Sandlapper Society

Hartsville: The Heart of the Pee Dee

by Donna Thorne • photos by Jana E. Longfellow/Greater Hartsville Chamber of Commerce

With a population of 7,500, you might think Hartsville is like a lot of other midsized South Carolina towns. It has abundant natural beauty, historic homes, friendly people and a strong sense of community. But Hartsville has advantages other cities its size can only envy. Not only is Hartsville home to Coker College, a nationally recognized liberal arts college, and the Governor’s School for Science & Mathematics, it’s also where Sonoco, one of the world’s leading packaging companies, is headquartered. Add that to a thriving downtown, excellent schools, a flourishing cultural arts scene, lots of recreational opportunities and you’ve got a city that’s anything but ordinary.

A Strong Business Climate

The closing of textile mills across the South wrought economic havoc in many small South Carolina cities. But because Hartsville has always had a broad economic base, it escaped the fate of many towns that relied on a single industry.

From its humble beginnings in 1899, Sonoco has grown to be the eighth largest packaging company in the world, employing 16,500 people in 33 countries across the globe. With more than 1,650 people at its headquarters and manufacturing facility in Hartsville, Sonoco is the area’s largest employer with $4 billion in sales projected for 2010. When you buy groceries, chances are that many of the items you buy are packaged in material made by Sonoco. The familiar Pringles potato chip tube was a Sonoco invention. The company also introduced freshness dates to food packaging. The company makes paperboard tubing, recycled paperboard, point-of-purchase displays, wire and cable reels and specialty paper products. And, yes, Sonoco still makes paper cones for the textile industry, the product that put it on the map.

Hartsville is also home to many other successful businesses such as Stingray Power Boats, Progress Energy, Roller Bearing Company of America, JBE Inc., Anderson Brass, Agrium and Talley Metals. The diversity of industry and services means Hartsville has a sustainable economy.

The Art of Good Living

While Hartsville is a great place to do business, it’s also a great place to live and visit. “Hartsville is truly a gem of a town. It’s what the rest of America wishes it were like. You see kids riding their bikes on tree-lined streets to get to the candy store that’s been here more than 100 years. Our downtown is a thriving shopping and eating district that has become a destination for our region while other downtowns have become boarded up and empty. Hartsvillians know how lucky we are to call this place home,” says Lenora LeFew, executive director of the Downtown Development Association.

Take a walk in downtown Hartsville and you’re sure to be charmed by the Victorian streetlighting, brick walkways, a leafy canopy of trees and blooming flowers. Centennial Park offers a shady respite during a day of shopping with its fragrant roses and Confederate jasmine. A splashing fountain and sheltered benches make this downtown park the perfect place for a take-out lunch from one of the many downtown eateries or just a great opportunity to relax and enjoy the fresh air.

Hartsville is known for its unique mix of shops and boutiques that sell everything from the latest fashions to furniture. There’s even a store that sells penny candy and hand-dipped ice cream. Be sure to stop by the Good Living Marketplace the first Saturday of each month. Here you’ll find local produce and meat, handcrafted gifts, jewelry, clothing, food vendors and more.

And if all that shopping gives you an appetite, you’ll never go hungry in Hartsville. With a mix of fine dining restaurants, local mom-and-pop eateries and ethnic cuisine, Hartsville has something to please any palate.

There’s also a thriving arts scene anchored by the Center Theater and the Elizabeth Boatwright Coker Performing Arts Center. The Black Creek Arts Council and Gallery boasts a 10,000-square-foot facility offering art classes, music lessons and gallery exhibitions. The Hartsville Civic Chorale, Hartsville-Coker Concert Association and Hartsville Community Players offer topnotch entertainment for residents and visitors alike.

Hartsville also has a wealth of outdoor recreation opportunities. Enjoy a day of boating and swimming at nearby Lake Robinson or Prestwood Lake. Byerly Park encompasses more than 90 acres and offers playing fields, tennis courts and even a state-of-the-art gym. Take a stroll through Kalmia Gardens with its 35 acres of rhododendrons, camellias, azaleas, dogwoods and Kalmia Latifolia, better known as mountain laurel. And right next door is the Segars-McKinnon Heritage Preserve. This 707-acre tract on the banks of Black Creek provides a habitat for rare plants and a haven for butterflies and birds.

Mel Pennington, Hartsville’s Mayor says, “I’m passionate about this place we call home. It’s so full of energy and has a strong sense of community. Give me ten minutes and I’ll show you why this place is so magical. Give me 20 and I’ll have you all moved in.”

Excellence in Education

Excellence in education is a top priority in Hartsville. Along with a high-caliber public school system, the town is also home to the Governor’s School for Science & Mathematics (GSSM). Founded in 1988, GSSM is home to 128 of the state’s top math and science high school students. The Washington Post ranked GSSM eighth in the nation among elite public high schools, but the school’s president, Dr. Murray Brockman, says, “We want to be number one.” GSSM’s goal is to produce highly educated and intelligent leaders who will develop South Carolina’s economy. In the spring of 2009, GSSM broke ground on an additional 70,000 square feet of academic and activity space, which will include classrooms, state-of-the-art labs, engineering and technology centers, and an economics and finance institute. The new facilities will allow the student body size to increase to 300. Currently, there are three to four strong applicants for every space available at GSSM.

Hartsville is also home to Coker College, named by U.S. News & World Report as one of America’s best colleges for 14 consecutive years. The campus sits on 15 acres of paths, lawns and trees studded with Georgian-style buildings, some of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. With an enrollment of around 1,150 students, Coker offers one of the smallest average class sizes in the country with just 12 students per professor. Coker offers 29 majors and 23 minors of study that will prepare students for careers in any number of industries. At his inauguration as Coker’s 16th president, Dr. Robert L. Wyatt said, “‘Preparing our students for the world as it was, or even as it is, does them a serious disservice. We have to help them to succeed regardless of what the future brings. We have to redefine ready. Instead of our graduates wondering, ‘Am I ready for the real world?’ we want them asking, ‘Is the real world ready for me?’”

The Heart of the Matter

To first-time visitors, Hartsville comes as a surprise— a small town with a cosmopolitan atmosphere and the amenities of a much larger city. But, true to its Southern roots, it’s also a town where people know and care for one another, a place of natural beauty, abundant opportunity and hospitality. Hartsville is truly the heart of the Pee Dee.

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Building an All-American City

In 1817, Thomas Edward Hart began building a plantation along the banks of the Black Creek. Just as he laid a strong foundation for his home, he also laid a foundation for a new community. In time, Hart also opened a country store and post office, served as postmaster, as a commissioner of schools and as a captain in the South Carolina militia. In 1845, his son, John Lide Hart, established Hartsville Plantation, in what is today’s downtown. Like his father, John Hart looked beyond his own holdings and started a carriage factory, a steam-powered sawmill, gristmill, a store and the Hartsville Baptist Church. John Hart eventually moved 15 miles west to Darlington and enlisted in the Confederate Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. Hart died in battle in Virginia
in 1864.

Thanks goodness another Confederate soldier, James Lide Coker, not only survived the war, but went on to make his own profound impact on Hartsville.
Born in Darlington County in 1837, James Coker graduated from The Citadel and attended Harvard to study the scientific principles of farming. He was farming in Hartsville when the Civil War started. Wounded at the battle of Chickamauga in 1863, Coker returned home with a shattered hip. His home and farm were destroyed by Sherman’s troops in 1864. When the war ended, Coker began to rebuild his fortune with cotton and corn, planting and harvesting 60 acres with an old mule and oxen borrowed from an uncle. That success led Coker to open a store, build a railroad spur, start a bank and found a papermaking company. He also owned a seed company, oil mill and fertilizer plant. In 1899, Coker started the Southern Novelty Company making paper cones used to hold yarn for the textile industry. Today, that company is known as Sonoco, one of the world’s leading packaging companies.

Coker was not only an energetic and successful business person, he was also a civic leader. He was the driving force behind Welsh Neck High School, which later became Coker College. He served as Mayor of Hartsville and as a State Legislator during which time he introduced South Carolina’s first legislation seeking free public schools.

Thomas and John Hart built the foundation of Hartsville. James Coker built upon that foundation. The result is the vibrant, successful Hartsville we know and love today!

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This article is sponsored by the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science & Mathematics, Coker College, Sonoco and the Greater Hartsville Chamber of Commerce.