The rapid expansion of the Columbia metropolitan area in the final decades of the twentieth century made Lexington one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. The county’s population more than tripled between 1960 and 2000, with most of the growth taking place in the Columbia suburbs of West Columbia, Cayce, and Irmo.
(699 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 303,946). Straddling the fall line between the Sandhills and the Piedmont, Lexington County is located in the center of the state, bounded by Richland, Calhoun, Orangeburg, Saluda, and Newberry Counties. The county and its county seat were named for the Revolutionary War battle at Lexington, Massachusetts. Lexington County was created from the northern portion of the Orangeburg Judicial District in 1785. It was reorganized as Lexington District in 1804 and Lexington County in 1868. Portions of the county were lost to the creation of Aiken (1871) and Calhoun (1908) Counties and to twentieth-century annexations by Richland County.
The first European settlers arrived around 1718, when the British established a post (later called Granby) near the source of the Congaree River. In 1735 German-Swiss immigrants petitioned to establish a township in the area. Settling west of the confluence of the Saluda and Broad Rivers, more Germans soon followed. The area was originally named Saxe-Gotha in recognition of the German and Swiss descent of its first inhabitants. The term “Dutch Fork,” a name for the area between the Saluda and Broad Rivers, came from a corruption of the German word deutsch, again denoting the ethnic origin of the early residents. These initial settlers established small farms and were admired for their thrifty and industrious habits. Some residents in the early twenty-first century still held land-grant titles from the king of England.
Although land in the northern part of Lexington District was fertile and well settled, most district soil was sandy and covered in pine forests. This made much of lower Lexington poorly suited for agriculture. As a result, the base of plantation agriculture and slavery established in Lexington was not as firm as that in the rest of the state, especially in comparison with the surrounding middle districts. In 1850 only sixty-eight of eleven hundred families in Lexington owned more than twenty slaves. By 1860 per capita wealth was less than half that of neighboring districts, and Lexington was one of the few districts in antebellum South Carolina in which blacks remained a minority of the population. The relatively modest agricultural opportunities in Lexington were partially offset by timber production, and dozens of sawmills cut high-quality pine and rafted it down the Congaree and Edisto Rivers. No fewer than seventy-three sawmills were operating in the district by 1860. Along the Congaree River brick manufacturing near Granby and the Saluda Factory, an antebellum textile mill operated with slave labor, also contributed to the local economy.
Lexington did not escape the Union army of General William T. Sherman in the closing days of the Civil War. Sherman’s forces swept through the district in February 1865, destroying houses and buildings and carrying off large quantities of food, livestock, and household furnishings. An estimated one-quarter of the white male population between the ages of sixteen and sixty was either killed or wounded in the war.
As it was in most of South Carolina, recovery from the effects of the Civil War in Lexington was slow. Small farms would dominate the county’s economy until the mid-1950s, but the completion of the Columbia and Augusta Railroad in 1868 helped spur the development of new towns such as Batesburg, Leesville, Summit, and Gilbert. The extension of rail lines in the 1890s from Columbia north toward Newberry and south toward Orangeburg led to the incorporation of additional towns, including Irmo, Ballentine, and Chapin in the Dutch Fork region and Swansea in the southern part of the county. A few small textile mills were also in operation by the early twentieth century.
Entering the twentieth century, Lexington County farmers were still the backbone of the economy. County truck farmers found a handy outlet for their produce at the curbside market in Columbia and could boast with good reason that “Lexington County feeds Columbia.” Cotton, corn, and oats were the primary crops, although Lexington was also the state’s leading producer of wheat until the late 1920s and a major producer of peaches and other truck crops.
Significant changes began to affect Lexington County as the twentieth century progressed. The completion of the Saluda River Dam in 1930 created Lake Murray, which inundated fifty thousand acres of Lexington County but also created five hundred miles of shoreline. The dam brought cheap hydroelectric power to the county, while the abundance of lakefront property brought new recreation opportunities and skyrocketing real estate values toward the end of the century. Industrial development began to exert a greater influence in the decades following World War II. Mineral resources were tapped to expand brick manufacturing and for the production of glass, kaolin, and road-building materials. Foreign-owned corporations began to make substantial investments in Lexington, particularly from Western Europe and Asia. By the end of the century, major industrial employers included Michelin Tire Corporation of France, Pirelli of Italy, Philips Components of the Netherlands, and TCM Manufacturing of Japan. Despite the increase in industrial activity, agriculture still exerted a strong influence, although row crops gradually took a backseat to livestock production. In 2001 Lexington led all other South Carolina counties in the value of their agricultural output ($107,462,000), primarily due to extensive production of poultry, eggs, and cattle. The county celebrates its rural heritage with annual festivals dedicated to the virtues of poultry, peaches, peanuts, collards, fishing, and okra.
The rapid expansion of the Columbia metropolitan area in the final decades of the twentieth century made Lexington one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. The county’s population more than tripled between 1960 and 2000, with most of the growth taking place in the Columbia suburbs of West Columbia, Cayce, and Irmo. The completion of Interstates 20 and 26 in the 1950s helped accelerate this trend, as did Lexington’s reputation for fine schools and low taxes. Incoming white middle-class suburbanites joined rural whites to make Lexington County a bastion of conservative politics and of the Republican Party in South Carolina. Notable Lexington County natives and residents include Governor George Bell Timmerman, Jr., and Congressmen Asbury Francis Lever and Floyd Spence. Entering the twenty-first century with one of South Carolina’s highest per capita incomes and lowest rates of unemployment, Lexington County seemed set to continue on its prosperous trajectory.
Bayne, Coy. Lake Murray: Legend and Leisure. 3d ed. Sunset, S.C.: Bayne, 1999.
Rowell, P. E. Lexington County and Its Towns. [Lexington, S.C.: Dispatch-Job Press, 1891].