Despite its notable industrial sector, agriculture dominated the way of life in Darlington. The long agricultural tradition in the county gave rise to the development of numerous heritage-wildlife preserves, parks, and gardens.
(561 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 66,509). Darlington County was created on March 12, 1785, out of the southern third of the colonial-era judicial district of Cheraws. It became Darlington District in 1798, then reverted back to county status in 1868. Darlington lost territory in 1888 with the formation of Florence County and again in 1902 by the creation of Lee County.
For over sixty years after the first settlements at Charleston, the area that is now Darlington County was still unsettled by Europeans. In an effort to induce settlers, the colonial government set aside an immense tract of land along both sides of the Pee Dee River for the exclusive use of Welsh Baptists of Pennsylvania planning to emigrate southward. The Welshmen came and built a civilization out of the wilderness. They founded the Welsh Neck Baptist Church in 1738, near present-day Society Hill, which survived to become the second-oldest Baptist church in South Carolina. The Welsh cultivated money crops of flax, hemp, and indigo. Livestock raising was prevalent, and “Cheraw bacon” became popular in Charleston and other colonial markets. By the late 1700s the strict Welsh Baptist identity was eroded by an influx of new settlers, mostly from North Carolina and lower Virginia. But Darlington District continued to be a stronghold of the Baptist denomination, albeit a diminishing one, virtually to the present day.
In 1774 a petit-jury presentment issued at the Cheraws courthouse at Long Bluff, later Society Hill, became one of the earliest declarations of grievances against the British crown in South Carolina as well as the American colonies. The British court-martial and execution of the patriot Adam Cusack also took place there. This same neighborhood gave rise to the St. David’s Society, formed in 1777 to promote education and incorporated the following year. The school that society members founded gained a statewide reputation for excellence and furnished two of the original faculty to the South Carolina College. As a resource for the original school, one of the earliest lending libraries in the state was organized in 1826 at Society Hill and served the entire community until the mid-twentieth century. Coker College in Hartsville is considered by some to be a lineal descendant of old St. David’s. Hartsville is also the location of the state-supported Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics, which caters to gifted students. A college preparatory school, Trinity Collegiate, and several private schools comprise the excellent educational facilities of the county.
During the Civil War, Darlington County escaped the worst effects of General Sherman’s army, being out of the direct line of his march through the state. However, detachments from the main force pillaged the district, destroying several bridges and burning cotton plantations.
As in education, Darlington County was also an industrial pioneer in South Carolina. Governor David R. Williams made a successful attempt at manufacturing in 1812 when he established a water-powered cotton mill on Cedar Creek to produce rough cloth and cotton bagging. For seventy years there was no other industry of consequence. The abundance of cotton spawned two cotton mills, one in Darlington in 1885 and one in Hartsville in 1900. Although the Coker family members were major stockholders in these factories, both were eventually taken into the Milliken chain of mills. Milliken stockholders closed the Darlington Mill in 1956 after its employees voted to unionize, which resulted in two decades of litigation and hearings over the legality of the action. The Hartsville Mill continued operations until 1984, when it was unable to compete with cheaper foreign labor.
In the 1890s a Confederate veteran, Major James Lide Coker, and his son, J. L. Coker, Jr., founded two companies for the purpose of converting southern pine timber into paper products. The two companies merged into the Sonoco Products Company in 1923. The company grew and became a global organization with factories all over the world but retained Hartsville as its world headquarters. Internationally known “Dixie Cup” cups and plates have been produced in Darlington since the 1930s. Darlington County also became known for its steel production, with Nucor of Dovesville leading the field. Increased industrial activity in the county prompted Carolina Power and Light to construct a steam generating plant on Black Creek near Hartsville in 1959. It was converted to nuclear power several years later and greatly facilitated the expansion of the county’s industrial base. That base continued to grow through the end of the twentieth century with manufactured products ranging from fiberglass boats to aluminum ladders.
Despite its notable industrial sector, agriculture dominated the way of life in Darlington. As early as 1768 local planters formed a “Planters Club,” about which little is known. The Darlington Agricultural Society has met annually since its formation in 1846 and is one of the oldest agricultural societies in the state. Cotton was king until dethroned by flue-cured tobacco early in the twentieth century. By the 1990s tobacco was in serious trouble and production greatly diminished. Although many small farms have disappeared, agriculture remained a vital factor in the local economy at the end of the twentieth century.
The long agricultural tradition in the county gave rise to the development of numerous heritage-wildlife preserves, parks, and gardens. Two are located on Black Creek, one at Hartsville and one at Darlington, with another on the Pee Dee River at Mechanicsville. An extensive botanical garden, Kalmia Gardens, on Black Creek in Hartsville dates back to the early 1930s. Land was acquired at Society Hill for a state park to be centered around the extinct colonial village of Long Bluff.
The sport of racing has been popular in Darlington County since the early days of horse racing on the large plantations. At Darlington a racetrack for horses and motorcycles existed prior to World War I.
Auto racing did not appear in full force until 1950 when the Darlington Raceway was built. The fame of this track has made “Darlington” almost synonymous with auto racing nationwide. It was home of the Southern 500 race every Labor Day weekend until 2004, when the race date was moved to November. Nearby, the Darlington International Dragway hosts two major racing events each year.
Ervin, Eliza Cowan, and Horace Fraser Rudisill, eds. Darlingtoniana: A History of People, Places and Events in Darlington County, South Carolina. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1964.
Rudisill, Horace Fraser, comp. Darlington County: A Pictorial History. Nor- folk, Va.: Donning, 1986.
–––. Historical Tours in Darlington County. Darlington, S.C.: Darlington County Tricentennial Committee, 1970.