The Cotton Tale of Cheraw

Begun as a trading post in the mid 18th century, Cheraw was located at the head of navigation on the Great Pee Dee River. This made the town a natural center of commerce, and Cheraw grew to be a thriving village by the time of the Revolution. The war was particularly devastating in this area, and Cheraw was slow to recover. Real growth did not begin again until cotton, the new money crop, became profitable at the beginning of the next century.

Two inventions had a significant impact on early 19th century Cheraw. The first was the cotton gin which made growing cotton in large quantities economically feasible. The second was the steamboat, which made its advent in Cheraw in 1820, making river travel far faster and more reliable. These two inventions caused a period of tremendous growth and prosperity in the old town.

Not only was Cheraw the last inland port on one of the largest rivers on the north Atlantic, but Cheraw also had one of the only bridges crossing this river. The first bridge was built in 1823. This bridge and its successors allowed wagons from the rich lands of Marlboro County and eastern North Carolina to bring cotton and other crops to market in Cheraw.

Cotton was an ideal crop in those days of difficult transportation. It was easy to market, could be hauled long distances, stored indefinitely and held for suitable prices. Wagon loads of cotton were brought to Cheraw from as far away as Charlotte and Salisbury in North Carolina as well as a wide region of South Carolina. In 1819-1820, 3,264 bales of cotton were shipped from Cheraw. By the 1822-23 shipping season, 15,192 bales left the port.

The Pee Dee was the first of the steamboats on the river. Her captain was the famous Moses Rogers, commander of the Savannah during the first transatlantic steamboat crossing. The Pee Dee was soon joined by the Charleston, Maid of Orleans and the Columbia. The price to ship a bale of cotton in 1824 was 75 cents “including insurance.” According to an ad in the Carolina Observer and Fayetteville Gazette, the steamers carried between 600 and 800 bales of cotton per trip.

In 1824 Cheraw’s first bank was established. This was followed in the 1830’s by the Merchants Bank which became the largest bank in South Carolina outside of Charleston. These banks provided the economic basis for the cotton trade, serving cotton factors, planters and commercial interests. Cheraw became the largest cotton market between Georgetown and Wilmington.

Almost every building in town from this period owed its existence either directly or indirectly to the cotton trade. The addition of a steeple and vestibule in 1826 gave Old St. David’s, the earliest of the planter’s churches, its present form. Some of the dwellings from the 1820’s include: 321 Third St., the Lafayette House, Boxwood Hall, 320 Market, 223 Greene and 310 Kershaw.

The Cheraw Academical Society operated a flourishing school on Kershaw Street. Stores, taverns and churches were built, and the town grew to around 1000 inhabitants. It’s position at the center of trade also made it home to the chancery courts for the Old Cheraws Judicial District. These courts settled business disputes.

Unfortunately, cotton production tended to deplete even rich soils rather rapidly. It was also very labor intensive. The work was done with slave labor, and eventually slaves came to comprise a third of the population in Chesterfield County. A hospital for “sick Negroes” was established in Cheraw in 1823. Only one or two of the slave dwellings remain here. These are located behind the main houses and are not visible from the street.

Although the opening of cotton lands in Alabama and further west sent a number of Cheraw sons in search of their fortunes, it also brought travelers and new business to Cheraw. In the 1830’s the Presbyterians built their Church, and their pastor, who was also the bank president, built a manse next door (#30). Other homes like the small one in the 200 block of Kershaw Street and larger properties like 404 Third Street were built.

By the 1850’s cotton profits had made Cheraw a prosperous, secure town. The most notable buildings remaining from this period are the Town Hall and the First Methodist Church. Dwellings included those at 617 Market, 505 Market, and 501 Kershaw.

The Civil War ended that prosperity. Cotton had been a major factor in bringing on the war since cotton cultivation depended on slave labor. It also depleted the soil so that planters moved ever westward in search of new ground. This put new strains on an agricultural and industrial rife already at the breaking point.

In 1860, John Inglis of Cheraw put in the resolution that South Carolina secede from the Union. Thus began a chain of events that eventually led to the Civil War. The war brought years of hardship to the town, culminating at the end with the visit of Gen. W.T. Sherman, who brought his large army here in March of 1865. When he left, the town was destitute, and most of the business district had been destroyed.

It was to be almost 35 years before Cheraw began to recover. Between 1900 and 1920 there was a great renaissance across the area, partially fueled by new railroad lines and the timbering industry. The great money producer, however, was again cotton whose price rose to record levels.

New banks were established, and housed in facilities like the 1st National Bank Building at 121 Market, The Merchants and Farmers Bank Building at 150 Market, and the Bank of Cheraw at 165 Market All of these are still standing.

In 1916, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad built a new freight station (now the Cheraw Police Department at 258 Second St.) to handle the ever increasing cotton shipped from the Cheraw market. There were once long cotton platforms behind the station along the spur track (since removed) on Duvall Street. Across the street were rows of cotton warehouses, now used for shops and offices. Other cotton warehouses lined the railroad tracks all through town. During the fall and winter the streets were lined with horse drawn wagons loaded with cotton.

For many years a gin operated in an ancient brick building just across from Old St. David’s Church. It was completely destroyed by a fire in the 1960’s. There was one other gin in that vicinity near Pee Dee Ice and Fuel. There was also a cotton seed oil processing plant nearby. The ice house, which is still in operation, supplied the ice necessary in the oil production process. When the plant was running it gave off a delicious aroma that smelled like frying country ham.

In late summer and fall the downtown streets were lined with cotton wagons and bales waiting for auction and sale to brokers. The cotton market actually operated in the center of Market Street. Some of the cotton remained in Cheraw, furnishing Cheraw Yarn Mills, (US 1, South) established in 1918, its raw material. The Yarn Mill, now part of Frontier Spinning, is still a prosperous concern and is Cheraw’s oldest industry in continual operation. The Yarn Mill for a short time also operated Cheraw Cotton Mills Plant #2 in the building at the north corner of Second and Front Streets. Prior to that time this building housed Pee Dee Knitting, a manufacturer of union suits. In 1925 there were three cotton mills here. Some examples of mill housing are on Church Street ( C ) and north Second Street. An average of 15,000 bales of cotton were shipped out of Cheraw each year.

The brokers and bankers built elegant homes in the new colonial revival style like those at 314 Kershaw, 314 Market, 324 Third and 335 Third. The Episcopalians built a new church on Market Street. Two black congregations, Pee Dee Baptist and Wesley United Methodist also constructed new facilities, and new stores, hotels and theaters were built.

In the country, share cropping was still common, a practice which wore out the land. The high price of cotton brought even more marginal land under cultivation. By 1909, 44,780 acres of cotton were grown in Chesterfield County. By 1919 cotton cultivation took up 77% of the land.

Adjacent Marlboro and Darlington Counties, with richer lands, produced tremendous amounts of cotton in these years. At the end of the harvest huge fish fries were often held for the hands.

The prosperity seemed without end. Then suddenly, early in the next decade, the bottom dropped out of the cotton market, and the boll weevil ate its way across the cotton fields of the South. Even before the crash of 1929, banks were in serious trouble in Cheraw. All of Cheraw’s banks failed in 1928. The depression of the 30’s began in the 20’s in much of South Carolina. The farmers, bankers and brokers lost their cotton shirts.

The 1930’s brought some events of lasting importance. Ben Thurman began the experimenting in Cheraw with cotton seed that eventually led to the invention of new vegetable oils. Billions of French fries later, vegetable oil has had a major impact on the American diet.

The New Deal in the 1930’s brought Federal conservation projects to the county. Citizens of Cheraw bought the original acreage for South Carolina’s first state park, and buildings, dams and trails were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps on these old cotton fields and woods. Sandhills State Forest and Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge were acquired in 1939 under the Resettlement Act to bring publicly owned land in the county to 96,000 acres.

Following World War II, a cotton market continued to operate in Cheraw. James Powe, a cotton broker and planter, had his office at 109 Market Street. The small building to the north of BC Moore’s Advertising Building on Second Street was another broker’s office. Edwin Malloy of Cheraw Yarn Mills operated his cotton buying business from the back of what is now Citi Trends on Market Street.

At the beginning of the 1960's new industry came to the area. Many of these were textile concerns who continued to buy and use cotton grown in the area. Indeed, it was possible to buy a shirt whose fibers were grown, spun and woven in Cheraw, and the cloth cut and sewn in Chesterfield County. NAFTA changed this economic climate, however, and many of these concerns moved operations abroad.

Cheraw is no longer a major cotton market, and the gins and oil mill are gone. Cotton is still grown here, though; the closest fields are just outside of town on US 52 North. And you can still explore the town’s cotton heritage. Just look around. Cotton is the thread that runs throughout the town’s history.