Although the county’s economy has traditionally been based on agriculture, Florence was home to several industries as early as the 1890s.
(800 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 137,588). Created in 1888, Florence County lies between the Great Pee Dee and Lynches Rivers in the eastern part of the state. Before European colonization, the area was inhabited by the Pee Dee (Pedee, Peadea) Indians. European settlement began in the 1730s when the colonial government surveyed Queensborough Township, which attracted Welsh settlers from Wales and Pennsylvania to the area by 1737. Through the remainder of the colonial period, the township attracted a steady stream of immigrants. Many of the colonists in Queensborough were Dissenters rather than members of the state-sanctioned Church of England. The Welsh established the Welch Neck Baptist Church in 1738, and Scots-Irish Presbyterians arrived from Williamsburg Township prior to the Revolutionary War. The population in 1757 was approximately 4,300 Europeans and 500 Africans. Like the majority of colonists in the backcountry, these settlers were farmers who produced cattle, lumber, and indigo.
The settlers in Queensborough Township were heavily involved in both the Regulator movement and the Revolutionary War. During the Regulator period, a large number of colonists favored the vigilante movement. The Mars Bluff area was the scene of a major clash between the government and Regulator forces in 1768. During the Revolutionary War, Francis Marion’s partisan group head- quartered at Snow’s Island, which lies at the confluence of the Lynches and Great Pee Dee Rivers.
The end of the war brought many changes. In 1785 the legislature split the area in and around Queensborough Township into two counties: Marion and Darlington. Although residents requested that a third county be created between the two, efforts were unsuccessful. The end of the British bounty on indigo left local farmers in search of a new cash crop. They found it in the 1790s with the introduction of the cotton gin. As in the rest of the state, the cultivation of cotton led to a rapid increase in the number of slaves. The 1850 population of Darlington District, which included the future Florence County, contained 10,041 African slaves and 6,747 whites.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, South Carolina worked in earnest to improve transportation links between the interior and the coast. The state chartered several railroad companies, including the Wilmington and Manchester (1846), the Cheraw and Darlington (1849), and the North Eastern Railroad Company (1851). The town of Florence, named after the daughter of Wilmington and Manchester president William W. Harllee, grew up at the intersection of these three railroad lines. The railroads also led to the creation of the town of Timmonsville (1851) and a depot at Grahams (1858), which later became the town of Lake City.
During the Civil War, the Florence area raised two military units, the Pee Dee Light Artillery and the Pee Dee Rifles. These units served in the First South Carolina Regiment. The area was also the site of a volunteer hospital, a prisoner-of-war camp, and a naval yard that produced one gunboat, the CSS Pee Dee. At the end of the war, the Florence area was spared the destruction visited upon other South Carolina districts. This and the presence of the railroad helped the area recover swiftly from economic hardship. As early as 1866, several new businesses opened and the North Eastern Railroad built new railroad shops in Florence. The legislature chartered the town of Florence in 1871.
Like the 1780s, the 1880s saw many changes. The Florence “Graded School” system began in 1884. Also in 1884 Frank M. Rogers spearheaded the challenge to “King Cotton’s” reign by planting bright leaf tobacco. In addition, the area’s rapid growth and strong tax base, coupled with the population’s distance from existing courthouses, led to the formation of Florence County from parts of Darlington, Marion, Clarendon, and Williamsburg Counties in 1888.
While cotton remained the mainstay of the county’s economy, tobacco cultivation became increasingly profitable. Frank Rogers’s successful tobacco crops convinced other farmers to switch to tobacco cultivation, which led to the creation of local tobacco markets in the county. Both tobacco cultivation and tobacco markets grew throughout the twentieth century. While cotton and tobacco continued to be important cash crops throughout the twentieth century, soybeans eventually surpassed both in acres harvested. In 1999 Florence County farmers planted 51,000 acres of soybeans; winter wheat was the second-highest planting at 15,300 acres; and farmers planted 12,500 acres of cotton and 7,730 acres of tobacco. In that year the county ranked fourth in the state in agricultural cash receipts.
Although the county’s economy has traditionally been based on agriculture, Florence was home to several industries as early as the 1890s. These included included iron and brickworks, a cottonseed and fertilizer company, a machine manufacturer, and a mattress company. By the 1990s the county contained 139 manufacturing companies that produced plastics, machinery, cars, furniture, fibers, and pharmaceuticals. However, service providers became the largest individual employers, including McLeod Regional Medical Center, Florence School District 1, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of SC/Tricare, and the Carolinas Hospital System.
There are nine cities and towns in Florence County. Florence, the largest with a population of 30,248 in 2000, is the county seat. Lake City, second-largest with a population of 6,748, was the home of astronaut Ronald E. McNair. Other cities include Timmonsville, Johnsonville, Pamplico, Coward, Scranton, Quinby, and Olanta. Higher education in Florence County is provided by Francis Marion University and the Florence-Darlington Technical College. Established in 1970, Francis Marion University sits in the middle of a three-hundred-acre campus and is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Florence-Darlington Technical College, established in 1963, offers associate degrees in a variety of fields. Recreation in the county is varied. Lynches River State Park offers nature trails, swimming, and fishing. Woods Bay State Park encompasses several Carolina bays. The county also has numerous golf courses, hunting preserves, and fishing areas. In addition, the county is home to a hockey team, the Florence Little Theater, a symphony orchestra, and several museums.
King, G. Wayne. Rise Up So Early: A History of Florence County, South Carolina. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1981.
–––. Some Folks Do: A Pictorial History of Florence County. Norfolk, Va.: Donning, 1985.