Unlike other counties established at the same time, Chester’s dimensions have never been altered, and its distinct rectangular shape is unique among South Carolina counties.
(581 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 32,232). Named for Chester County, Pennsylvania, Chester was one of seven counties created in 1785 from the old Camden Judicial District. Situated in the rolling hills of South Carolina’s eastern Piedmont, Chester is bounded on the east by the Catawba River and on the west by the Broad River. Unlike other counties established at the same time, Chester’s dimensions have never been altered, and its distinct rectangular shape is unique among South Carolina counties. The county seat of Chesterville (later Chester) was created in 1791.
Prior to European settlement, the Chester region served as a buffer between the powerful Catawba and Cherokee Indian nations. The land teemed with large game and was used as a hunting ground by both tribes. Around 1750 Scots-Irish immigrants from Pennsylvania and Virginia began arriving. Settlement, however, was slow. Despite agreements reached between the new arrivals and native inhabitants, Chester County was still a dangerous place. For protection, early settlers built two forts, Steel’s Fort on Fishing Creek and Taylor’s Fort at Lands Ford.
Despite early hardships, the tide of immigration continued until the Revolutionary War, when the citizens of the future county played their role in defeating the British in South Carolina. Battles in the area, such as at Fishdam Ford (November 9, 1780), where patriot forces under Thomas Sumter routed a redcoat detachment, demoralized the British and foreshadowed their major defeat at Cowpens, which marked the turning point in the war of the South.
Redesignated as a district at the start of the nineteenth century, Chester grew at a moderate pace and joined neighboring districts in establishing an agricultural economy based on cotton and slavery. In 1800 the district population stood at 8,158, with 7,021 free and 1,164 slaves. By 1830 the population had more than doubled, with slaves constituting more than two-fifths of the total. But as the slave population grew, the white population stagnated as declining soil productivity and low cotton prices sparked a migration of Chester District farmers to cheap, fresh land in the Southwest. From 1830 to 1860 the white population of Chester grew by only five percent. By 1850 Chester had become a black majority district.
The completion of the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad in 1852, which was funded in part by wealthy Chester planters and merchants, increased economic activity in the district, but the advent of the Civil War brought the flush times to a halt. The district contributed five companies to the Confederate army, and Chester men saw action on many of the great battlefields of the war. Of the 1,941 men who served, 367 never returned. General William T. Sherman’s army passed through the southeastern portion of Chester District in late February 1865 pillaging the countryside but sparing the district courthouse.
Chester County expected to revive its flagging postwar economy in 1873, when the General Assembly chartered the Cheraw and Chester Railroad. However, work did not begin until 1879 and was plagued with financial troubles. The line was never completed. Chester had better success later in the century in joining the textile mill boom spreading across the South. With growing cotton becoming less profitable, Chester business leaders turned to manufacturing as a way to stimulate the county economy. As a result, the textile industry gradually replaced agriculture as the dominant force in the economy. In 1888 operations commenced at the Chester Manufacturing Company, followed four years later by the Catawba Spinning Company. In the early twentieth century Chester County benefited from the construction of hydroelectric power plants on the Catawba River at Rock Hill, Great Falls, and Rocky Mount. The appearance of electric power spawned several more cotton mills, and together the two industries came to dominate the economic life of Chester County.
Chester County, like other cotton-producing counties, did not enjoy the prosperity experienced by other regions in the 1920s. Even before the onset of the Depression of the 1930s, low cotton prices and overproduction by the textile industry had already brought about hard times. However, the onset of World War II marked a return to prosperity, as textile mills worked overtime to fill lucrative defense contracts.
Chester County did not experience any significant economic changes in the years immediately following the war. Springs Mills in Chester, along with J. P. Stevens Mills in Great Falls and Manetta Mills in Lando, continued to be the county’s largest employers. But there was little diversification. By the 1960s a movement to encourage the establishment of new businesses took shape in Chester County, spearheaded by the formation of the Chester County Board of Commerce and Development. This new organization gave a boost to the economy by recruiting new industry, including the Schlegel Corporation plant in 1961, Sun Chemical Corporation in 1963, and Roman Chemical Company in 1964. By 1981 sixty-one percent of the Chester County workforce was employed in manufacturing. This increased industrial growth extended into the 1970s, as nineteen more plants were established in the county. Contrasting with this industrial growth, however, was a steady decline in agricultural production, which shifted away from cotton and toward the raising of beef and dairy cattle. While in 1949 twenty thousand acres of cotton were under cultivation, by the early 1970s less than a thousand acres was used for that crop.
In the twentieth century’s last two decades, the county continued its efforts to advance economically, but residents still remembered their past with pride. One symbol of the respect for the area’s heritage was the movement in the early 1980s to save Chester’s historic city hall. Given a $150,000 facelift and a new roof, the building was rededicated on May 14, 1983. The city hall became the center of Chester County as it entered the new millennium.
Chepesiuk, Ronald. Chester County: A Pictorial History. Norfolk, Va.: Donning, 1984.
Chepesiuk, Ronald, Gina Price White, and J. Edward Lee. Along the Catawba River. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 1999.