Sandlapper
The Magazine of South Carolina

Hartsville

The industrious Maj. Coker got the ball rolling. Today, the city is one of South Carolina's most prosperous.

by Aïda Rogers

Like a little contention in your town? A little squabbling among your council members, a fuss or two about development? How about that contingent wanting change, and that other group against it? Looking for some apathy?

Don't come to Hartsville. It's not here. Hartsville, simply put, is happening. The people are rich and the town's good-looking. Cotton's been high for years.

"I compare Hartsville to a little Atlanta because Atlanta got a lot of its roots from Coca-Cola," theorizes Harry McDon-ald, a retired agronomist and local raconteur. "There are a lot of affluent people in Atlanta because of Coca-Cola and there are a lot of affluent people in Hartsville because of Sonoco. This town is full of wealthy people."

Those wealthy people are well-educated, well-traveled and willing to give to town projects. Thanks to them, Hartsville has plenty to brag about. City Manager Bill Bruton hardly knows where to begin when asked what's going on in Hartsville now. Should he start with the Hartsville 2000 program that drew 300 people to work on different committees to plan for the town's future? What about the $120,000 raised by the community and private corporations to expand the airport? Byerly Hospital has been bought by a company in Florida that will expand facilities and services; how often does that happen in a relatively rural area?

Then there's the new building planned for the Governor's School for Science and Math. It has outgrown its current site on the Coker College campus, so a bigger, better building has been planned for somewhere else. Then there's Coker College itself, experiencing its own renaissance with restored buildings, a landscaped campus and the much-anticipated $3.2-million Elizabeth Boatwright Coker Performing Arts Center. Hartsville's community policing program was selected most innovative by the SC Municipal Association; its "planning room" in City Hall for citizens to see what changes are in store also won awards for its way of keeping people in touch with town business.

Arts are blooming; the economy is thriving. Retail is up, unemployment is down. And Kalmia Gardens, once called "Miss May's Folly" for the woman determined to bring beauty to a steep bluff on Black Creek, has never been in better shape. Says Bruton: "We've got so much going on we can't keep track of it."

 

IT WOULD SEEM Hartsville is reaping the rewards of the vision and labor of Maj. James Lide Coker, or "The Major," as he is often called. Dreamer and doer, Coker was also a farmer dedicated to bringing prosperity back to the devastated South after the Civil War. Coker himself was a veteran, sustaining a shattered hip at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863. He sang hymns during his imprisonment in Baltimore, then came home to rebuild his life and community. Armed with an education from The Citadel and Harvard University, where he studied botany and agriculture, Coker opened a general store, helped establish a bank and continued to work in scientific farming. Eventually he would start Welsh Neck High School, which later became Coker College, and ensure its continuance with his money. Characteristic of his modesty, he insisted it not be named for him - a protest that wasn't heeded.

But perhaps Coker's most significant achievement was one he shared with his son James. They decided to make paper pulp chemically from shortleaf pine. They built their pulp mill behind Coker's house on the bank of Black Creek in 1889 - and immediately failed. It was four years before their experiment began to work, and in 1895, the Carolina Fiber Company was incorporated. Four years later, another company was formed to use the paper it made to create cones for the textile industry. The new company was called Southern Novelty Company, later shortened to Sonoco. Sonoco today is a Fortune 500 company with more than 250 operations in 28 countries. But its headquarters are right where it started, in Hartsville. It's been said - though not substantiated - that there are more millionaires in Hartsville per capita than anywhere else in the country.

The Major had four sons, all of whom inherited their father's smarts and became famous on their own. James and Charles stayed with Sonoco, guiding it to its present success as an international manufacturer of various packaging supplies. William became head of the botany department at the University of North Carolina and founded its Coker Arboretum. David operated the general store, J.L. Coker and Company; it later became the largest department store between Richmond and Atlanta.

David also started Coker's Pedigreed Seed Company in 1914. The company developed disease-resistant strains of cotton, corn, wheat and tobacco. Its cotton became the most famous. Not only was it of a better quality, but more of it could be grown per acre, says Bruton. Coker Experimental Farms eventually employed many agricultural scientists and thousands of farm hands. By 1963, about 65 percent of the cotton grown in the Southeast, 80 percent of oats, 75 percent of flue-cured tobacco and 40 percent of hybrid corn was grown from seed produced by Coker scientists. Syria had a law forbidding any other kind of cotton to be grown there. Today, Coker Experimental Farms is a national historic landmark, one of only 14 representing agricultural industry in the country.

The Major had six daughters as well, and today there are so many Cokers - many of whom have achieved good things for themselves and Hartsville - that people in town get them all confused. But they are loved and respected as much for what they've done as for the low-key way they've done it. The Major's modesty has been passed down through the generations to Charles W. Coker Jr., Sonoco's current chairman and CEO. "He wants Sonoco to contribute to the community but he wants to do it in such a way that people don't look at this as Sonocoville, which I think is smart," says M.B. Nickles, a physician who moved to Hartsville 30 years ago.

Says his buddy, Harry McDonald, "I think what you can say about the Coker family is one generation is supposed to knock off and spend the money, but that hasn't happened. Each generation have come in and felt their responsibility."

 

THOUGH HARTSVILLE has MBAs, Ph.Ds and BMWs, it also has that All-American small town feel. Carolina Lunch, a diner that serves breakfast only, attracts regulars and coffee drinkers and those who enjoy a country breakfast that comes with a slice of tomato. There are garden clubs, book clubs, supper clubs, dance clubs, music study clubs and several mens' groups who meet to cook, eat and play cards. High school football is a major activity, and so is cruising - year-round, at any age.

"Heck, my grandfather did it," recalls Carpenter King, who lives in town but edits The Lee County Observer in Bishopville. King can trace the exact cruise route: by Ruth's Drive-in to the Pizza Hut to the old Dixie Pig restaurant and then back downtown by the old library, which is now the museum. King finds himself cruising today. "It was ingrained in me. We'd get out on a Sunday afternoon for the Sunday afternoon drive, and you'd follow that cruise and wave at people."

People still wave, says King, who echoes others who say Hartsville is friendly. And it's a good place to rear children. King, who moved to Hartsville from Washington, DC, as a child, says Hartsville offered much more adventure - woods, creeks, lakes and caves. As soon as he had a chance to choose where he could live, he returned to Hartsville. "Hartsville is probably not a great place to visit but it's a great place to live," he says, bragging about the sausage, country ham and home fries at Carolina Lunch. "But we're getting a little yuppie. The white lights at Christmas are nice, but it's time for some redneck red and green."

Some would disagree that Hartsville isn't a great place to visit. Ardie Arvidson, Lifestyle Editor at The Hartsville Messenger, is one. To her, there's plenty to do for a quick getaway. The recreation department has six canoes for those who want to explore Black Creek; new bike paths have been built for those who like to walk or bike. History lovers can visit the museum and Hartsville's two historic districts - there's one downtown and another in Kelleytown, where Sherman's troops spent two days at the Jacob Kelley house. There, retired teacher Caroline Wills gives tours, describes plantation life and plays the dulcimer, dressed in period costume.

Lakes Prestwood and Robinson are popular for boating, fishing, sailing and skiing. There's a great dress shop, a fine bookstore and the Coker campus with its beautiful dining hall and art building to admire. The Missouri Inn Bed and Breakfast offers upscale lodging, while other motels provide more modest rooms. "We couldn't occupy people's time for a week, but if you wanted to go somewhere for a long weekend, Hartsville is good," Arvidson says.

One of Hartsville's biggest secrets lately uncovered is Kalmia Gardens, less than three miles outside town. Neglected for years, it was slowly rebuilt by George Sawyer, a botanist at Coker College. Today, it's in the process of becoming a showplace, with a boardwalk along Black Creek, trails, a pond and 150 varieties of day lilies. Bird watchers come from as far as Florida to see kites, pileated woodpeckers and prothonotary warblers. Locals come for picnics and to walk their dogs.

Kalmia Gardens was the dream of May Roper Coker, a daughter-in-law of The Major. An avid gardener, "Miss May" persisted in building the garden during the Depression, though townspeople scoffed. In 1965, she gave it to Coker College in honor of her husband, David, founder of the seed company. Named for the mountain laurel that grows there, Kalmia Gardens is significant because it's on a 60-foot bluff facing north. Its cooler, wetter conditions allow plants not found on South Carolina's coastal plain to grow. Kalmia Gardens is an "outdoor classroom" for students of all ages, as well as a setting for festivals, garden parties, plant sales and public programs. Sawyer, who runs the gardens, says there's nothing quite like watching Coker drama students perform A Midsummer's Night Dream by the pond. "Shakespeare wrote the play to be done there," he says. "There is no better spot."

Kalmia Gardens is significant historically, as well. It was once the plantation home of Thomas Hart, for whom the town is named. A Society Hill native who settled on Black Creek in 1817, Hart was a farmer, military captain, merchant, postmaster and justice of the peace. The property stayed in the Hart family until the turn of the century and then changed hands until Dr. William Chambers Coker - The Major's son and head of the botany department at UNC - gave it to Miss May, his sister-in-law, in 1932.

Another plus for the gardens: No admission is charged.

 

RIGHT NOW HARTSVILLE is undergoing cosmetic changes. Its $2 million Streetscape plan - which will put old-fashioned lighting, brick crosswalks and sidewalks, trees and flowers in a 10-block area downtown - will be finished in August. About 15 apartments have been built above businesses downtown to bring people to the business district at night; they are fully occupied. And 10 acres in the middle of town that once belonged to the Cargill Corp., a soybean seed oil company, is city property now. Long an eyesore because of its six-story-tall oil tanks, the Cargill property will be developed into an area with retail stores, restaurants, park, pond and townhomes. Upscale housing in the city limits is scarce in Hartsville, and some citizens believe those limits should be expanded. Hartsville's population is 9,100, but city services reach more than 30,000 within a three- to four-mile area.

Bill Bruton feels lucky to be part of the progress. Because Sonoco and Carolina Power & Light bring in so many professionals who've lived in other places, they have a "real wide vision" of how Hartsville can be, he says. Though conservative ethically and morally, Hartsville is open to suggestion. "When you think of a conservative town, you think of a very quiet, staid town that does not change. This place is not it. That's because a huge percentage of our residents do not come from here." On his street, only one family is from Hartsville.

"They bring new ideas, new ways of doing things, and they don't care what you used to do," adds Mayor Flossie Hopkins. "When you go to some of these outlying areas in rural South Carolina, the argument is, 'That's the way we've always done it.' We can't get away with that here if we tried."

Bruton, a lawyer and drama minor at Duke University, likes to talk about Hartsville's cultural offerings. The newly restored Center Theater was built in the 1930s and seats 861. It's packed with people from all over the Pee Dee when Hartsville's 50-year-old Community Concert Association brings professional performances to town. In the Wings Company is a community theater group for teen-agers, started by two women in Hartsville when it was discovered there was no drama program in Darlington County high schools. "Whenever there's a need," Bruton says, "someone steps forward and takes charge and fills the gap."

And they finish what they start, adds Hopkins, Ph.D., educator, former school board member and children's book author. She points to Trees for Tomorrow, a group of people who raise money for trees, plant them and then water them. "There's a lot of follow-through. Once they start a project, they'll stay with it and make sure it gets done."

Hartsville was named a Tree City, USA by the National Arbor Day Foundation.

 

NEXT TO "WEALTHY" and "progressive," the most common word you hear about Hartsville is "hospitable." Because so many people are transplants, everyone is welcomed. "Going to the grocery store is a social experience," says Nancy Truesdale, president of the Greater Hartsville Chamber of Commerce. "It takes you longer to buy your food because you have to greet everybody."

When Bruton moved to Hartsville four years ago, he and his wife were met with a rush of invitations for dinner and drop-ins. "People would almost fight for who was going to host a drop-in. It wasn't because of my position; it was because they were trying to be friendly. And now we're that way, too."

That attitude has pervaded the Coker College campus. Administrators want to avoid an "institutionalized" setting for students, says Frank Bush, executive VP. "We want it to feel like a home. We want our students to feel comfortable because we think that's where the best learning takes place."

A four-year liberal arts school, Coker is known for its seminar style of teaching. Classes are small and are conducted around tables; faculty teach through conversation and questions. Such interaction develops communication skills and the ability to prepare, Bush says.

Originally a women's school, Coker College became coed in 1970. Today it has a 50:50 ratio of men and women and a student body of 840. In sports, last year the Coker Cobras made it to the national tournament in women's softball and the World Series in men's baseball. MoneyGuide magazine has named Coker one of the 25 best buys in the Southeast.

"We're financially stable," Bush says, noting that Coker has secured in gifts more than $30 million since 1979 and has one of the largest endowments per student of any school in the state.

In two years, the Elizabeth Boatwright Coker performing arts center will be finished, giving dance, drama and video majors a place to study and stage performances. A famous writer of southern historical romances, Elizabeth Boatwright Coker was a colorful, much loved personality who died in 1994. Today, a sampling of her hat collection - she was a hat model in her earlier years - is on view at the Hartsville Museum.

Hartsville has so much going for it that Howard Stanley quit his job with CP&L when it was time to be transferred. His wife Claire, tourism director for Hartsville and Society Hill, says Hartsville is just what they want for themselves and their two children. "People tell me I say I love Hartsville because of my job, and it's not true," she says. "I really mean it."

What's not to love? Race relations are good, the schools are well thought of, and there's deer and dove hunting for those who enjoy it. Even the library is a beauty - spacious and efficient in a restored Winn Dixie.

Everything is up-to-date in Coker City. Flossie Hopkins is proud to be mayor.

"This is a strong community," she says. "They make me look good."

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