History of Richland Northeast and Blythewood
If you’re digging into the history of the Richland Northeast area, you’ll hit sand. And lots of it.
In 1791, President George Washington made a trip through the South. In late May of that year, he was in South Carolina, where he traveled through the northeastern section of what is now Richland County. The father of our country was not impressed.
In the History of Richland County, author Edwin L. Green quotes from the president’s diary. Washington wrote that he and his entourage “made an early start” on May 24, had breakfast “at an indifferent house twenty-two miles from town, and reached Camden about two o’clock … The road from Columbia to Camden, excepting a mile or two at each place, goes over the most miserable pine barren I ever saw, being quite a white sand and very hilly.”
Wade Dorsey, an archivist with the S.C. Department of Archives and History, says the road “from Columbia to Camden” Washington referred to was “through what is now the Fort Jackson area or the modern Two Notch Road.” Either way, think sand.
Many millions of years ago, what’s now considered Richland Northeast — bound on the south by I-20, on the west by I-77 and on the north and east by the Richland County line — was a place of beach dunes separating foothills to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the south. Today, what’s left of those dunes can be found in the area’s geographical name — the Sandhills — and in the fine, white sand, which in some pockets of Richland Northeast reaches 300 or more feet deep into the earth. Reminders of that sand can also be found in the area’s prolific growth over the past decades.
“When I grew up out here,” says former Richland County Councilman John Monroe Sr., “land was cheap. It was $50 to $100 an acre. It was cheaper out here than in Lower Richland. The land out there was farmland. [The soil] was richer, so it was six or seven times more expensive. Out here, well, a rabbit would have to pack a lunch to cross this land it was so poor.” Monroe says early settlers in the area had to “scratch out a living” in the nutrient-needy soil. Consequently, not many people put down roots in the area.
But rich, nurturing dirt was of no concern to developers who, in the late 1940's, ‘50's and ‘60's, began snapping up generous tracts of cheap land for construction of sprawling subdivisions like Spring Valley, WildeWood, Woodcreek and the like. “When developers did Spring Valley,” Monroe says, “people thought it was crazy. The place was in the middle of nowhere. I mean, nobody lived out here.”
But now, they do.
According to Andy Simmons at the Central Midlands Council of Governments, there has been a population “explosion” in the area. Data from his office and the U.S. Census shows that in 1970, 7,646 people lived in the area. This year, that number is 107,598 and is projected to be 116,791 in 2019.
The cemetery at the Sandy Level Baptist Church in Blythewood has graves of residents born in the first half of the 1800's.
Blythewood — Created by a Rail Line
Richland County Councilman John Monroe says, “just poor, poor people lived out here. Country people, working people. Shoot, growing up, I didn't go into Columbia but about twice a year. My family grew cotton and corn. Most of our livelihood came from the farm. We had cows, hogs, and chickens.” Monroe says there’s no formal history of the area, mostly just folks’ memories. “I remember electricity coming to our house in 1947. It lit up the house one night and scared me to death.”
Highway U.S. 1 — also known as Two Notch Road — was a two-lane thoroughfare which served Northeasterners like I-95 does today. “The Yankees,” Monroe says, “would come and go. In the summertime, they’d be going north and in the fall they’d be going south.”
More formal history can be found in the upper reaches of Richland Northeast, in the small, incorporated town of Blythewood. “A Time Line of Blythewood,” produced by local attorney and Blythewood Historical Society board member Bob Wood, says that in the 1850's, the area was “home to scattered plantations, farms, and forests of longleaf pines … Cotton, lumber, tar pitch, mineral spirits and turpentine were major products.”
The loosely knit area became more centralized when, in late 1852, a railroad was completed from Columbia to Charlotte, N.C. A water tank was erected in the sleepy burg of Blythewood — then known as Doko — to supply water to the trains’ steam engines. “Blythewood is here because of the railroad,” says Jim McLean, a longtime resident. “In the days of poor roads and horse and ox-drawn vehicles, the railroad was the lifeline of this village,” according to the Blythewood Scrapbook, compiled by the Blythewood Garden Club. “Cotton and other produce from the local farms and plantations were shipped from the depot … Of course, there had been settlers in the area for many years before the railroad came, but it is safe to assume that it was the depot and turn-out (side track for loading and unloading) which gave impetus to the development of the little town.”
The Blythewood depot opened in 1870. “Every afternoon between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., the mail was dropped at the station,” the Scrapbook says. “The townspeople would come down to meet the train and socialize, whether they expected mail or not. Later the railway operated a passenger train, making a run to Columbia in the morning and returning to Blythewood in the evening … Although once the town epicenter, the train service was discontinued, the depot fell into disuse and was demolished on June 30, 1968.” The railroad is now part of the Norfolk Southern railway system. It parallels Highway 21. Trains make daily runs, both north- and south-bound, through the original center of town, but they do not stop there.
“Blythewood is still a rural place,” says Frankie McLean, president of the Blythewood Historical Society, “but we do have a town core.” For instance, Blythewood Town Hall is located near the center of town in the historic Hoffman House, built in 1855. There are several more historical homes and churches throughout the Blythewood area, and while other important structures have been lost, the town has since created an ordinance to protect historical places.
“The business climate improved with the advent of World War II and afterwards,” the Blythewood Scrapbook says. “This growth continued in Columbia and the surrounding areas into the ‘60's and ‘70's. There were those who looked toward Blythewood as a good place to buy land on which to build a home that would offer plenty of acreage, privacy and peace.” The Scrapbook also credits Blythewood’s growth to access to I-77, in 1979, making the 12- to 15-mile commute to Columbia “more attractive.”
In a book called "Columbia & Richland County", copyrighted in 1993 and written by John Hammond Moore, the author expounds upon that same interstate and what he called “Richland’s northeastern quadrant.” And, like President Washington, Moore didn't seem impressed. “There, lured by the accessibility promised by two interstates (20 and 77), real estate moguls have sliced the sand hills and the first ripples of the Piedmont into ‘mini’ farms and housing lots. This is a region where, unlike the dogwood and the honeysuckle, signs bearing the words ‘For Sale – Residential Sites’ bloom year-round.” Many of the people buying those “residential sites,” Monroe says, have come from “places where they’ve been all jammed up. This is a lot less congested than Boston and those areas. They call their commutes a piece of cake, coming from where they were.”
Monroe, whose family has lived in the Northeast Richland area for almost 150 years, says he remembers when “it was all rural. I remember when there were no services, no nothing out here. But now we’ve got everything. As long as growth is orderly, and all the roads and infrastructure are put in, we’re going to be all right.”