Originally called Laurensville, the town became the county seat shortly after Laurens County was established in 1785.
(Laurens County; 2000 pop. 9,916). Originally called Laurensville, the town became the county seat shortly after Laurens County was established in 1785. A plat by Robert Creswell in 1800 shows the courthouse square surrounded by lots that evolved into the town’s commercial center. By the 1820s Laurens contained thirty-five houses, 250 inhabitants, and an 1815 courthouse. Businesses included eight shops advertising ready-made clothing. Future U.S. president Andrew Johnson came to Laurens from North Carolina in 1824 and opened a tailor shop. He met and courted a local woman, Sarah Word, whose mother refused to sanction their marriage because he was a tailor. Stung by the rebuff, Johnson left Laurens after less than two years. By 1840 Laurens had more than a dozen stores and eighty-one registered whiskey distilleries. Its commercial importance was established by its location on the State Road between Charleston and western North Carolina. In 1854 the town saw its economic position enhanced with the completion of the Laurens Railroad, which connected Laurens with the Greenville and Columbia Railroad at Newberry.
There was no military action in the area during the Civil War, although some Charleston refugees relocated to Laurens to escape war dangers in the lowcountry. During Reconstruction, friction between newly enfranchised African Americans and whites culminated in the Laurens Riot of 1870. Because of the racial violence, several upstate counties (including Laurens) were placed under martial law. Laurens began to prosper again in the 1880s. Two new railroads linked the town with Augusta, Greenville, Spartanburg, and Columbia. An 1888 business directory referred to Laurens as the “Atlanta of South Carolina” because of its railroad connections. Between 1880 and 1920 many commercial buildings and churches were built, the Laurens and Watts textile mills went into operation, several banks were established (including the Palmetto Bank), and Laurens Glass began manufacturing bottles. The courthouse square remained the commercial center until the 1960s, when new shopping centers were built on the outskirts of Laurens. During the 1920s and 1930s residents from the country would come to town on Saturday and stores often remained opened until 11:00 p.m.
Following World War II, the economy slowly diversified. At the start of the twenty-first century, textiles played a much smaller role and the glass plant was no longer in operation. Several distribution centers, including Wal-Mart, became major employers, as did companies that manufactured ceramics, pipe fabrication, and metal bearings. Laurens also developed an aggressive downtown revitalization program. West Main Street, a part of the town’s historic district, contained many beautiful old homes representing a variety of architectural styles. Major historic attractions include the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany (ca. 1845), the oldest church building in use in the city; James Dunklin House Museum (ca. 1812); Bethel AME Church (ca. 1907); Laurens County Courthouse (ca. 1837–1838, enlarged in 1858 and 1911); Octagon House (ca. 1859); and the Villa (ca. 1859–1861) at Martha Franks Baptist Retirement Center.
Bolick, Julian Stevenson. A Laurens County Sketchbook. Clinton, S.C.: Jacobs, 1973.
The Scrapbook: A Compilation of Historical Facts about Places and Events of Laurens County, South Carolina. N.p.: Laurens County Historical Society and Laurens County Arts Council, 1982.