Marlboro County was formed on March 12, 1785, and named for John Churchill, first duke of Marlborough.
(480 sq. miles; 2010 pop. 28,933). Marlboro County was formed on March 12, 1785, and named for John Churchill, first duke of Marlborough. Retaining the same general dimensions throughout its existence, Marlboro County is bounded by the Great Pee Dee River on the west, North Carolina on the north and northeast, and Dillon County on the southeast. The Cheraw Indians occupied the region before European settlers arrived. During the 1730s the British government encouraged settlement along the Pee Dee by enticing Welsh families from Pennsylvania with land grants, tools, and seeds. The area became known as the Welsh Neck. Here, the first Baptist church in the backcountry, Welsh Neck Baptist Church, was established in 1738. English, Scots-Irish, and French settlers arrived soon thereafter. By 1777 the St. David’s Society added an academy to the Welsh Neck community.
During the Revolutionary War inhabitants divided among patriots and Tories. Several wartime events took place. At Pegues Place plantation near the North Carolina border, a cartel for a prisoner exchange was signed on May 3, 1781. Near the modern town of Wallace, General Nathanael Greene established his “Camp of Repose,” where he assumed command of the Continental army in the South in December 1780. Colonel Abel Kolb’s tomb commemorating his murder by Tories is situated in Marlboro, as is the site of the Battle of Hunt’s Bluff, where patriots captured a barge filled with ill British troops en route to Georgetown. Another skirmish occurred near Cashua Baptist Church in April 1781.
Marlboro County’s first courthouse stood at Gardner’s Bluff on the Pee Dee but later moved slightly inland to the northern bank of Crooked Creek at Carlisle. A third site near the creek became the county seat of Bennettsville in 1819. A Robert Mills–designed courthouse opened in 1824. It was replaced in 1852 by a twin-towered structure that survived occupation by Union troops in March 1865. Baptists from the Welsh Neck Church came to Bennettsville in 1832, followed by Methodists in 1834 and Presbyterians in 1855. During this period male and female academies were organized and opened. Additional communities developed around churches, principal roads, and at the county’s popular mineral springs at Blenheim.
Planters found Marlboro’s loamy soils excellent, and many made fortunes in the antebellum era. In the early nineteenth century cotton and corn replaced grain and indigo as the primary agricultural products. African slaves were responsible for much of Marlboro’s agricultural prosperity, and their descendants contributed to the county’s economy and culture throughout its history. Marlboro’s reputation for agriculture went international in 1889 when the local farmer Zachariah J. Drake set a world’s record by producing 255 bushels of shelled corn from a single acre of Marlboro County farmland.
Marlboro sent more than one thousand men to fight for the Confederacy, and a third of them never returned. The county was occupied by General William T. Sherman’s army in March 1865, after it crossed the Pee Dee en route to North Carolina. Plantations throughout the county were ravaged by the invading army, as was the town of Bennettsville, where Union general Francis P. Blair made his headquarters at the Jennings-Brown House. Although several town buildings were burned, Marlboro’s courthouse was spared, giving Marlboro complete records since 1785.
Like the rest of South Carolina, Marlboro County struggled through the Reconstruction era, although the productivity of county farmlands helped ease the transition from slave labor to sharecropping. Prosperity returned in the 1880s when D. D. McColl brought the first railroad to Marlboro and opened its first bank, the Bank of Marlboro, in 1884. He soon thereafter brought cotton mills to the towns of McColl and Bennettsville. Despite the changes, cotton remained king in Marlboro, and railroads transported harvests to markets and mills far beyond county borders. Urban areas prospered as well, with impressive homes and brick stores and offices appearing in new railroad towns such as Blenheim (incorporated in 1883), McColl (incorporated in 1890), and Dunbar (incorporated in 1894). In Bennettsville a new courthouse opened in 1885, with extensive additions made in the 1950s by the local architect Henry D. Harrall.
The twentieth century brought additions to the landscape and the economy. William White Palmer of Bennettsville, a World War I aerial ace, provided the name for a U.S. Army Air Corps flight-training facility that opened near his hometown just prior to World War II, Palmer Field. Here, cadets arrived from across the nation to train, and some of them married local girls and settled in Marlboro after the war. The base later housed hundreds of German prisoners of war, who assisted local farmers in tending and harvesting crops. Years later Palmer Field became home to Powell Manufacturing Company, a producer of agricultural machinery, tobacco harvesting, and bulk-curing equipment.
Beginning in the late 1940s Marlboro County pursued industrial development to provide jobs for farm laborers idled by increased mechanization of farms. An impressive group of nationally and internationally known firms established plants throughout the county, including Rockwell Automation, Mohasco, Delta Woodside, OxBodies, SoPakCo, Musashi Seimitsu, Reliance Trading, Bennettsville Printing and Folia, Marley, Palmetto Brick, and four Willamette Industries installations. State government added to county payrolls in 1989 when it opened a medium-to-maximum-security prison, Evans Correctional Institution (named for a Marlboro native, U.S. Senator Josiah Evans). During the 1950s Crooked Creek near Bennettsville was dammed, creating Lake Wallace, a 846-acre recreational lake and wildlife preserve that also served as Bennettsville’s water reservoir. Handsome residential subdivisions developed along its shores.
As Marlboro entered the twenty-first century, the county worked to continue its economic expansion while maintaining its heritage. County officials sought to increase Marlboro’s ties to the outside world by supporting efforts to widen S.C. Highway 38 and develop a proposed interstate highway from Detroit to the Grand Strand. The South Carolina Cotton Trail, the county’s historic buildings, and its historic records attract numerous visitors and genealogists. Improvements to the county-owned Great Pee Dee River Railroad and Avent Airport pointed to Marlboro’s pursuit of a promising future, while the county treasures its rich past.
Hudson, Joshua Hilary. Sketches and Reminiscences. Columbia, S.C.: State Company, 1903.
Kinney, William Light, Jr. Sherman’s March: A Review. Bennettsville, S.C.: Marlboro Herald-Advocate, 1961.
Marlboro County, South Carolina: A Pictorial History. Bennettsville, S.C.: Marlborough Historical Society, 1996.
McColl, D. D. Sketches of Old Marlboro. Columbia, S.C.: State Company, 1916.
Rudisill, Horace Fraser. Minutes of Saint David’s Society, 1777–1835. Florence, S.C.: The Society, 1986.
Thomas, J. A. W. A History of Marlboro County, with Traditions and Sketches of Numerous Families. 1897. Reprint, Baltimore: Regional Publishing, 1971.