Travelers from Charlotte, North Carolina, call Marion “that pretty little town we go through on the way to the beach.”
(Marion County; 2020 pop. 6,200). Travelers from Charlotte, North Carolina, call Marion “that pretty little town we go through on the way to the beach.” One reason for its attractiveness is the tree-shaded public square in the center of town. In 1798 Thomas Godbold, son of the pioneer settler John Godbold, exchanged four acres of land “for the public good” for a dollar and then sold lots surrounding the square. Initially the square was not a beauty spot but the “hitching post” where farmers tied their teams and peddlers hawked their wares. In the 1880s Mrs. C. A. Woods organized the Civic Improvement League, which converted the area into a park.
Originally named Gilesborough in honor of local war hero Colonel Hugh Giles, by 1826 the town was being called Marion after General Francis Marion and the surrounding district. The name became official in 1847 when the town was incorporated. In the 1820s Robert Mills described Marion as containing “about 30 houses, and one hundred inhabitants; a handsome new courthouse, built of brick, a jail, and academy.” The town developed in an orderly fashion. Larger homes and churches were built, the Masonic Lodge was erected in 1823, a weekly newspaper was established in 1846, and the Wilmington and Manchester Railroad arrived in 1854. The Great Pee Dee River prevented Sherman’s army from visiting Marion in March 1865. Spared the destruction suffered by other towns during the Civil War, Marion was described by a correspondent of the Nation in 1865 as “a very pretty little village full of trees and gardens and light, elegant houses.”
Marion prospered in the decades following the war and Reconstruction. From 1870 to 1910 the population grew from 2,490 to 6,354. Agriculture remained important to the Marion economy, but the town also turned to industry. By the mid-1930s a lumber mill, a veneer and brick plant, an oil mill, and ironworks operated on the outskirts of town. Many buildings from this era survived into the twenty-first century, situated along streets lined with ancient oaks draped in Spanish moss. The Marion Academy (1886) became the Marion County Museum in 1981. Since 1983 the restored Town Hall and Opera House (1892) has been shared with the Chamber of Commerce. The Carnegie library building (1906) provided a permanent home for a public library organized in 1898, the first tax-supported library in the state. The Marion Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The district was enlarged in 1978 to include more than eighty properties of architectural significance.
An agricultural economy became increasingly diversified after World War II, with local factories producing textiles, clothing, machinery, and luxury yachts. Marion accepted social change as well, although more slowly at times than many other cities did. Town leaders, including African American officials and law enforce- ment personnel, and a biracial population worked together to encourage commercial development, improve educational facilities, and establish progressive leadership. They also provided numerous municipal services, including city beautification and recreational opportunities, to ensure that Marionites were able to maintain a pleasing, small-town lifestyle as their legacy.
Sellers, W. W. A History of Marion County, South Carolina. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1902.