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So much more than 'his' highway

Posted: October 8, 2010 2:09 p.m.
Updated: October 11, 2010 5:00 a.m.

If most Kershaw County citizens were asked this question – “Who is John G. Richards? – a few may remember Highway 97 from Camden to Liberty Hill as the John G. Richards Highway but know little else. Perhaps that may be understandable since he died in 1941, long before most of us were born.

After you read this column and next see the highway sign, perhaps you will remember and appreciate the life and work of this former Kershaw County governor. His papers were given to the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina in the 1980s-90s. The following description of the governor and of his papers appeared in the 1987 annual program of the South Caroliniana Society. When the new county history comes off the press early in 2011, it will also help you to understand and appreciate Gov. Richards plus a host of other individuals and topics.

John Gardiner Richards (1864-1941)

Born and reared in Liberty Hill, John Gardiner Richards (1864-1941), like his father before him, combined a life in farming with public service. While still a relatively young man, Richards became a member of the Grange and Farmer’s Alliance and a valued supporter and friend of Benjamin Tillman. Beginning in 1892, Richards served in a variety of public offices: as a magistrate, 1892-1900; member of the South Carolina House of Representatives for Kershaw County, 1899-1910; trustee of Clemson University, 1905-1910; and member of the Railroad Commission, 1910-ca. 1922. Richards was an unsuccessful candidate for governor in 1910, 1914 and 1918, but won in 1926 on a platform which stressed fiscal responsibility and tax reform, educational improvement, and the intent to purge the state’s law enforcement agencies of corruption. As governor, Richards shepherded through the general assembly, against strong opposition, the state’s first bond issue of sixty-five million dollars to finance the construction of highways. A prominent prohibitionist and advocate of law and order, Richards also engaged in an intense effort to halt the spread of gambling and bootlegging and called out the South Carolina National Guard on several occasions to forestall lynchings. In February 1927, shortly after his inauguration, Richards made national news when he announced his intent to have local police enforce strictly the state’s blue laws. Richards cited golf, automobile pleasure driving, and the sale of ice cream and soft drinks as violations of particular concern. The act resulted in a storm of controversy and, faced with court injunctions, the worry of losing valuable tourist business, and an unfavorable press, Governor Richards backed down from his stand on this issue.

John Gardiner Richards Papers (1889-1957)

The collection consists of four linear feet of material, 1889-1957, but primarily dating between 1926 and 1931 and documenting his campaign for, and service as, governor. In addition to hundreds of letters received in response to his stand on the issue of Sunday observances, the collection contains political congratulatory letters and telegrams, and requests for jobs in his administration, particularly in the constabulary force. There is a small amount of family correspondence, 1889-1957, and texts of a number of Richards’ speeches, 1892-1940, including several from his earlier, unsuccessful gubernatorial campaigns.

Of particular interest in the collection are ten letters, 1901-1909, from Benjamin Tillman, including 17 January 1905 – “The Dispensary System can not stand much longer unless the administration is improved. An appointive Board is no better than an elective Board because there will be suspicion, as under the present system, and while the governor may select better men than the Legislature will elect the administration can not be permanently improved except in the way I have indicated”; and 22 January 1909 – “So far from being injurious is appears that the burden of work and the necessity of defending myself against Roosevelt have really brought me into better physical and mental condition.”

Other correspondence of note is that of December 1926, with Edgar A. Brown, regarding Brown’s recommendation of a man to serve as a prohibition agent; November 1929, with John L. McLaurin, concerning the state’s warehouse system for cotton; and 1939-1940, relating to Richards’ service as chairman of the Tillman Memorial Committee to secure the erection of the Tillman Memorial on the State House grounds.


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