Along with his interest in manufacturing and merchandising, McBee became one of the strongest promoters of railroads for the upstate in the 1830s.
Industrialist. McBee was born on June 19, 1775, near Thicketty Creek in Spartanburg County, the tenth child of Vardry McBee and Hannah Echols. Since his father’s wealth had been destroyed during the Revolutionary War, McBee received only one year of formal schooling before he had to go to work at the limestone quarry his father once owned. In 1794 McBee moved to Lincolnton, North Carolina, to become an apprentice to his brother-in-law, Joseph Morris, a saddler and innkeeper. After a few years in Lincolnton, McBee traveled, spending time working as a clerk for a Charleston merchant, living with his parents on the Kentucky frontier, and working as a saddler in Sumner County, Tennessee. By 1802 McBee had moved back to Lincolnton to work as a saddler and a dry-goods merchant. On August 16, 1804, McBee married Jane Alexander. The couple had nine children. He slowly accumulated considerable wealth, which enabled him to purchase a plantation and become known as one of the area’s most progressive farmers.
Although McBee’s name is synonymous with the early development of Greenville, he did not become involved with that town until 1815 and did not live there until he was more than sixty years old. In 1815 he purchased from Lemuel Alston approximately eleven thousand acres comprising most of what is now downtown Greenville. By the early 1830s McBee had established several indus- trial ventures around Greenville: a brick flour mill at the upper falls of the Reedy River, two gold mines in the northern part of the county, and a complex seven miles below Greenville at what is now Conestee that included a flour mill, a sawmill, a paper mill, a cotton factory, and a woolen factory. He also had mercantile stores in both Greenville and Spartanburg.
Along with his interest in manufacturing and merchandising, McBee became one of the strongest promoters of railroads for the upstate in the 1830s. He was a major force behind the Lousiville, Cincinnati and Charleston Railroad Company, which proposed to link the Midwest to the South. The Panic of 1837 and the opposition of John C. Calhoun doomed this project, but McBee turned his efforts toward establishing a railroad from Columbia to Greenville, which finally reached fruition in 1853. By 1860 McBee was the largest landholder in Greenville District, owning more than $360,000 worth of property, including fifty-six slaves. As the nation approached civil war in the 1850s, McBee remained a strong Unionist.
In addition to his business ventures, McBee played important roles in establishing several institutions that have been central to Greenville’s identity. In 1820 he donated land for the Greenville Academy, one of the town’s first schools. Although not a particularly religious man, McBee donated land for Christ Episcopal Church, Greenville Baptist Church, Greenville Methodist Church, and First Presbyterian Church. McBee also provided financial support to Furman University when it was established in 1850. McBee died on January 23, 1864, and was buried at Christ Episcopal Church in Greenville.
Huff, Archie Vernon, Jr. Greenville: The History of the City and the County in the South Carolina Piedmont. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Lander, Ernest McPherson, Jr. The Textile Industry in Antebellum South Carolina. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
Smith, Roy McBee. Vardry McBee, 1775–1864: Man of Reason in an Age of Extremes. 2d ed. Spartanburg, S.C.: Laurel Heritage, 1997.