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Walter Edgar's Journal: An innovative strategy revives the economy of a small town and helps create a major industry

Cypress logging area, Santee River Cypress Lumber Co., Clarendon Co., South Carolina.
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library.
Cypress logging area, Santee River Cypress Lumber Co., Clarendon Co., South Carolina.

This week we are going to be talking about an innovative strategy undertaken by the town of Sumter, SC, in the early 1920s to try to survive the economic devastation that came about when the boll weevil came to the state devastating the town’s biggest cash crop: cotton. And that innovation involved the entire community of Sumter.

As Dr. Jessica Elfenbein will tell us, that little weevil wiped out the main source of revenue in Sumter – and in much of the state as well as the rest of the South. So, when the leaders of the greater Sumter community and area businesses got together, they decided that the best strategy for recovery was to bring in new industries. Industries that would use the abundant supply of timber in the area. And they set up a community-run board to recruit companies to come to Sumter.

Their recruitment strategies will sound familiar to a 21st-century American, but they were truly innovative in 1920.

Dr. Elfenbein is the chair of the Department of History at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.

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Dr. Walter Edgar has two programs on South Carolina Public Radio: Walter Edgar's Journal, and South Carolina from A to Z. Dr. Edgar received his B.A. degree from Davidson College in 1965 and his Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina in 1969. After two years in the army (including a tour of duty in Vietnam), he returned to USC as a post-doctoral fellow of the National Archives, assigned to the Papers of Henry Laurens.