A History of Greenville, South Carolina

Greenville County Court House - Greenville, SC (2008)

Downtown Greenville is where Greenville's first settler, Richard Pearis, established his plantation shortly after 1770, approximately located around East Court Street and Carpenter Brothers Drug Store on South Main Street. Originally part of the Cherokee Nation, Greenville County officially began in 1786.

Wilson Cook was a prominent member of the Greenville County Republican Party following the American Civil War and served in the State House from 1868 to 1870. The native of NC was brought to Greenville by Vardry McBee as a slave, but worked after hours and saved a sizeable sum. Once a freeman, he soon owned a general store, a tannery, and in 1881 was the largest black taxpayer in the county. Cook was also a founder of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Greenville.

The county seat was originally named Pleasantburg, but in 1831 the name was changed to Greenville.

Pleasantburg Town Plat - 1797

Gassaway Mansion - Completed 1925 - Greenville, South Carolina

The city of Greenville had its origin in the Indian trading station and mill established between 1760 and 1770 by Richard Pearis at Reedy River Falls.

In 1797, Lemual James Alston, a prominent resident, offered a site for the court house in Greenville County. Alston marked off 400 acres around the court house plat, laying a proposed village, Pleasantburg. The new residents, however, always referred to it as Greenville. The lots did not sell as expected since most settlers were interested in agricultural land. Alston, disappointed in his real estate endeavor and embarrassed over a political defeat, sold 11,028 acres to Vardry McBee in 1815 and left Greenville.

Through McBee’s progressive efforts, the little town of Greenville became a trading center for surrounding counties. Greenville also became known as a health resort for the lowcountry people escaping the malaria and humidity of the coastal regions.

Two particularly outstanding residential buildings remain from the early nineteenth century; the Earle Town House, ca. 1826, and Whitehall, ca. 1813. Both of the properties are listed on the National Register and are located within the boundaries of the Colonel Elias Earle Historic District.

During the early nineteenth century, Greenville grew slowly and steadily, and by the 1850s Greenville had become an established town. In 1850, Greenville’s population was three times its 1834 count of 500. These bustling times brought Furman University to Greenville, whose campus was constructed in the Italian Villa style. In 1853, the town received its first railroad, the Greenville & Columbia Railroad. The Greenville Female College was established in Greenville in 1855 and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary arrived in 1859. By the late 1850s, Greenville had the South’s largest carriage and wagon plant employing about eighty workers.

Until the American Civil War, the architecture in Greenville reflected its small town appearance and consisted of frame houses and masonry churches and stores with only a few brick homes on Main Street. Typical of southern antebellum architecture, many of the more substantial frame houses were built along the I-house plan with central hallways and flanking parlors. The Josiah Kilgore house, constructed ca. 1838 is on the National Register (NR); Cherrydale, ca. 1840 (NR); and Holly Hill, ca. 1850 have monumental porticos and Greek Revival elements. While the Fountain Fox Beattie House, 1834 (NR) and the T. Q. Donaldson House, 1863 (NR) have Italianate influences. These structures represent the most sophisticated residential architectural design work remaining in Greenville from the antebellum period.

Christ Church, 1852 (NR) and the First Baptist Church, 1856 (NR), are also excellent examples of mid-nineteenth century architecture.

The post-Civil War period brought Greenville new challenges and a change in social and economic prosperity. The town of Greenville quickly recovered from the anguish of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The city received its second railroad in 1872, the Richmond & Danville Railroad; and the 1870s also saw the birth of Greenville’s major business, the cotton textile industry. In 1874 and 1875, the Camperdown Mill was built in Greenville for weaving cotton.

Click Here to learn about the "Street Railways" that operated in Greenville from 1875 to 1956.

After several years of demonstrative success, these experimental mills proved that Greenville could produce quality cloth with its good water supply and cheap labor. Other companies followed suit and by 1894 eight cotton mills were operating in Greenville County, the earliest being established in 1820 on the Enoree River. By 1902, this number had increased to fourteen and the mills brought prosperity and stability to Greenville. Greenville evolved into a small city as new businesses were established in the downtown area.

Greenville, SC - Main Street - 1903

Following the Reconstruction era, the building of cotton textile mills converted the town into an industrial center, which by 1917 became the “Textile Center of the South.” After World War II, continued diversified industrial growth, with the expansion of textile and allied industries, earned the city the title of “Textile Center of the World.”

The Huguenot Mill complex above the falls was a large area containing two to three story masonry structures with Romanesque and Italianate architectural elements. Several of these buildings, now a part of the Reedy River Industrial Complex, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Another important mill complex within the city was Mills Mill, which began operation in 1894 and was built in the Romanesque Revival style. Other notable buildings constructed at the turn of the century were the American Cigar Factory, a large four-story vernacular structure, and the Steam Power Plant, also a vernacular masonry structure. The Cigar Factory will soon be rehabilitated for offices and street-level shopping.

The increase in wealth and the establishment of a streetcar system formed new residential neighborhoods. The Hampton-Pinckney residential area is the earliest intact neighborhood in Greenville. After the Hampton-Pinckney area was settled, another residential tract was being planned and developed along Pettigru Street. The environs of this area reflect the residents’ recently obtained status and wealth from the affluence of the city and textile mills. Originally known as the "Boyce Lawn property" and located between East North Street and East Washington Street, this land was divided into smaller lots. The streets joining the lots were named after faculty members of the Furman Theological Seminary. Several other residential neighborhoods evolved during these years.

Greenville City Hall in the 1950s

After 1920, Greenville experienced a building boom and the city prospered throughout the decade. In 1923, Greenville constructed approximately 110 residential structures, and 220 houses were built in the suburbs. The Poinsett Hotel ("Carolina’s Finest"), of twelve stories, was completed in 1925, and the ten-story Chamber of Commerce Building was finished the same year. South Carolina’s largest furniture store and a theater were also built in Greenville in 1925.

The 1920s also saw many new residential areas evolve in the city, the most notable of which was along James and Earle Streets north of downtown. Movement to this area began as early as 1900 but it wasn’t until after 1920 that construction accelerated along these two streets.

Several examples of Victorian architecture are found interspersed among large Colonial Revival homes and variations of the Bungalow house. The James-Earle Street area is an excellent showcase of varying architectural styles of the 1920s. Also indicative of the diverse taste in architecture of this era is the Gassaway Mansion located adjacent to East North Street . This eclectic structure was built between 1919 and 1924 and its Gothic tower and classic facade display the free form design of that period.

After 1930, major construction in Greenville ceased for many years. Not until the 1950s did Greenville begin diversifying its economic base and attracting new construction and industry. During the past decades, Greenville has grown progressively in the downtown area. Today Greenville exhibits a blending of both new and old architectural styles in its commercial and residential areas.

As Greenville Court House, the town was granted a U.S. Post Office on April 1, 1795, and its first Postmaster was Mr. Jesse Carter. In 1888, the Post Office Department officially changed its name simply to Greenville. Its Post Office has been in continuous operation ever since inception in 1795.
Click Here to view / download a 2013 map of the greater Greenville & Spartanburg area. Adobe PDF file - 35 pages. Very large.

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