Darlington gained notoriety in the 1890s as the site of the so-called “Dispensary War,” which reflected the unpopularity of the state dispensary system in the Pee Dee region.
(Darlington County; 2020 pop. 5,901). Darlington, the “Pearl of the Pee Dee,” lies on a bluff overlooking Swift Creek. Following the formation of Darlington County in 1785, the rival settlements of Mechanicsville and Cuffey Town vied to become the county seat. As a compromise, according to one account, rival supporters rode on horseback “from their respective communities” toward each other and built the courthouse on the spot where they met, the plantation of John King.
The town grew slowly. In 1806 fire destroyed the courthouse, and a replacement was built in the 1820s. In 1818 residents organized the Darlington Society to build Darlington Academy, later St. John’s School. By 1826 Robert Mills described the town as having a “handsome new brick courthouse and jail; besides several private houses, and the requisite taverns.” The town was incorporated in 1835 and had rail service by 1856. In 1860 the local militia, the Darlington Guards, was the first company in the state to answer the call of Governor Francis W. Pickens for volunteers. In March 1865 Federal troops burned the depot and railroad trestles. By July, Darlington had become the command center for the Military District of Eastern South Carolina.
Another devastating fire in 1866 destroyed the courthouse, jail, and business district. Despite the setback, Darlington began to grow following the Civil War. Between 1871 and 1891 the Darlington Agricultural Society promoted local agriculture by holding a series of annual fairs. On May 7, 1883, residents chartered the Darlington Manufacturing Company, the town’s first textile mill. Sold to Deering Milliken & Company in 1900, it operated until 1956, when owners closed the mill after workers voted to unionize. During the 1890s other businesses opened, but the introduction of tobacco brought the biggest change. Darlington blossomed as a tobacco center and became the largest tobacco market in South Carolina.
Darlington also gained notoriety in the 1890s as the site of the so-called “Dispensary War,” which reflected the unpopularity of the state dispensary system in the Pee Dee region. In March 1894 a group of dispensary constables intervened in a dispute at the railroad depot, and a gunfight ensued. When the smoke cleared, two Darlingtonians and one constable were dead and several more were wounded. Sensational accounts of the “war” filled state newspapers, and Governor Benjamin Tillman called out the state militia to restore order.
The twentieth century was marked by a construction boom. A new town hall–opera house was built in 1901, new facilities were constructed for St. John’s School in 1902, and a new courthouse was completed in 1904. World War I ended Darlington’s good times. Agricultural recession, bank failures, the Great Depression, and another major fire in 1930 led to a period of stagnation. During the 1930s the Works Progress Administration constructed a new armory, a new gymnasium, and a new county jail. In 1938 the Individual Drinking Cup Company, later Dixie Cup, opened a plant.
The end of World War II brought a housing boom to the area. In 1950 the prototype of the Darlington Speedway opened on the outskirts of town. The first race, held on Labor Day 1950, inaugurated a new period of NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing)-induced prosperity. Darlington celebrated its 150th anniversary on December 19, 1985, and in 1988 created the City of Darlington Multiple Resource Area to celebrate and preserve its past.
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. Darlington County: A Pictorial History. Norfolk, Va.: Donning, 1986.