Hart County was created by an Act of the Legislature dated December 7th, 1853 and was surveyed and laid out in 1854. The land was taken from Elbert and Franklin counties. In future years additional territory was added and the county boundary lines changed several times.
In May of 1854 the Judges of the Inferior Court purchased, for $200, 100 acres of land on which to locate the county seat. The land was purchased from the heirs of James Vickery and was laid off into streets, squares and lots. This land became Hartwell.
In his History of Hart County, Mr. John Baker tells us that two sites for the city were proposed. One site favored by a portion of the citizens was the place known as "The Center of the World". An equally vocal group favored the present site. Unable to settle the disagreement, both factions employed attorneys, brothers T. R. R. and Howell Cobb of Athens. After a legal battle, Howell Cobb, the attorney representing the proponents of present site, won the case. It was decided to honor Mr. Cobb by naming the main street for him. With both attorneys named Cobb the street was named Howell Street. Other streets were named for local officials or for the direction in which they headed. Franklin Street was so named because it went toward Franklin County and Carolina because it headed toward South Carolina.
The area was divided into 139 lots. Seven lots were donated, for local government, churches, schools and a cemetery. The remaining 132 lots were sold at auctions in July and September of 1854.
The town of Hartwell was incorporated by an Act of the Legislature on February 26th, 1856. The original charter, changed many times in the intervening years, is reproduced in Mr. Baker’s History. The corporate limits of the town were to extend one mile in every direction from the center of the town. This was established as Lot #1 on which was located the courthouse. Mr. Baker made the survey and established the corporate limits in 1889. The original government was a board of commissioners and was later changed to a mayor and a board of aldermen.
The census of 1860 listed 200 white inhabitants, 33 slaves and 2 free persons of color. There were ﬁve lawyers, three merchants, and one doctor. Other occupations included mechanics, masons, painters and a drayman. There were three churches, three groceries, two hotels and several other shops. Total value of real estate was $54,000.00
The ﬁrst school in Hartwell was a log cabin with a dirt ﬂoor. Mr. F. C. Stephenson was the ﬁrst teacher and began classes in 1855. Hartwell maintained a separate school system from the county until consolidation of the two systems in 1952. The county schools included the grades from one to nine; the city school had grades from one through eleven. Until 1874 there were neither free schools nor textbooks. Parents paid tuition and purchased books for their children. For those students in the county who wished to complete the eleventh grade (graduate from High School) the county Board of Education furnished school busses to transport the students to the Hartwell system. They also participated in the cost of the ﬁnal two years.
The ﬁrst church in Hartwell was the First United Methodist Church, then the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and was organized in 1854 with the Rev. Howell Parks as senior pastor and Rev. William Turner as junior pastor. The ﬁrst meetings were held in the school. When the present building was erected, the Methodist Church offered its facilities to the other denominations since it was on a circuit and met only once a month. The present Baptist Church is located on the original lot donated when the town was ﬁrst laid out.
During the 1860's Hartwell suffered with the rest of the South through the terrible four years of the War Between the States. According to Mr. Baker’s History, Hart County furnished ﬁve or six companies of men for the Confederate Army. Some were in the Army of Northern Virginia and others were assigned to the Army of Tennessee. The town was untouched by Sherman’s march to Savannah, and not until 1865 did Union troops enter Hart County. There was a raid from Anderson and one citizen of Hartwell was killed. Slowly the town began to rebuild its economy.
By 1873 there were ﬁve stores doing business in Hartwell and several saloons operated in the city limits. One, advertised in The Hartwell Sun, was known as the "Redtop Saloon." However, in 1873 the people of Hart County voted to prohibit the sale of spirits and the remaining three barrooms closed in early 1874. The 1870’s saw the withdrawal of Union troops from their occupation of Georgia and South Carolina. Two other events which were to have a lasting effect also occurred: establishing The Hartwell Sun and the building of the railroad. The ﬁrst train, named, of course, The Nancy Hart, arrived on December 5th, 1879.
There were now ﬁve doctors in Hartwell and the Confederate veterans had their ﬁrst reunion. They formed in line of battle and marched to a picnic area. The Sun reported, "Rations were low, but there was a lot of drinking." In August of 1878 the Honorable Alexander H. Stephens, former vice-president of The Confederate States of America, spoke at a gathering in Hartwell attended by a "great crowd." Streets in Hartwell in 1878 were Howell, Franklin, Carolina, Elbert, Jackson, Johnson, Carter, Webb, Chandler, Richardson and Benson. As economic conditions improved the county and town began to grow. The 1880 census gave a population of 9,094 for the county. This was an increase of 2,311 from the census of 1870. 1881 saw the most notorious crime and the last public hanging in the city. One Henry Hill in escaping from the county jail murdered the Jailor, Mr. T. V. Skelton. Recaptured, he was convicted at the March term of the Superior Court and sentenced to be hung on Friday, April 22, 1881. The Hartwell Sun reported that a crowd of from eight to ten thousand attended the execution. Sad to say, many Hartwell merchants featured "Hanging Day Specials" in their Sun advertisements. However, the Sun reported that the crowd was orderly and that the barkeepers voluntarily closed their saloons.
The so-called decade of the "Gay Nineties" saw slow but deﬁnite growth. The construction of the railroad had furnished a better outlet for shipment of cotton, the major crop, out of the county. Cotton bales had been shipped down the Savannah to Augusta by barge or raft. The Hartwell Mills also provided the beginnings of an industrial base. As county seat, Hartwell began to furnish a platform from which prominent politicians could speak. In September of 1896 then Governor Atkinson spoke to a crowd estimated by the Sun to be 3000. His speech must have been heated for in October, ﬁre on two successive nights caused more than $20,000.00 damage. In the election of that year the Populist Party won all offices in the county except that of sheriff. The general election in November proved to be "William Jennings Bryan's Waterloo" the Sun tells us. Hartwell furnished its share of men to ﬁght in Cuba or the Philippine Islands during the Spanish-American War.