In the second half of twentieth century, most Hampton County industries manufactured plastics or forest-related products, but they also processed soybeans and corn, and ginned cotton.
(560 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 18,053). Hampton County was created in 1878 from the northern half of Beaufort County. Hampton later lost territory to the creation of Jasper County in 1912, and Allendale County in 1919. The county was named for Wade Hampton III, Confederate general, governor, and U.S. senator. Hampton is the county seat.
After the Beaufort County seat was moved in 1868 from Gillisonville, in the center of the county, to Beaufort, thirty miles southeast, some citizens attempted to secede. They lived north of the Charleston and Savannah Railroad (which bisected Beaufort County), and their petitions cited the great distance to court and the ill effects on their health of the salt marsh surrounding the town of Beaufort. Palmetto, Washington, and Coosawhatchie were suggested as names for the new county. The legislature approved the division after Governor Hampton took office. “Moderate” African Americans supported the new county, believing they could be represented better through a coalition with white Democrats than by the Republicans of Beaufort. Thomas E. Miller, a founder and the first president of South Carolina State University, worked to secure the secession and took credit for naming the county. However, no African Americans were elected officers of the new county.
Hampton County bordered one railroad and was traversed by a second, the Port Royal and Augusta Railroad completed in 1873. This line lay on a sandy ridge east of the Coosawhatchie River Swamp separating the eastern and western portions of the region. (Locally, people and places are identified by their “side of the Swamp,” a designation that is as much philosophical as geographical). William H. Mauldin’s logging railroad was chartered in 1891 as the Hampton and Branchville Railroad, connecting the Port Royal–Augusta line to the Charleston-Columbia line. The main lines of the Seaboard (1891) and Southern (1900) railroads later served the western part of the county. Villages quickly grew up around the depots, with Brunson the first among them to be incorporated in 1874.
Railroads were important to the timber industry, a mainstay of the lowcountry economy. Turpentine distilleries appeared, and sawmills punctuated the railroads every few miles, their tram roads (logging railroads) running into the swamps of the slow-moving rivers. Smaller operations came and went throughout the early years, but three large sawmills contributed greatly to the county’s economy during the agricultural depression of the 1920s: Hamilton Ridge Lumber Company in Estill (1912–1928); the Big Salkehatchie Cypress Company in Varnville (1915–1929); and Lightsey Brothers Lumber Company in Miley (1910–1957). Of the period from 1926 until 1929, one former Varnville sawmill worker said, “I made $1.75 a day when you couldn’t make but fifty cents a day doing anything else. You couldn’t tote $5.00 worth of groceries. Had to pay somebody to take ’em home for you in a wagon.” The best trees cut, the Estill and Varnville mills sold out when lumber prices dropped. When synthetic alternatives became available, the turpentine industry also departed after exhausting the local piney woods tracts.
Railroads were important to farmers, too, delivering fertilizer and taking their cotton to market. Until the boll weevil came to the county in 1919, few farmers had diversified their crops, but sweet potatoes and other truck farm produce soon became important commodities. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the wealthier or more progressive farmers held on to their land, but those too heavily mortgaged were displaced, along with many tenant farmers and sharecroppers. By the end of the decade, agricultural production, including cotton, was back up. Corn and other feed grains, watermelons, and peanuts became profitable, as did livestock and truck crops.
The turpentine industry reappeared; in 1940 Estill had a thriving operation. Sawmills returned in the 1940s and 1950s to cut second growth timber first cut thirty years earlier. Further, the out-migration of farm labor resulted in much arable land being planted in pine trees, a less labor-intensive crop and a renewable resource. In the early 1940s a Michigan-based wood products industry, Plywoods-Plastics Corporation, located in Hampton. It, and its successor companies Westinghouse and International Paper, became the area’s largest employer.
World War II brought defense contracts to Plywoods-Plastics, adding women to the work force. It also brought enlistment and war prisoners. One hundred men of the county’s Battery D of the South Carolina National Guard went on active duty in January 1941. The unit was stationed in England and North Africa before joining in the invasion of Sicily in 1943. Back home, from 1943 until 1946, German prisoners of war were imprisoned in Hampton, in one of twelve such camps in South Carolina. The prisoners worked on local farms and in industries.
Diversification improved the economy in the second half of the twentieth century. Most Hampton County industries manufactured plastics or forest-related products, but they also processed soybeans and corn, and ginned cotton. Yemassee became a distribution center for goods manufactured elsewhere and Estill acquired a Federal Correctional Institution. One of the county’s four industrial parks gained foreign trade zone status, taking advantage of its proximity to Interstate 95. Soybeans and cotton accounted for most farm acreage, with watermelons as a specialty crop.
An increased emphasis on health and lifelong learning also characterized this period. A nursing home in Estill and a mental health center and regional medical center in Varnville augmented the County Health Center begun in a log structure built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. In the early 1950s twenty school districts were consolidated into two, one on each side of the Coosawhatchie Swamp, and schools have since been built as needed. A private school, Patrick Henry Academy, was organized in Estill in 1965. The Technical College of the Lowcountry maintains a campus in Varnville, and the University of South Carolina–Salkehatchie serves students at its Allendale and Walterboro campuses with continuing education, undergraduate, and graduate courses. The Hampton County Historical Museum, established in 1979, collected local history artifacts and genealogy.
The swamps and rivers, woods and fields offered their bounty to natives, newcomers, and visitors. After the Civil War and into the early twentieth century, northern capitalists bought large tracts of land and established game preserves. Belmont Plantation is now the Webb Wildlife Center, owned by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. The proportion of all land in farms decreased from two-thirds to less than half between 1950 and 1980, and much of what was lost became pine forests owned by paper companies. They, as well as individual landowners, lease hunting rights to private clubs and to the state for game management areas, and Lake George Warren State Park offers nature-based recreation.
Hampton County Historical Society. Both Sides of the Swamp: Hampton County. Rev. ed. Hampton, S.C.: Hampton County Historical Society, 1997.
Williams, Rose-Marie Eltzroth. Railroads and Sawmills, Varnville, S.C., 1872–1997: The Making of a Low Country Town in the New South. Varnville, S.C.: Varnville Community Council, 1998.