Hartsville blossomed between 1880 and 1920, primarily due to the efforts of James Lide Coker.
(Darlington County; 2020 pop. 7,479). Hartsville owes its existence to Captain Thomas Hart of Society Hill, who purchased much of the original town site in 1817. Kalmia Gardens, a thirty-acre garden near modern Hartsville, is the site of Hart’s 1820 plantation house. The community grew slowly until after the Civil War. Hart built a road to Society Hill in 1825 and the community acquired a post office in 1838. In 1850 his son, John L. Hart, settled in the area, donated land for the Hartsville Baptist Church, and established several businesses. To promote the development of scientific agriculture, local planters organized the Hartsville Farmers’ Club in 1859.
Though visited by Union troops in 1865, Hartsville escaped the destruction that accompanied visits to other Pee Dee towns. In the postwar years, Hartsville continued its reliance on cotton. In 1880 the town had a population of only fifty. But Hartsville blossomed between 1880 and 1920, primarily due to the efforts of James Lide Coker. After returning from the Civil War in 1865, Coker opened a general store that became J. L. Coker and Company. Coker channeled store profits into other enterprises, securing a railroad connection for Hartsville, then establishing Carolina Fiber Company to process pulpwood. The railroad and Coker’s business acumen transformed Hartsville from a quiet farming village into a bustling town, which the General Assembly incorporated in 1891.
Between 1890 and 1910 Hartsville acquired a newspaper, a high school, a bank, a telephone company, and numerous other businesses to become, according to the Hartsville Messenger, “the industrial beehive of the Pee Dee.” In 1899 James L. Coker, Jr., founded the Southern Novelty Company to manufacture cardboard cones for the textile mills. As the textile industry flourished from 1900 to 1920, so did the Southern Novelty Company, which became Sonoco in 1924. By 1930 Hartsville’s population had topped five thousand.
By 1893 the Baptist Church, with Coker’s support, had established the Welsh Neck High School, a private institution. With the advent of a public high school, the trustees of Welsh Neck converted their school into Coker College.
With its railroad connections, Hartsville also became the leading cotton market in the Pee Dee, surpassing the county seat of Darlington. David R. Coker, another son of James Lide Coker, developed a long-staple, high-yield cotton that he marketed as “Coker’s Pedigreed Seed,” then created Coker’s Pedigreed Seed Company. Coker Experimental Farms, the site of David Coker’s agricultural experiments, was named a National Historic Landmark in 1964.
The Coker family’s commitment to Hartsville helped the town weather the boll weevil, recessions, and the Great Depression. During the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, several federal projects were built, including the Hartsville Post Office, the Hartsville Community Center, and Lawton Park and Pavilion. Sonoco’s success gave Hartsville a fairly stable economy through the 1930s and beyond.
In addition to Coker College, Hartsville is home to the Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics. Founded in 1988, the Governor’s School is a public residential magnet school for academically gifted high school juniors and seniors. The Allstate Foundation recognized Hartsville for its efforts to revitalize downtown and named it an All-America City in 1996. Coker College and Sonoco continue to define the character of Hartsville.
Coker, Charles W. The Story of Sonoco Products Company. New York: Newcomen Society in North America, 1976.
Wiggins, A. L. M. “Hartsville’s Most Creative Years, 1889–1904.” Unpublished manuscript, 1966. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.