Florence, South Carolina is a modern, progressive city of some 38,000 people. The surrounding Florence County’s population is 138,000 making it a destination that supports culture and the arts, fine dining, museums, convention venues and a revitalized downtown that maintains the flavor of this beautiful city. There are hiking and river paddling trails that venture into majestic wilderness areas of cypress swamps with live oak trees hung with Spanish moss.
Pee Dee Indians inhabited the land before white settlers began developing agriculture in the region. Rivers made the area a convenient transportation hub. Plantations were started to export cotton, tobacco and rice. By about 1853 railroads converged in Florence creating a center of commerce at their junction. Likely called James Station or simply the Wilds, the town was named for General William Wallace Harllee’s daughter, Florence Henning Harllee. “General Harllee was owner of the Wilmington and Manchester Railroad,” Holly Beaumier, Director of Florence’s Convention and Visitor Bureau said.
The area is steeped in history. General Francis Marion used guerrilla tactics against the British during the American Revolution. Marion and his men attacked them in surprise raids then disappeared back into the cypress swamps and dense river wilderness. General Marion became known as the Swamp Fox.
“There is a 66 mile long paddling trail along the Lynches River. It has been designated a Scenic River National Recreation Trail. The Lynches begins just north of the border with North Carolina and runs into the Pee Dee River. The Pee Dee is called the Yadkin River in North Carolina and runs into Winyah Bay near Georgetown then into the Atlantic Ocean,” Holly Beaumier explained.
“It is the best kept equine secret of this century,” television personality and Marsh Tacky horse enthusiast David Grant said. “The Spanish were the first ones to bring horses to the Americas. This was the cheapest horse they could afford. When we discovered these horses about thirty years ago they had been kept isolated on offshore islands.” David’s March Tacky horses are special. They are descendants of original horses Spaniards brought to the Americas in their quest for gold and riches. These Spanish steeds are being saved as a breed by enthusiasts in South Carolina.
“General Francis Marion used Marsh Tackies to evade British pursuers. British cavalry brought their fine horses to South Carolina to pursue Marion and his band of about thirty guerrillas. They were no match for the Marsh Tackies. The Swamp Fox would attack the British then he and his men would disappear into the swamps where the British could not follow. The horses General Marion rode were perfectly adapted for swamps and rivers and didn’t hesitate to carry their riders to safety away from pursuing British troops,” Holly said.
The tradition remains. David Grant, with his friend Marion Broach, have been breeding Marsh Tacky horses for the last ten years. They use the horses to hunt and for recreational sports in the surrounding Carolina wilderness areas. They formed Carolina Marsh Tacky Outdoors to promote the breed and take visitors on wilderness hunting and riding expeditions.
Florence escaped most of the harsh warfare of the Civil War with only one skirmish fought for control of a railroad line outside of town. The Florence Stockade figured prominently in the sad history of brutality in that war. Andersonville Prison was established by the Confederates in Southwest Georgia to house Union prisoners. There was little for southerners to eat themselves let alone feed prisoners of war. Conditions at Andersonville were deplorable. Many prisoners died from starvation and disease. After Atlanta fell to General William Sherman in September 1864, southern forces evacuated prisoners and shipped captured Union soldiers to Florence. The prisoners were kept in railroad cars until they could be marched to a field outside of town. The Charleston fairgrounds was used as another prisoner holding facility. Prisoners from Charleston were shipped by rail to Florence as well.
A stockade was built by slave labor that ran 1,400 by 725 feet. It was here that more than 18,000 Union prisoners were kept and where 2,800 died mostly of starvation and torture. Prisoners that tried to escape were hung by their thumbs over the lintel of the gate as punishment.
A gazebo at the stockade site offers a historical tour of the brutality of war and the history of the stockade. Nearby is Florence National Cemetery. “Florena Budwin is buried here. She was the first woman to be buried in a military cemetery,” Holly Beaumier explained. “Florena sought to find her husband who was fighting with Union forces during the Civil War. She dressed as a man and joined the Union army. It was only when she was taken prisoner and stripped at Andersonville that it was discovered that she was a woman. She was transferred to the Stockade where she died and is buried in the military cemetery.”
Florence never saw a recession. The city is thriving as industry flocks to the area where an ample workforce can be found and the surrounding area offers quality of life condusive to family living. Modern hospitals and a planned medical school, a new library and museum add special dimensions to this community.
“Two new hotels will open this year. There are accommodations, fine restaurants, antique shops and garden markets. Many of the local restaurants try to source local foods,” Holly explained.
Getting to Florence is easy. It is right off Exit 160 A of Interstate 95. For those making the drive from the north to Florida it is a perfect midway point to stop over and enjoy a visit. Walking trails are everywhere. Bikers, hikers, dog walkers are all friendly and willing to guide visitors on their way. Rivers beckon and sports enthusiasts and horse lovers can enjoy excursions among some of the most beautiful country on Earth.
For a lot of fun and fine dining try Florence’s Red Bone Alley Restaurant. Located in a shopping center on Palmetto Street, the owner, Dale Barth, so liked old style colonial Charleston streets that he took over an old J.C. Penny store. Dale enlarged the roof and created a replica Charleston street inside. Diners eat in a garden atmosphere complete with brick paved streets, old fashioned street lamps and building fronts reminiscent of colonial Charleston. The food is plentiful and delicious.
A respite for weary travelers is Florence’s Hilton Garden Inn. The hotel is convenient to I 95 and offers a salt water pool and hot tub. After a long drive there is nothing like soaking in the hot tub while water jets massage sore muscles. The Hilton Garden Inn’s included hot breakfast is home cooked to order. There is also a buffet overflowing with treats.
Florence, South Carolina is a place of discovery. Once found visitors will want to return again and again to sample the history and beauty of the area and its magnificent recreational opportunities. For more information contact the Florence Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-325-9005 or 843-664-0330 or visit their website at www.visitflo.com. For Marsh Tacky horse expeditions contact David Grant at 843-858-0181 or visit their website at www.carolinamarshtacky.com. For reservations at the Hilton Garden Inn call 843-432-3001 or visit www.florence.hgi.com. Reservations at Red Bone Alley Restaurant can be made by calling 843-673-0035 or visit www.redbonealley.com.