I spent a recent steamy Saturday afternoon on a paddleboard in the middle of the Great Pee Dee River in the third-oldest city in South Carolina. The view from the river on that July afternoon is a scene not unique to many of us living in the Lowcountry — the Spanish moss swayed in the breeze from the grand oaks resting on the riverbanks.
Georgetown was settled on a peninsula on Winyah Bay at the confluence of the Great Pee Dee, Sampit, Waccamaw and Black Rivers. The town is also the second largest port in S.C., with almost a million tons of freight passing the docks each year.
The area was the home to multiple tribes of American Indians for thousands of years before European settlers arrived. Many historians claim different areas along the eastern United States coast as the earliest European settlement: Some believe that Georgetown has that honor, as settlement by Europeans in the area began in 1526. It was led by Spaniard Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, who created a settlement on Waccamaw neck called San Miguel de Gualdape. The failure of the colony came quickly for many reasons, including the inability to farm the area. The Spanish left the area for the Spice Islands in ships made from local cypress and oak trees.
After the settlement of Charleston in 1670, trade was soon established between the American Indian tribes and the English. The Georgetown area was an original land grant to John Perrie in the early 1700s. In 1721, a new parish, Prince George Winyah, was established on the Black River. Nearly a decade later a the parish was divided into Prince Frederick, located on the Black River and Prince George Parish on the Sampit River, which included the newly settled town of Georgetown.
Elisha Screven designed the town of Georgetown in 1729. The plan was originally a four-by-eight block grid. By the mid-1700s the agriculture trade, including indigo, greatly increased. The Winyah Indigo Society was soon formed and the members opened and funded the only public school between Charleston and Wilmington.
During the American Revolution the port of Georgetown served as an important role in final year of the war by supplying Gen. Nathaniel Greene’s army. Two Georgetown planters signed the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Lynch Jr. and Sr. After the war, rice replaced indigo as the area’s cash crop. By 1840, the Georgetown area produced almost half of the rice crop in the United States; you read that correctly. Today, the Rice Museum, known to locals as the Town Clock, is located in the Old Market Building. Through the many artifacts and exhibits, it remembers the history of a society dependent on the rice crop.
Before the beginning of the War Between the States, the government of S.C. was worried about the possibility of an attack by sea. The Confederates built an artillery battery in 1862 to defend Winyah Bay. Although well-constructed, it was not well manned near the end of the War and was captured without resistance during the final months of the war.
Georgetown suffered immensely during Reconstruction. The rice crop suffered because of the lack of capital to properly prepare the crops; also, several hurricanes ruined the fields. Rice continued to be grown until 1919, when the local economy shifted to producing and processing wood products. The Sampit River was the home to a few large lumber companies: The Atlantic Coast Lumber Company was the largest mill on the East Coast at the time, but eventually closed in the early 1930s during the Great Depression. Also in the 1930s the largest paper mill in the world at the time was built there; it is still operated today by International Paper.
The early part of the 20th century saw renewed interest in the outlining areas of Georgetown, when the well to do traveled to the area to visit many of the local hunting preserves. In 1935, the final link for the Maine to Miami coastal highway was opened with the completion of the Lafayette Bridge.
The renewed economy grew the downtown area on Front Street along the river, today known as the Historic District. The district is comprised of almost 50 antebellum structures, the oldest believed to date back to the 1730s. The architecture ranges from early Colonial, Georgian and Classical Revival. There are many buildings of interest including the Old Market Building, the Courthouse and Henning-Ward House.
The historic waterfront suffered a set back in 2013 when nearly a full block was destroyed by fire. The buildings destroyed were nearly 150 years old and have not been replaced today because of current building code and FEMA requirements.
In the Historic District, asking prices for homes start around $300,000 and go to $1,500,000. Currently, on the market is 620 Prince St., an 1882 home that is on the National Historic Registry. The 4,000-square-foot, five-bedroom home is on the market for $1,099,000. Also, 422 Prince St. built in the early the early 1800s, is currently on the market for $1,480,000. In June of this year, 902 Highmarket St. sold for a mere $235,000. The home, built in 1901, features 3,600 square feet and five bedrooms. This sales price seems to be a great value for the Lowcountry.
When traveling from Charleston, the easiest way to access the Historic District is to turn right off Highway 17 onto from Front Street. The recognizable corner cannot be missed because of the large steel plant that fronts the highway. The plant was built by the Korf Company of Germany in 1973, but has changed ownership many times. The latest owner has just announced they are closing the plant.
Every time I visit Georgetown I think about what a prime opportunity for redevelopment the steel plant could be. The site would be a gateway to historic Georgetown. It would take a lot of capital and vision, but it could change the area positively for many generations.
Dan Tompkins Henderson, Jr., CCIM, is the broker/principal of CCBG Real Estate Group, LLC. He was awarded 2014 Commercial Realtor of the Year. He is a former board of director member of the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors; he has served the association in numerous committee and board positions, president of the commercial investment division, and is an adjunct professor and director of the Carter Real Estate School at the College of Charleston; he may be reached at email@example.com.