The early economy centered on agriculture, naval stores, and an iron works. Transporting, in the early days, was accomplished over unpaved roads and waterways, the Cape Fear and Deep Rivers. The Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and the Antebellum and Reconstruction periods properly belong to the histories of Moore and Chatham counties. Extensive materials on these subjects can be found in the Lee County Library.
Just prior to the Civil War in about 1853, the first commercial exploration of the area’s coal veins was begun in the community of Egypt (now Cumnock). During the war, the coal was transported to Fayetteville on the Western Railroad, which had been built by slaves and immigrant Irish laborers. Once in Fayetteville, the coal was taken by boat on the Cape Fear River to the port of Wilmington. The Western Railroad extended to the town of Jonesboro, names after Col. Leonidas Campbell Jones.
After the war, the Raleigh and Augusta Air Line Railroad built southward and crossed the Western Railroad tracks. At this junction and passenger point, the rail-born village of Sanford grew. The city was incorporated in Moore County in 1874, and its population in 1880 was 236 persons. The County of Lee was formed through a bill passed by the General Assembly in 1907 for the usual reason. Wagon and buggy travel through the sands from Sanford to Carthage, the county seat of Moore, was too laborious and time consuming for the busy people of the railway junction. A new county with a convenient governmental seat needed to be formed. This was given overwhelming approval by a vote of area residents. Sanford’s population in 1910 totaled 2,262 persons.
After 1907, with an excellent railroad and a new county government, Lee County began a period of much more rapid growth. The economy flourished with new industries including tobacco harvesting, brownstone quarrying, furniture making, brick works and later textiles. By 1930 the county population numbered 13,400 people. After World War II, in 1947, the cities of Sanford and Jonesboro merged. The 1950 census of the city counted 10,013 residents while the population of Lee County was 23,522 persons. The economic development of Lee County has taken great strides in recent years. From an agriculture base the county has expanded into a multi-product economy giving it stability while avoiding seasonal fluctuations characteristic of North Carolina’s rural counties. These products include: water pumps, hosiery, food products, automotive components and cosmetics.
Population has increased as Lee County has grown and developed. This increase in county residents has been due both to natural increase and the addition of out of state citizens relocating due to employment opportunities and retirement living. Schools, a first rate Community College, a modern public library system, civic and literary clubs, theatres, golf courses and other amusements support a lively cultural and civic life among county residents. Not only does Lee County produce a variety of products, its population, with the influx of residents, has taken a cosmopolitan due. Significant numbers of Hispanic people have recently settled in the area, reflecting its economic opportunities as well as its favorable living conditions. County population figures for 1998 suggest more than 48,000 citizens. 2000 U.S. Census figures indicate a population of 50,000, and as of 2020 more than 60,000 residents are indicated in Lee County's population.
The history of Lee County has been one of steady growth on a reasonable scale amenable to good development. Lee County government continues to address the present needs of its citizens, but also, in the light of its history, Lee County looks ahead to future prosperity and growth.