James Lide Coker Papers, 1800-1947, undated

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The papers of James Lide Coker (1837-1918) reflect the life of a South Carolina resident, influential businessman, and founder of Welsh Neck High School, Coker College, and the South Carolina Fiber Company.

Extent: 24 cartons + 1 oversize folder + Bound volumes
Location: PU-4


Chronology

 

1837 Born at Society Hill in Darlington County, South Carolina.
1858 Studied Chemistry at Harvard University.
ca. 1858 Married Susan Stout of Welumpka, Alabama.
1860 Organized a Confederate Company assigned to the 9th South Carolina Regiment; served as Captain.
1863 Sept. Wounded in Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia; promoted to rank of Major.
1864 Elected to South Carolina State Legislature.
1865 Engaged in merchandising in Hartsville (still lived in Society Hill).
1878 Moved to Hartsville – formed partnership with G. A. Norwood for a cotton and naval store factory in Charleston.
1881 Organized and served as President of the National Bank of Darlington, Darlington, South Carolina.
1884 Organized Darlington Manufacturing Company.
1886 Elected president of Darlington Historical Society.
1889 Built railroad extending from Hartsville to Florida – Established James L. Coker and Company in Hartsville, South Carolina.
1890 Formed Carolina Fiber Company (also in Hartsville) with son, and manufactured paper from pinewood.
1891 Dec. 11 Hartsville, South Carolina, chartered as a city.
1894 Chartered Welsh Neck Baptist High School in Hartsville as a Baptist Boys School.
1899 Organized Hartsville Electric Light and Water company with J. J. Lawton.
1900 Hartsville Oil Mill opened as a department of J. L. Coker and Company; girls first admitted to Welsh Neck High School.
1908 Changed Welsh Neck High School, renamed and reopened as Coker College for Women.
1918 June 27 Died in Hartsville.


Biographical Sketch

James Lide Coker (1837-1918) lived a life typical to many wealthy Southerners. He was born in the antebellum South and grew up with Old South values – those which placed an emphasis on a hierarchical society and self-sufficient living – that he subsequently readapted after the Civil War. Born in 1837 in Society Hill, South Carolina, Coker developed a love of nature and agriculture that he carried throughout his whole life. He was educated in the states finest schools (St. David's Academy in Society Hill the Arsenal Academy in Columbia, and The Citadel in Charleston), and in 1858 recommenced his studies in chemistry at Harvard. After graduating from college he married Susan Stout of Welumpka, Alabama. They had four sons and three daughters.

When the Civil War began, James Coker organized and served as captain of a company that was assigned to the 9th South Carolina Regiment. In September 1863 while fighting in the Battle of Chickamauga, Coker was wounded when a ball broke his left thigh. He remained in a POW hospital for five months. Upon release, Coker received the appointment of the rank of major for his gallant conduct. When he returned to Society Hill, he turned his attention toward politics. In 1864 he was elected to the South Carolina State Legislature.

Politics alone did not satiate his desire to serve the public. Coker decided to try his skills with merchandising. In 1878 he moved to Hartsville and that same year he established a cotton and naval store in Charleston with G. A. Norwood. His business ventures did not end there, however. He continued to contribute to the area's burgeoning prosperity; in 1881 he incorporated the National Bank of Darlington and served as its first president. In 1884 Coker established the Darlington Manufacturing Company. By 1889 he put Hartsville in contact with the outside world by bringing the Cheraw and Darlington Railroad to the town. That same year he sharpened his entrepreneurial skills and opened James L. Coker and Company, a mercantile store. Biographical accounts infer that Susan Stout may have died during this time and that Coker remarried in 1889. His second wife's name was Vivian Gay.

The year 1890 marked a watershed in Coker's business career. He went into partnership with his son, James L. Coker, Jr., who had received a degree in paper production. James Coker, Jr., proposed establishing a paper-manufacturing mill that was revolutionary in that it converted pine wood pulp into paper. The new technique worked and the Carolina Fiber Company enjoyed great success. In 1891 following the astounding success of his paper manufacturing company, the elder Coker established and became president of the Hartsville Railroad Company, the second railroad line in the town.

In 1894 Coker channeled his entrepreneurial skills and community involvement towards improving education. He noted the need for high school education in the Hartsville area and became one of the founding members of Welsh Neck High School for Boys – a private Baptist school supported by the South Carolina Baptist Association. Coker's view of education was similar to that of many 1890s educational reformers that focused on providing the boys with both an academic and an industrial education. Girls were admitted under similar educational pretexts (a focus on academics and domestic science) in 1900. By 1908 the advent of improved public school systems made elementary and secondary education affordable and appealing to many individuals. Thus the need for private high schools declined. Coker gave a large donation to transform the high school into a college for women. Trustees of the school insisted that it bear his name, and Coker College for Women was officially incorporated that year.

Coker continued to pursue business interests late into his life. In 1899 he organized the Hartsville Electric Light and Water Company with J. J. Lawton. In 1900 the Hartsville Oil Mill opened as a department of J. L. Coker and Company. Coker died at his home 27 June 1918.

The papers of James Lide Coker illustrate a prosperous entrepreneur's influence in South Carolina during Reconstruction. Coker's correspondence documents his prominence in the region of Darlington County and throughout the South. He wrote and received letters from those needing advice on manufacturing, agriculture, and education. The latter part of the collection, through character sketches in particular, provides better insight into Coker's personal life and daily interactions.


Sources Consulted:

Coker, James Lide. Hartsville: Its Early Settlers: the Growth of the Town with Sketches of Its Institutions and Enterprises, 1911.

Coker College for Women. Centennial Celebration of the Birth of Major James Lide Coker, Founder of Coker College. Hartsville, South Carolina: Coker College for Women, 1937.

Recollections of the Major: James Lide Coker, 1837-1918. Hartsville, South Carolina: Hartsville Museum, 1997.


Scope and Content Notes

The papers of James Lide Coker (JLC) (1837-1918) consist of approximately ten and one half linear feet of materials that serve to document his involvement in New South businesses in Hartsville and the Pee Dee region. Contextually, the papers span a sixty-year time frame, ranging from 1858 to 1918. The collection is divided into three series: (1) Plantation Records, (2) Correspondence, and (3) Personal Papers.

Series I: Plantation Records

Series I is a short series of unbound plantation records. The manuscripts include records about Coker's family plantation in Hartsville. The records span from 1858 until 1862 and record various weather conditions, slave activities, and daily activities of those living at the estate. Also included are inventory lists and personal remarks about plantation life.

Series II: Correspondence

Series II is divided into two sub-series: Incoming Correspondence and Outgoing Correspondence. Little personal biographical information is available. Most of the correspondence contains letters to and from business affiliates; correspondence after 1894 includes information pertaining to the upkeep and maintenance of Welsh Neck High School and Coker College for Women. Information from 1894 through the end of both the incoming and outgoing sub-series also deals with educational issues and letters from educators and colleges similar in scope with Coker's mission (i.e. Shorter College for Women in Rome, Georgia that is affiliated with the Baptist Church). Any personal correspondence is between Coker and his sons, James and William; includes a few letters addressed to his wife, Susan Coker. Some family correspondences from cousins, sisters, nieces and nephews exist is scattered throughout the incoming correspondence sub-series. G. A. Norwood, Coker's business partner from Charleston, and H. G. Cook, president of Furman University, remained the most faithful of his business communicators.

Business correspondence includes letters to and from the South Carolina Fiber Company, the Bank of Darlington (he served as president of both companies), Atlantic Coast and Lumber Company, Birmingham Paper Company, Pee Dee Historical Association, Roanoke Rapids Power Company, Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, Confederate Veterans Association, Equitable Life Insurance Company, The Norwood National Bank, the Movement for the State Wide Prohibition for South Carolina, and J. Willard Ragsdale of the United States House of Representatives.

The incoming correspondence sub-series reflects Coker's active role in the generation of many Hartsville-area businesses and also reveals the fact that he was held in high esteem as an entrepreneur. The outgoing correspondence consists of brief answers to the incoming collection. The outgoing correspondence sub-series does provide insight into the advice Coker gave to business associates and the turn of the century causes he contributed to, such as temperance.

Series III: Personal Papers

Series III consists of miscellaneous documents and manuscripts that detail the life of Hartsville and its residents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The series contains various short essays about certain figures in Hartsville and a brief history of the town itself. Coker himself composed none of the early stories; they are collections written by people in the town. For example, some of the manuscripts include biographies of Captain Matthew B. Stanley (a Mexican War veteran), Edgar Wells Charles (South Carolina Opponent of Succession), “Recollections of a Southern Plantation” (a white paternalistic view of the institution of slavery), and “Reminiscences of Hartsville's Early History” (by Thomas Hart Law). There are also manuscripts that pertain to Coker family genealogy and include a history of the Stout, Wilds, Lloyd, and Sparks families.

The series also includes over thirty short reminiscences of James Lide Coker. The collection includes stories by his former employees, family members, business associates and friends. This is of particular interest to researchers as the materials offer insight into Coker's personality. Following the character sketches are manuscripts pertaining to Branch Cashua Church, speeches given by Coker and those given about Coker. The series includes information about railroads, businesses, account books, cancelled checks, and business and personal receipts. The business receipts and account books illustrate the supplies he used in his business and personal life and reflect the trends in consumerism at the time. Several leaflets and one book illustrate Coker's interest in agriculture, railroads, and education. Another important topic in this series is Coker College. There are many books, catalogues and speeches about the college and its history, particularly materials that outline Coker's role in its history. The end of the third series also includes many published books about the Kershaw Brigade, the history of Marion County, and the condition of education in South Carolina, as well as other topics.


Description of Series

Plantation Records, 1858-1862, undated (Box 23, folders 700 & 701)

Correspondence - Incoming/Outgoing, 1877-1947, undated (Boxes 1-17, 23 Folders 702-705)

Arranges topically by sub-series: Incoming, Outgoing; arranged chronologically within sub-series. Business Correspondence and some personal correspondence.

Personal, 1800-1947, undated (Boxes 17-22, 23-24; Oversize Folder, Bound Volumes)

Various histories of Hartsville, plantation life, people within Hartsville, genealogy, reminiscences of J. L. Coker by those who knew him, deeds, business agreements, cancelled checks, account books, receipts insurance certificates, Coker College catalogues and published material.


Container List

The container list for the James Lide Coker Papers consists of a six page file available in

Adobe Acrobat PDF formatPDF Version (To update software visit Adobe Acrobat homepage.)

Microsoft Word formatMS Word


Administrative Notes

Location: PU-4
Processed: Susan Asbury & Ryan Semmes, Project Assistants (April 1998 & May 1999)
Notes: Information concerning copyright must be secured in writing from the Director of the South Caroliniana Library.


 

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