A History of Marion, South Carolina

Marion County Court House - Marion, SC (2007)

The date at which a town's history begins should not be difficult to determine. If the year that the site was selected for the new court house (1799) is chosen or the time that Marion received its official charter (1847), many years of a fascinating period would be omitted, years when a small number of pioneers increased slowly until the little settlement evolved into the village that was first called Gilesborough.

Let us begin, then, in the 1730s and 1740s, when the white settlers began to move inland along the rivers from Charles Town and George Town, building rough cabins and clearing land for farming and grazing close to the only easy means of transportation, the navigable streams.

One "adventurer," as he was called in Bishop Gregg's History of the Old Cheraws, traveled a bit further up the Great Pee Dee River and settled on Catfish Creek near the present city limits of Marion. Historians give 1754 as the earliest date that official documents locate a permanent settler at this site; however, tradition suggests a much earlier date. At any rate, John Godbold, an Englishman, is generally credited with being the first white resident of what many years later became known as the town of Marion.

At the beginning of the American Revolution, most of the sparse population of the locality was still clustered in the southern part and at several points along the two Pee Dee rivers. The southern area became widely known as the location of Brigadier General Francis Marion's swampy retreat, Snow's Island (now in Florence County).

There is an old saying in Marion that anyone who drinks water from Catfish Creek becomes infatuated with the area and wishes to remain there.

After 1783, many settlers evidently began to drink water from that stream of local fame. Soon the little group of dwellings was given village status when the settlement was called Gilesborough in honor of Colonel Hugh Giles, an early resident and Revolutionary War hero.

As early as 1789, a Methodist congregation organized by Bishop Asbury met periodically at Flowers Meeting House, a rough log structure on Henry Flowers' land about one mile north of Marion.

During its early colonial years, under the rule of the Lords Proprietors, the area was a part of Craven County. When Craven County was abolished in 1769, this segment of land was placed in Georgetown District. In 1785, another division was made and the name "Liberty County" was used for a short time to designate this area.

In 1798, when judicial districts were created in South Carolina, the name "Marion District" was first used, honoring Brigadier General Francis Marion of Revolutionary War fame. The first court house was completed in 1800. The flurry of legal activity that was now centered in the tiny community brought more people into town to attend court sessions and to trade.

At some point the residents began to favor Marion as the name of the town as well as the court house. In 1826, Robert Mills, in his Statistics in South Carolina, describes the "district town" in these words: "The courts are held at Gilesborough, but now called Marion. It is situated on the east side of Catfish Creek, a water of the Great Pee Dee, in lat. 34' 8", long. 79' 30", east of Columbia, distant 93-1/2 miles. It contains about 30 houses, and one hundred inhabitants; a handsome new court house, built of brick, a jail, and academy."

On December 17, 1847, when by an Act of the South Carolina legislature a charter was issued to the town, its official name was given as "Marion." In 1855, a council was elected to quide the development of the town. Horatio McClenaghan was elected the first intendant (mayor) and four wardens were chosen to serve with him.

Stock raising and the planting of cotton (which now replaced the earlier main crop, indigo) were profitable agricultural pursuits at this time. Railway transportation came to Marion; a weekly newspaper was published; landowners and trades people were faring well; and a small group of citizens began to show an interest in the cultural aspects, of the community. A period of great growth and prosperity seemed just around the corner - destined to be cut short by the advent of the War Between the States, 1861-1865.

These years found most of the able-bodied men away fighting in the war. The elderly and the women and children managed as best they could at home. The county suffered no property damage from General William T. Sherman's troops. Luckily, the northern soldiers decided against attempting to cross the rain-swollen Great Pee Dee River.

A correspondent of The Nation, who was sent south to describe conditions in 1865, gives this pleasant picture of Marion: "It is a very pretty little village full of trees and gardens and light, elegant houses."

It was not until the late 1870s and early 1880s that the community emerged from the setback of the war and the reconstruction period. The years that followed, through the early part of the 1900s, probably covered the most-significant era in the history of Marion, for it was then that the lasting character of the town began to emerge.

Original Marion County Court House - c.1900 - a Private Residence

W.W. Sellers in his History of Marion County (1902) commented on the commercial activity:

"The improvements since 1876 have been gradual, up to a few years back, when a new impetus was given her, and she is now on a boom; her population is about 2,000. Instead of barrooms, we have two flourishing banks, a cotton factory, an oil mill, an iron foundry, and machine shops, the largest and best in the eastern part of the state; two large tobacco warehouses, with pack houses, and a stemmery of tobacco; and this is not all, the old wooden shanties for dwellings and stores are being replaced by large and commodious buildings for dwellings - some of wood and some of brick have gone up and are going up; also the same as to stores, and other buildings; there are also five or six livery stables and five or six drug stores, and from two or three places of business, stores, in 1840, small establishments, they now number at least thirty, with large stocks of goods and of every variety, and every one seems to be busy and doing a fair business."

Many of these "large and commodious" dwellings and stores are very much in evidence in Marion today, still serving families and businesses with grace and dignity. Attractive churches were built by the Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Episcopal denominations.

The Marion Academy was constructed in 1886, the crowning accomplishment of several previous academy societies, and the Marion Public Library was organized in 1898, the result of a movement begun much earlier. The Opera House (1892) brought theatrical and musical productions to the residents. Literary societies encouraged the citizenry to improve their minds.

A strong sense of community developed, most clearly exemplified in the Civic Improvement League which chose city beautification and school improvement as its main areas of concern. It is evident that the League's efforts to improve the appearance of the town were successful. In 1923, Sarah E. Godbold, in a survey prepared for a graduate course at the University of South Carolina, gave this flattering description:

"Marion has many times been pronounced the most beautiful town in eastern South Carolina. Rows of ancient oaks and elms line its streets and the spacious public square in the center of the town is as charming as an old Southern garden. Many of the homes in Marion are truly lovely and the public buildings are unusually handsome for a town of its size."

In the 1920s, beautification became the joint concern of a citizens' committee and the town council. This arrangement has continued throughout the ensuing years. Carroll Atkinson, Jr., mayor for eighteen years, placed a high priority on preserving and enhancing the attractiveness of the city during his terms. Gault Beeson, Marion County Commissioner for many years and later Administrator, always took great pride in the appearance of the county property within the City of Marion.

At another point in her paper Miss Godbold made this interesting observation:

"Towns, like individuals, have character and personality, which distinguish them from their neighbors, and by which they become known throughout the State and country. Some cities care only for business; some for ease and pleasure; some for education; but with a few, the atmosphere of culture - the combination of the business of living with the joy of living, seems to blend into the ideal town. The people of Marion love to claim this happy character for their little city."

The paper from which these two excerpts were taken was written by Miss Godbold and G.A. Williamson, Jr., and later printed in booklet form entitled Marion County: Economic and Social. A copy of this detailed study is in the South Carolina room at the Marion County Library.

The twentieth century brought to this nation great scientific, technical, and educational advances, rapid land and air travel, a high level of communication, mass production (bringing undreamed of standards of living for many), nuclear power, and space explorations. It also brought two world wars and other global conflicts, great social turmoil, and staggering problems in many areas.

In Marion, a former agricultural economy based on cotton and tobacco has become more diversified with large factories producing such varied products as textiles and clothing, cola drinks, mill machinery, and candy.

The public schools were fully accredited in 1976 by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The Marion County Memorial Hospital, started as a memorial to the county war fatalities of World War II and completed in 1950, helped care for the health needs of the community.

Products and services of many kinds are available to help make life easier for residents; a variety of diversions and interests enrich leisure hours.

Marion - with its population of 6,939 (2010) - continues to face the problems that accompany modern living in this nation, though perhaps on a smaller scale than many municipalities. It struggles to adjust to new circumstances, trying at the same time to cling to standards and conditions of an earlier era.

As the town changes in many respects, it has been able to retain its attractive appearance. Townspeople are universally pleased and justifiably proud when travelers refer to Marion as "that pretty little town that we go through on the way to the beach."

Statue of Brigadier General Francis Marion - Marion, South Carolina

As Marion Court House, the town was granted a U.S. Post Office on January 1, 1808, and its first Postmaster was Mr. Andrew F. Johnson. On January 17, 1887, the Post Office Department officially changed its name simply to Marion. It has been in continuous operation ever since inception.

Click Here to view / download a 2017 map of Marion, SC. Adobe PDF file. Fairly large.

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