Clinton, a Town That Saw the Light
If this anonymous sketch is to be believed, Clinton indeed had a wild and woolly childhood. In the 1850s land was worthless, malaria and fish ponds abounded, bullies dominated the local scene, and travelers shunned the place. Then, just as the railroad and woman’s “refining influence” began to have some impact, the Civil War and its aftermath dealt this struggling little Laurens County community yet another cruel blow. But after 1877 all had changed, we are told. In August of 1887 Clinton was an educational, religious, and commercial center, a law-abiding, wide-awake town (built largely of solid rock and concrete), and ready to contribute to the economic well-being of South Carolina. Its citizens had, however, no ambition to become a city and wanted nothing to do with streetcars and electric lights. Their only goal was to become a “children’s paradise.”
LAURENS COUNTY – Before WW II
The town of Clinton, thirty-three years ago, was in the woods. Every outlook from the highway was dark and sombre. The ground
was not thought to be worth more than twenty-five cents an acre for farm purposes. Pools filled with fish were scattered every-where, and these, partly dry in the summer, spread malaria around. It had the reputation of being a low, unhealthy, uncanny place, and travellers hurried through it. Some living people remember way back in the century when bear and deer were in its tangled woods. As the years went by the scene shifted. The railroad came to Clinton. That was in 1854. The forests were cut away and the sunlight allowed to come in. One by one the fish ponds were slowly drained, and people began to live about the rough board depot. A barroom or two, with a gang-plank flung across the pools where the rains settled, were the first signs of a coming village. About 1853 the village had a year or two of spasmodic life. It became incorporated. It built a schoolhouse and a couple of churches and more barrooms and a gambling den or two. It aspired to the dignity of having horse races and gander-pullings. It became noted for its chicken fights and chicken fighters. Its glory was that its bullies could whip out all Spartanburg, not to mention the rest of creation. One chap threatened to grease the town whole and swallow it. It was a bad day for him when he reached Clinton. The most prominent citizen of the place greased him, swallowed him whole, and hung his clothes on the outer wall as a trophy.
People still fear to pass through Clinton even though the ponds are now drained. But most travelers thought it still the unhealthiest place about, and they kept their eyes skinned when they passed through it. Some passed by it some other way. But woman’s refining influence had come to Clinton, and the churches were doing their level best to save the town. Then came the war, and it looked as if Clinton was dead forevermore. Not a house was built; hardly a nail was struck until 1869. The bad odor that hung over the place, the moral malaria, still continued. People still spoke of Clinton as a plague-spot. But the forces were mustering that were to make the place all that a place ought to be. The people had discovered before this that the village was built in a little cup on a lofty ridge. They had felled the forest and caught sight of the distant blue mountains. They had swept their ponds into the Enoree on the one side and the Saluda on the other. The mountain breezes had swept away the malaria. Sweet water only twenty feet under ground bubbled up almost at the touch of the spade. They had suddenly awaked to the consciousness that theirs was a lovely spot. They had opened their forest glades to the blue heavens, and they determined to win the smiles of Heaven’s King.
It was in 1878 that the Waterloo for the barrooms came. It was only three years afterward that Governor Simpson signed the bill to prohibit the sale of liquor in the town of Clinton. He remarked, “Twenty years ago I would have had to send a regiment of militia to enforce this bill on that town.” Every man in the town but two signed the petition for its passage. This is the town that on Tuesday, August 10, gave an overwhelming majority for prohibition and came very near saving the county for the cause of sobriety. Twenty years had wrought a wonderful moral revolution. Ten years has worked up an equally surprising change in the matter of its temporal prosperity. Let it be premised that everything was against the place. It was overshadowed by Laurensville, its county seat. It was on a little branch railroad with railroad discrimination always against it. Its people were entirely without capital, and no foreign capital has ever come in to build up the place.
In these ten years past there has been a new town built on the site of the old. The population has increased from about three hundred to eight hundred. New streets have been opened up, and these have been lined with new residences, many of them very neat and stylish. Fifty or sixty have been built in the past eight years. All the streets have been set with shade trees and have excellent hard- packed sidewalks. A simple but complete system of drainage makes the town thoroughly healthy, and there has not been, for ten years past, a greater annual death rate than 11.9 per thousand. At one time there was not a death among the whites for sixteen months.
The entire business quarter of the village has been rebuilt. A dozen handsome brick stores have been built and filled with large and varied stocks of goods. Messrs. M.S. Bailey & Sons, Bailey Bros., Owens Bros., R.R. Blakely, R.Z. Wright & Co., Summerel Bros., R.N.S. Young, M.B. Vance, J.W. Young, J.M. Blakely, D.M. Fulton, and Little Bros. & Co. are among the principal merchants. Mrs. Albright and the Misses Copeland have fine millinery establishments. We have an excellent hotel in Dr. Irby’s, known as “The Drummers’ Retreat,” and a fine boarding-house called the “Toni-Dora.” Only a year ago a handsome bank building was erected, and a large banking business with $75,000 capital is conducted by Messrs. M.S. Bailey & Sons.
The manufacturing interests of the place are not neglected. There is a shingle mill, a planing mill, two flour and grist mills, several steam ginning establishments, a tin manufacturing establishment, a brick factory, carriage and wagon building and repair shops, a photograph gallery, &c. The press is represented by the Clinton Enterprise, which was established this year by a joint stock company, and is conducted by T.B. Crews&Co. OurMonthly, now in its twenty-fourth volume, is also published here and is a literary and religious publication of a local character that has done a great deal for the place. It has recently completed a very handsome little two-story office of concrete that is an ornament of the village.
And that reminds us to say that it was this town of Clinton that has most extensively used the common quartz or flint rock for building purposes. There are more concrete structures in this town than in any other town in South Carolina. The buildings are all handsome, durable structures, and the untractable material is used in various ways. One of the buildings is, perhaps, the only one in the State in which the quartz boulders are used as rough ashlars, the stones all showing like brick. But it is her school system that Clinton is most proud of and justly so. Her citizens have devoted their untiring energies to the purpose of maldng the town a school centre of the county. The ornament and pride of the town is the Thomwell Orphanage, which is presided over by the Rev. W.R Jacobs, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church. This institution was begun in faith twelve years ago with half a dollar. Today it has a beautiful seminary building of concrete, one of the best-appointed school buildings in the up-country. There are three very handsome stone cottages erected at an average cost of $5,000, a couple of industrial buildings, all concrete, besides several wooden buildings. A farm, a printing office, and other industrial work is carried on in connection with the institution and others are soon to be added. There are now sixty inmates in this Orphanage, and a happier set of children are not to be found. As they are kept till a regular course of studies are completed, they become greatly attached to their home, to the town, and to each other. They often come back to the old home on visits and look upon its president as their father. The children are from ten different states and seven different denominations. The institution is supported mainly by the charitable gifts of Presbyterians throughout the South, the “City by the Sea” being among its principal benefactors.
A jewel in the crown of Clinton is its college. This educational establishment has been of long growth, being the outcome of the school set up in Clinton in the days when it was not decided whether it would live or die. What a change since those days! A handsome, three-story structure of stone and Clinton-made brick, located in a lovely grove, commands the head of one of its finest streets. It has ample accommodations for the first-class college it intends to be. The building is now finished at a cost of $7,000, the generous contributions of Clinton’s citizens. Its president, Robert P. Smith, was called from Reidville College to this place. Prof. Barnes is a young man of remarkable insight into the dead languages. Prof. Lee, of the Lees of Edisto, has had thirty-five years experience as a teacher. There are other instructors of experience, and the students are gathered from all parts of the State. This also is a Presbyterian college and expects to be the Princeton of South Carolina in the years to come.
Clinton Academy, under the guiding hand of Prof. Parrott, the editor of the Enterprise, is rapidly winning its way into favor, not only in Clinton but throughout the State. It had a large number of boarders last year and will open with a full house in September. The Academy is of high grade, preparing for the junior class in the State colleges. Miss Gilmer of North Carolina is in charge of an excellent school for the infants, which is a gem in its way.
Clinton is energetic and enterprising, but she has no intention of being a city. It is her ambition to be a village of homes, happy Christian homes. She wants no street cars nor electric lights. She isn’t aspiring after a daily newspaper. The News and Courier is good enough for her. But it is her ambition to be a “Children’s Paradise.” A notice of Clinton that would leave out the churches would simply be an account of the city without mention of that which made it. There are three churches for the white people and three for the colored—Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist. All have excellent properties, all are well attended and well equipped, and all stand high up on the roll of their respective churches. The Presbyterian Sabbath School is excelled by but few outside of the cities. Its regular recurring anniversaries are the best known events in the county.
Clinton has a brass band that has achieved an enviable notoriety. There is an organized building and loan association with all shares subscribed and only waiting for a charter. There is talk of an association for the purpose of putting building lots on the market at prices and terms within reach of the humblest. The Georgia, Carolina, and Northern Railway was early encouraged by citizens of the town. Three of them were on its original board of directors, and one, Dr. Wm. A. Shands, is a director in the consolidated company. Clinton is on the chartered route. The J.W. Copeland Company is a new departure in the way of merchandising, shares being held at $25, and farmers around subscribing freely.
The town has an active, energetic, wide-awake town council, with Wm. A. Shands, intendant. This council is adorning and beautifying the town. There is money in the treasury. The guardhouse is a luxury only, for there are none who avail themselves of its solitary pleasure. At present it is stored full of old plunder. This town is a prohibition town, out and out, fair and square. The law is strictly enforced. It is needless to add that taxes are lower than in the old whiskey days, and there is no need for a town marshal or even for locks on the front doors.
Reprinted in part from South Carolina in the 1880s: A Gazetteer by J.H. Moore, Sandlapper Publishing Company – 1989