Florence County had some rocky early days, and we’re not talking about the vigorous political debate that paved the way for Florence County to be formed from parts of four neighboring counties in 1888.
One political problem lay in the fact that most of the county, like others in the Pee Dee, was strongly attached to agriculture while the new county seat was strongly connected to the railroad, which offered by far the most jobs and by far the most tax payments.
The downtown had developed into strictly a retail business area with no thought of space for important public buildings. That made selection of a courthouse site a little difficult. According to Nick Zeigler’s history of early Florence, there was competition between two sites, one on Irby Street, where the building finally was located, and one on East Evans Street, where the Central Hotel was located.
One of the problems of the Irby Street site was that the ground was so low it attracted ponds to form. It was said that one of those was deep enough to swim a horse. W.R. Barringer Sr., who had hoped they would choose his East Evans Street location, said, “It’s a shame to build a courthouse in Jim Allen’s frog pond.” After that, he would pull a fish, frog or some other inhabitant of swamps from his pocket and claim he had just come from the new courthouse site.
In August 1889, construction was started on the new courthouse. Then came time for the leaders to pick a temporary site for county offices.
The choice was space over David Sternberger’s store on the southeast corner of Front (now Baroody) and Dargan streets. That worked all right until Nov. 20, 1890. Most of the small supply of county records was lost in a fire. Then the county offices moved to Buchkeit’s store building on North Dargan Street.
The first term of court in the new county started on Jan. 27, 1890, in the YMCA Hall at Dargan and Evans, above James Allen and Son’s business building.
That went well, and there was a little irony in the dedication of the new courthouse on May 31, 1890. It was a fine-looking building with a sort of early American look about it. Irony came in Judge Joshua Hudson of Bennettsville serving as the dedicatory speaker.
Hudson was on his way to a life and career in the early 1850s in Bennettsville when he got off a Wilmington and Manchester train at the Florence station, which then was where the W&M tracks crossed Hoffmeyer Road. He later wrote that Florence consisted mostly of pine trees and a shed. At the time of his dedicatory speech, Florence was a bustling small city and new county seat. There is no record of Hudson’s having referred to that earlier speech in the dedication.
The first election came in 1889, when gubernatorial-appointed members had to run for actual election. County offices appointed were Edward William Johnson, sheriff; Zachary Taylor Kershaw, clerk of court; James Purdie McNeill, probate judge; Thomas Edward Gregg, treasurer; Robert Fordham Hepburn, auditor; Sebrey Thomas Burch, coroner; Joseph Edward Pettigrew, school commissioner.
Then in another election in 1890, Smiley Bigham was elected county senator. He was the father of Edmund Bigham, who was jailed for decades after a mass killing within his family. It probably was the worst family murder case in Florence County history.
There were other problems not related to government. Three times in the 1890s, flames swept across downtown Florence. The first was early in the 1890s, barely making the decade. The last was in December 1899, again barely making the ’90s decade. But the 1893 fire was comfortably within the decade.
A town with no railroad payroll and without the kind of invigorated population Florence had might have given up, but Florence steamed forward and was successful. The city council then saw the wisdom of creating a water and sewer system, since the biggest problem with fighting fire had been shortage of water. That system was a huge success and raised the quality of life in the city.
There have been no more mass fires, thanks to the water system and more brick buildings that don’t get swept up like frame structures.
Whatever the problems, Florence County has survived them.
Thom Anderson is a former editor of the Morning News.