruit growing, particularly apples and peaches. These orchard crops had been tried successfully across the upstate and proved compatible with the soil and climate. By 1900 Cherokee had made a start by producing 364 bushels of peaches.
Meanwhile, textiles carried the county into the twentieth century, providing increased employment during the years of World War I and into the 1920s. New mills with modern technology suggested continued prosperity, but oversupply and decreased demand curtailed mill production by the late 1920s. Cherokee Falls and Gaffney Manufacturing survived but changed hands, and W. C. Hamrick’s five mills, like the others, retrenched and consolidated. Over the next two decades, Cherokee experienced an extended economic downturn.
The Depression and its aftermath were softened somewhat by the peach. Production doubled from 1,572 bushels in 1910 to 3,302 bushels in 1920. The harvest of 1930 marketed 6,000 bushels, and the crop more than quadrupled by 1940. In 1950 Cherokee was responsible for 70,100 units of the state’s total. The county began with 32,079 peach trees in 1900, and by 1940 county orchards contained 150,000 trees. This number doubled ten years later, and by 1982 Cherokee produced ten percent of South Carolina’s peaches and shipped nearly 35 million pounds out of state. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the county was exceeded in production only by Edgefield, Spartanburg, and Saluda, helping to make South Carolina the second-largest peach producer in the United States. Symbolic of the presence of this valuable fruit is the giant peach water tower near Interstate 85 and the annual South Carolina Peach Festival. Begun in 1976 as a one-day celebration, the festival–noted for the largest peach pie and the largest peach milkshake in the world–grew into a ten-day celebration and established new attendance records every year until 1995.
The growth of the interstate system in the 1960s enhanced efforts at diversification. Textiles briefly blossomed anew and trucking, food processing, industrial metalwork, truck and dairy farms, and woodcutting joined a list of new industries that found Cherokee’s location attractive. By 2000, 44.3 percent of the population was engaged in manufacturing with 18.2 percent in trade, as opposed to 10.3 percent and 5.1 percent, respectively, in 1900. Agriculture, which had dominated the county at the turn of the century, had declined markedly, except for peaches. Cherokee’s citizens by the 1990s were engaged in a building boom, providing services and governmental oversight in addition to traditional roles in the manufacturing, wholesale, and retail professions. Part of the growing world of services are those offered by the county’s historical sites and recreational areas. Among the most widely known are Kings Mountain and Cowpens, the sites of two decisive American victories over the British in the Revolutionary War. Also important are the Adam Goudelock house (1780), the John Nuckles house (1790), the Robert Scruggs house (1787), and the single-room Possum Trott School. The world of Possum Trott, which permitted students in Cherokee to leave school at the age of fourteen to join the workforce, is past. Now the county’s growing dependence on higher education is symbolized by institutions such as Limestone College in Gaffney.
Cherokee County. Gaffney, S.C.: Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce, 2000.
Johnson, Elmer Douglas. A Brief History of Cherokee County, South Carolina. Gaffney, S.C.: Chamber of Commerce, 1952.
Moss, Bobby G. The Old Iron District: A Study of the Development of Cherokee County, 1750–1897. Clinton, S.C.: Jacobs, 1972.