Agriculture dominated Edgefield’s economy throughout its history. Early settlers grew grains and raised impressive numbers of cattle and hogs. Staple crops, particularly tobacco, grew in significance by the 1790s.
(502 sq. miles; 2010 pop. 26,985). Edgefield County was created in 1785 from the southern portion of the backcountry judicial district of Ninety Six. It became Edgefield District in 1800, following a reorganization of the county system. Bounded by the Savannah and Saluda Rivers and the districts of Abbeville, Barnwell, Orangeburg, and Lexington, Edgefield originally encompassed 1,702 square miles and was the largest inland district in the state. Legend asserts that the name arose from Edgefield’s location on the western “edge” of South Carolina. With its vast area embracing a varied cultural and physical geography, one historian aptly described antebellum Edgefield as “more a region than a county.”
European immigration into the Edgefield area began around 1750. Most new arrivals were Scots-Irish, who migrated to Edgefield from Pennsylvania and Virginia. Smaller numbers of Swiss, French Huguenots, and Germans established settlements at New Windsor, New Bordeaux, and elsewhere. During this same era, European arrivals carried the first African American slaves into Edgefield. Later, coastal planters entered Edgefield to establish plantations, which led to dramatic increases in the slave population.
Agriculture dominated Edgefield’s economy throughout its history. Early settlers grew grains and raised impressive numbers of cattle and hogs. Staple crops, particularly tobacco, grew in significance by the 1790s. However, it was cotton that came to define the agricultural economy of the district. Incorporating the newly invented gin and short-staple varieties of cotton plants, Edgefield was at the center of the South’s inland cotton boom of the early 1800s. Production expanded throughout the antebellum era. By 1860 Edgefield District led South Carolina in the number of cotton bales produced. The slave population of the district grew accordingly. By 1830 slaves comprised a majority of Edgefield’s population. Three decades later Edgefield’s total of 24,060 slaves was the largest of any inland district in the state.
Antebellum Edgefield also contained a modest but influential manufacturing sector. The Horse Creek Valley in the southern part of the district was home to the pioneering textile factories of Graniteville and Vaucluse, as well as a paper mill and a porcelain factory. Pottery works utilized the district’s clay deposits, particularly at the artisan enclave of Pottersville, just north of Edgefield Court House. Edgefield pottery found a strong regional market, and pieces by slave potters such as “Dave” became highly prized by collectors in the late twentieth century. In addition, Edgefield was the site of a lucrative gold mine operated by William “Billy” Dorn and later purchased by the reaper tycoon Cyrus McCormick.
Besides cotton, Edgefield came to be known for producing political leaders and for its frequently volatile political culture. The county produced ten South Carolina governors, five lieutenant governors, and several national political figures. Antebellum U.S. senators George McDuffie, Andrew P. Butler, and James Henry Hammond were residents of Edgefield, as was Congressman Preston Brooks, who gained national notoriety for caning Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The 1876 plan of district representative Martin W. Gary to restore Democratic rule to South Carolina through fraud, intimidation, and violence came to be known as the “Edgefield Plan.” Later political leaders included the agrarian radical “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman and long-serving U.S. senator J. Strom Thurmond.
The decades following the Civil War brought significant changes. After its redesignation as a county in 1868, Edgefield gradually saw its area reduced by more than two-thirds, as sections of the county went to create the new counties of Aiken (1871), Saluda (1895), Greenwood (1897), and McCormick (1916). Railroads reached Edgefield during the 1870s and 1880s and spawned the towns of Johnston, Ridge Spring, and Trenton. By the turn of the century, manufacturing, especially textiles, began to play a growing role in the Edgefield economy, although the county remained overwhelmingly rural.
For much of the twentieth century Edgefield saw its economic and political positions within South Carolina dwindle. Between 1920 and 1970 the county’s population decreased from 23,928 to 15,692. Declines in agriculture spurred much of this out-migration, as total farm acreage shrank from 224,850 acres in 1920 to just 71,425 acres by 1997. Agriculture remained central to Edgefield, however, but with cotton replaced in importance by the famous peach orchards of the county’s “Ridge” section, as well as increases in poultry, cattle, and dairy production. Manufacturing and service-related jobs continued to gain prominence as well. Major textile firms such as the Riegel Textile Corporation (later Mount Vernon Riegel) and Milliken & Company opened substantial mills in Edgefield County after World War II, as did smaller textile companies such as Star Fibers and the Stone Manufacturing Company. Although the addition of manufacturing jobs in the 1980s and 1990s helped Edgefield reverse its population decline, the county still lagged behind much of South Carolina in per capita income. In 1970 more than one-third of Edgefield workers commuted to jobs outside the county. As late as 1980 more than one-fourth of county residents lived below the poverty line.
Edgefield showed signs of revitalizing its economic fortunes by the end of the twentieth century. The county continued to aggressively recruit new businesses, such as Menardi and Concurrent Technologies Corporation, by touting Edgefield’s railroad and highway connections and its close proximity to Columbia and Augusta, Georgia. The county also tapped its history and rural image to enhance its appeal to tourists and retirees. Edgefield residents were active participants in developing the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor, while Old Edgefield Pottery, established in 1992, contributed to a renewed interest in Edgefield’s pottery tradition. In addition, Edgefield County emerged as a focal point of conservation efforts. The National Wild Turkey Federation built its Wild Turkey Center and museum near the town of Edgefield, and Quail Unlimited and Waterfowl USA are also located in the county. Together these three national organizations worked to promote the conservation and restoration of wildlife in Edgefield and beyond.
Burton, Orville Vernon. In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Butterfield, Fox. All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence. New York: Knopf, 1995.
Chapman, John A. History of Edgefield County from the Earliest Settlements to 1897. 1897. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1980.
Downey, Tom. Planting a Capitalist South: Masters, Merchants, and Manufacturers in the Southern Interior, 1790–1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
Ford, Lacy K., Jr. “Origins of the Edgefield Tradition: The Late Antebellum Experience and the Roots of Political Insurgency.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 98 (October 1997): 328–48.