Like most of the Pee Dee, Marion County was a sleepy, not-much-happening area late in the 19th century.
It once was a much bigger county than now. When W.W. Sellers published his history of Marion County in 1906, Marion County’s portion west of the Pee Dee River had been lost, used to create what in 1889 was a new Florence County along with parts of Darlington, Williamsburg and Clarendon counties. Not long after that, about the half left was used to create Dillon County. That left Marion County about as small geographically as a S.C. county legally could be.
At that time, the town of Marion did not really qualify as a town, but it was the county seat and had a courthouse. Besides the court and a church, there was not much there. A couple of things boosted growth. One was the Wilmington and Manchester Railroad built through the county, and tobacco farming grew late in the century.
Some of the important meetings of the early W&M brass were in Marion, and it spurred growth, but tobacco had the greatest effect on Mullins, which became the largest tobacco market in the state. Sellers referred to Mullins and Nichols as bustling communities near the arrival of the 20th century, but Mullins benefited more from the new tobacco farming and marketing. In his 1906 assessment, he figured Nichols had been ahead of Mullins, but that quickly changed, and Nichols was almost washed away by a storm a year or two ago.
The village of Marion in 1838 had between 150 and 200 residents, according to Sellers, but now it is the largest city in the county at 6,714. The Civil War stifled progress all over the county, he wrote, and in 1883, local prohibition was voted in. It lasted for 20 years, but that doesn’t mean it was impossible to get a drink. Still, it had a number of “blind tigers” where drink was plentiful.
Sellers was critical of the state’s alcohol-control policy, which he said brought much money to the state government through state liquor stores.
“The little morality there is in it can hardly be seen with a microscope,” he wrote.
The railroad had quite an effect on the county. Besides enlivening the economies of the county, it built the only bridge of that time between the parts of the county east and west of the Pee Dee River. That lack of a bridge for people was a major factor in the creation of Florence County, which largely was created on the area of Marion County west of the river. West bank residents demanded a trip to court without crossing the Pee Dee.
That was not all. After Marion lost its section west of the river, the railroads intruded again, but across the northern part of the county, creating the towns of Dillon and Latta with the Florence Railroad, a shortcut between Fayetteville and Florence that greatly shortened the north-south route of the developing Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Several years after Sellers’ book came out, Dillon County was created, using about half of what was left of Marion County.
According to his book, the town of Marion had a couple of tobacco warehouses in the early years of the 20th century, but they dropped out of sight, and Mullins became the only town in the county to have tobacco warehouses. Sellers noted that Mullins more quickly sensed the potential of the tobacco trade and quickly became the top tobacco market in the state, and it has remained so. Sellers said Mullins “bids fair to become the Danville of South Carolina,” a reference to the big tobacco trade in Danville, Virginia.
Marion and Mullins eventually became the leading communities in the county, which remains largely rural. In Sellers’ time, Marion and Mullins were a little over a thousand in population, and Sellers said that Mullins might surpass the county seat in business and population, but in the 2010 census, Marion had 6,714 population and Mullins 4,576. Nichols at 408 in 2010 had dwindled since Sellers’ book came out.
School, library and medical facilities developed in the past century, and there is a possibility that the proposed Interstate 73 will become a reality and could become a development encourager.