Pickens County

January 29, 1868 –

As with most of the upstate, the post–World War II economy in Pickens County reduced its reliance on the textile industry.

(497 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 127,983). Located in South Carolina’s northwest corner, Pickens County is an area of lakes and mountains, including the state’s highest peak, Sassafras Mountain. The county was named for Revolutionary War general Andrew Pickens, as was its predecessor, Pickens District (created in 1826). In 1868 delegates took to the state constitutional convention in Charleston a petition to divide Pickens District. The inconvenient location of the old courthouse was the major reason for division, which had also been attempted in 1851, 1860, and 1866. The renewed request was granted on January 29, 1868, and a bill presented to create Pickens and Oconee Counties was ratified as part of the new state constitution on April 14–16, 1868. A new courthouse town, also named Pickens, was chosen at a location fourteen miles east of the former courthouse.

Although the upcountry largely escaped the destruction of the Civil War, the establishment and operation of the new county had their difficulties, coming as they did during the postwar economic crisis and a volatile political climate. In this rural, isolated area of small farmers (few of whom had owned slaves before the war), the citizens of Pickens County nevertheless moved ahead, organizing the first Board of Commissioners on October 10, 1868. The board promptly ordered male citizens to begin work on the roads, especially the one to the new Pickens Court House. In March 1869 the first county court was held. Conditions in the early years of the county stabilized, and Pickens had an excellent record of meeting its tax obligations. And while Republicans controlled state government during this era, Democrats dominated politics in Pickens County, and local “political clubs” contributed to the election of Wade Hampton III as governor in 1876.

The early emphasis on roads was an indication of the county’s preoccupation with transportation, which soon focused on railroad development. With agriculture the main occupation of Pickens County residents, transporting crops quickly and cheaply to market was almost as important to farm profits as weather and soil conditions. Several attempts were made to attract a railroad line throughout the latter years of the nineteenth century. In 1870 voters approved a $100,000 bond subscription to the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line Railroad, believing that it would serve the town of Pickens as well as other parts of the county. The line eventually passed through Pickens County, and towns quickly sprang up along its route (Easley, Liberty, and Garvon Stations in 1873 and Calhoun in 1892). However, the benefits of this early railroad were mixed since it came only to within a few miles of the county seat. Also, the small African American population of Pickens County used the line to leave the county for opportunities elsewhere. Plans for a Sassafras Gap railroad in the mid-1870s failed, as did those in the 1880s for the line known as the Atlantic and French Broad Valley Railroad. It was not until 1890 that the Pickens Railroad Company was finally chartered, and in 1898 the first train ran the line from Easley to Pickens. From 1927 to 1929 the Appalachian Lumber Company built and operated a logging rail line from Pickens to Eastatoe.

Agriculture suffered through several years of bad crops in the 1870s and 1880s, and farmers began to look for ways to improve their lot. The Pickens County Agricultural and Mechanical Association was formed in 1885 and encouraged its members to use their combined political influence. Local voters supported the election of Benjamin R. Tillman as governor in 1890. Of particular interest to Pickens County, “Pitchfork Ben” supported the establishment of Clemson Agricultural College, later Clemson University. The college was founded in 1889 on property that had been John C. Calhoun’s plantation and then was willed to the state by Calhoun’s son-in-law, Thomas G. Clemson. Classes began in 1893, and Clemson quickly became a great asset to Pickens County and the state at large.

Industry in Pickens County expanded at the end of the nineteenth century, beginning with construction of the Norris Cotton Mill at Cateechee in 1895. By 1900 there were three cotton mills, two railroads, three banks, three roller mills, thirty-seven sawmills, ten shingle mills, and four brickyards. Despite these, the county remained predominantly rural throughout the first half of the twentieth century, with the majority of workers either raising crops or turning the cotton into cloth in local mill villages.

As with most of the upstate, the post–World War II economy in Pickens County reduced its reliance on the textile industry. By 1972 there were 99 manufacturing plants, and this number grew to approximately 150 by 1999. From 1985 to 1998 the county attracted more than $406 million in capital investments, which created more than 2,800 jobs. In addition to manufacturing, Pickens County’s modern economy relied on education, especially Clemson University and Southern Wesleyan University (created in 1906 in the town of Central), as well as tourists attracted to the county’s natural and historical resources. Landscape altering hydroelectric projects of the 1960s and 1970s covered many historic sites associated with Native Americans but resulted in Lakes Hartwell, Jocassee, and Keowee, which provided recreational opportunities. A long list of attractions drew visitors from across the country, including Table Rock State Park (built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933), the Pickens County Museum (located in the 1902 county jail), and Fort Hill, the former Calhoun-Clemson mansion on the Clemson campus. Other historical resources include Old Stone Presbyterian Church (1800), where Andrew Pickens served as elder and now rests in the family plot, and the 1826 Hagood Grist Mill. The climate, natural beauty, historic sites, and Clemson University all made tourism a vital part of Pickens County’s economy in the early twenty-first century.

Aheron, Piper Peters. Pickens County. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2000. Morris, Jane Boroughs. Pickens: The Town and the First Baptist Church. Pickens, S.C.: Pickens First Baptist Church, 1991.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Pickens County
  • Coverage January 29, 1868 –
  • Author
  • Keywords South Carolina’s northwest corner, lakes and mountains, state’s highest peak, Sassafras Mountain, Appalachian Lumber Company, Pickens County Museum, Table Rock State Park,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date December 6, 2022
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2022
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