Any history of Olive Hill must start with a look at the history of Kentucky and Carter County. Some of the first explorers probably came to Kentucky in the late 1600s, but Kentucky did not become a state until 1792 when it was added as the 15th state to the union. Carter County was officially mapped in 1785, but there is evidence that land grants were given to Colonel William Grayson as early as 1785 for his service in the Revolutionary War. In 1838 the area was chartered as a county. The grandson of Colonel Grayson, a William Grayson Carter, led the effort to form the new county. The county was made up from parts of Greenup County and Lawrence County. The new county made Grayson as its county seat and the county took the name of Carter County from William Grayson Carter.
The City of Olive Hill began as a rural trading post established by Robert Henderson at Cold Springs about 1800. The second house was built about 1807 by George Henderson, a brother to Robert Henderson. Then about 1810 Gabe and James Henderson built homes on a small stream near the current city limits, and this stream later bore their name, Henderson Branch.
The way in which Olive Hill got its name is somewhat disputed. One legend has Olive Hill allegedly named by Elias P. Davis for his friend Thomas Oliver, while others contend that they believed that the name came from a rare Olive tree growing in the yard of a Dr. Lyon. The area was large enough to be awarded a post office in 1844, and became a city in 1861. In these early years, there were about 50 to 75 pioneer families that established the area. Many of the descendents of these original pioneer families still live in the area.
The city of Olive Hill began as a small rural village along side a dusty dirt road. It was located from the entrance of Spark’s Avenue and went east up the hill to what was known as the Dr. John H. Steele place. Many people still call this area “Old Olive Hill”. It consisted of only one or two small general stores, a blacksmith shop, and the Scott Tavern.
The first road of any significance in the area was the Midland Trail, which later became U.S. 60. In its early beginnings the road was a toll road. A little known fact is that many of our first roads were toll roads and well as many bridges. There use to be a toll booth that was at the mouth of Mills Branch. According to stories about the road, it was the road that Andrew Jackson rode on his way from Tennessee to Washington to be inaugurated the seventh president of the United States.
During the Civil War, Kentucky was a border state and hoped to remain neutral.
By being neutral, many communities established home guards which had southern or northern leaning. The home guard would protect the community from the other side. Early in the war, famous Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, on one of his raids through Kentucky passed through Olive Hill. Some of the local home guard fired on his men as they were passing through. There were no causalities from the ambush and the home guard was greatly outnumbered so they quickly retreated. General Morgan’s men camped near Olive Hill, where Union Captain James Scott’s family lived. Morgan upon learning the wife of Captain Scott was at home, ordered his troops to ride by the house to salute the wife, but after they had camped for the night, he was still angered by the events of earlier in the day, and sent an order for his Confederate troops to torch the town. Lingering hard feeling from the war lead to many family feuds for many years after the war had ended.
After the Civil War, Kentucky became a place of lawlessness with vigilantes roaming the land. A group called The “Regulators” ruled. An uprising began in Elliott Co in 1877 after outlaws burned part of Sandy Hook – the county seat. Attacks on women were waged in 1879 and the citizens of Elliott County decided to take care of the Regulators themselves. “Judge Lynch” told the people that lawlessness would not be tolerated. On the 20th of October 1879, 200 Regulators, dragged two supposed outlaws from the jail and hung them. This started a time of terror against all lawbreakers in the area. Men who rode on horseback and were masked, road the countryside and drove the lawless out of the area. By the spring of 1880 the movement widened to include the counties of Morgan, Rowan, Carter, Boyd and Lawrence. Judge James E. Stewart, 16th judicial district, although threatened with bodily harm, stated that he was holding the line. He contacted Governor Luke P. Blackburn, asking for state troops to assist. He promised clemency for the Regulators who surrendered. On 28 May 1880, 200 Lawrence and Carter County Regulators surrendered. By 1881, the Elliott and Morgan County Regulators had disbanded. Many prominent citizens of Olive Hill were members of the Regulators. (Old photos of town)
Olive Hill’s history has always been tied to transportation. One of the biggest events in Olive Hill history occurred in 1881 when the railroad came to the area. The railroad had such an effect upon the city that it moved off the hill to the Tygart Creek stream bed area where modern day Olive Hill is still located. The coming the railroad tracks allowed the shipment of virgin lumber to the eastern cities. Until the railroad came through the area, many of the trees were felled and burned so that pioneers could have land to till for farm land and grazing land for animals.
The C & O Railroad-Chesapeake and Ohio, started as the Elizabethtown- Lexington
& Big Sandy line and followed west to east, the old Midland Trail. The train tracks were laid through Olive Hill in 1881 and changed the face of the city. The track was laid in sections under a contract, the Olive Hill section was built by Charles Campbell Brooks. He was so impressed with the beauty of an area just east of Olive Hill known as “Devil’s Backbone” that he purchased it and later built a house on the property and lived there. He soon became a leading citizen and helped establish the Olive Hill Masonic Lodge and became the First Master in 1886. The freight depot was built first about 1885 then the passenger depot was added later about 1917, but both were located in the valley near Tygart Creek. This started a move to build stores near the railroad, instead of on the hill and soon the old Olive Hill section became a residential area with many of the pioneer families that helped establish Olive Hill still living there. One of the first businesses to start in this new business area was a store built by L.L. Tabor, the grandfather of former mayor S.C. Tabor.
Timbering soon became the leading industry in the area and it stayed that way for many years. There were a large number of sawmills in operation during that time producing cross ties, staves, tan bark, and logs of various types of timber for shipment to make everyday furniture and building supplies. The railroad had a large area set aside in the rail yard for these products.
About 1893 it was discovered that the hills in and around Olive Hill contained large quantities of fire clay, a material that is used in the production of fire bricks, which are used to line blast furnaces.
The first mine was opened on Perry’s Branch and a tramroad was built to haul the clay to the railroad by mules for shipment to be made into fire brick elsewhere. A little later, the now famous Burnt House Mine, was opened and in 1907 a sample of the fire clay from this mine won first place in the Jamestown Exposition in 1907.
Mr. George Carlisle came to Olive Hill in 1895 and built the first brickyard known as the Olive Hill Fire Brick Company. He was the first to utilize the fire clay of the area and make brick instead of shipping it away. In 1911 the Olive Hill Fire Brick Company merged with two other plants in Pennsylvania to form the General Refractories Company.
A second brickyard built by Harbison-Walker Refractories Company in 1899 came on line with their first brick in 1901. They had a large clay mine in the Trough Camp area near Olive Hill. The mine had a tramroad that went up Henderson Branch with a tunnel through Armstrong Hill. By this time they were using machines to haul the clay instead of horse drawn wagons. Vernon Herbster was the first superintendent of the plant.
Small neighborhoods sprang up near the brickyards, Frogtown, Clark Hill, Stringtown, Perry’s Branch near General Refractories and Harbison-Walker. The brickyards also had company stores located in these neighborhoods. The company built the housing, had the store, and many times paid the men in what was called scrip money. This money was only good at the company store, but over a period of time there were many merchants throughout the county that came to accept the company money. Even the doctors in the community would accept it as money for payment.
Sadly, as important as the brick making industry was to Olive Hill, and as much history that it carried with it, the brick plants closed: Harbison-Walker closed in 1964 and General Refractories closed in 1971, ending a relationship with brick making of nearly 75 years. Nearly every family that lives in the Olive Hill area has a family member that at one time worked at one or more of the brick plants in the area.
Olive Hill has also had another natural resource Limestone. There have been as many as six stone quarries in the area producing millions of tons of stone for railroad ballast and crushed stone for highway construction. At the height of railroad construction as much as 25 railcars were being shipped daily.
Olive Hill once served as the county seat of Beckham County, Kentucky formed by the Kentucky General Assembly on February 9, 1904.
It was created in the northeastern part of the state from parts of Carter County, Kentucky, Lewis County, Kentucky and Elliott County, Kentucky. The county seat was Olive Hill, Kentucky.
A man named C. V. Zimmerman filed suit against Beckham County – specifically against its county judge, Captain C. C. Brooks – when Beckham County tried to collect a $75.00 debt from Zimmerman. Zimmerman claimed that under an 1891 Kentucky Constitutional amendment, creation of Beckham County was unlawful because it left other counties with less than 400 square miles of land, and that Beckham County itself also had less than 400 square miles of land. Carter County joined Zimmerman’s suit and added the claim that the creation of Beckham County ran its borders too close to the county seats of Carter and Lewis counties, violating the 10 mile minimum. Carter County also claimed that the illegal creation of Beckham County would unfairly deprive Carter County of tax revenues that rightfully belonged to Carter County. Beckham County was dissolved by the Kentucky Court of Appeals on April 29, 1904 because it was not created in conformance with state law. The county was only in existence for 80 days. Beckham County is the only county in the state of Kentucky to ever be abolished.
The first city officials that there are record of are John Hubbard – Police Chief, R.Z. Henderson – City Marshall (Like our Mayor of today), Captain Stonbaker – Clerk, L.C. Wilson, Odom Wallace, C.R. Abbott, W.S. Hicks, Joe Johnson – City Councilmen.
The city of Olive Hill had approximately 1400 people in 1920. The city retained about the same population over the years because the efforts to expand the city limits have never been successful. In the most recent census the population of Olive Hill was approximately 1900.
Olive Hill has suffered through many major floods over the years with the first recorded flood in 1908 then again 1913, 1917, 1937, 1939 1942, 1948, 1950, 1951, 1952, 2002, 2003, and 2010. The flood that has always been the one that was thought to have been the worst flood occurred in 1937 but a flood that occurred in May and July of 2010 may be the new benchmark. During the 60’s a federal flood control project that widened and deepened Tygart Creek and cut a deep passage through Devils Backbone was suppose to eliminate the threat of flooding for the town. A flash flood hit Olive Hill in the summer of 1937. During that flood the James H. Drew Carnival was set up near where Hydreco Village is now located, they tried to get the fair rides out in time to prevent them from washing away, but their efforts were not enough, the Ferris Wheel came lose and as it tumbled down Tygart Creek it struck town bridge. At that time town bridge was a metal one lane bridge. The bridge was washed out and the remains of the bridge and the Ferris wheel were found about two miles downstream. In 1939 what we now call town bridge was opened and again as a one lane bridge. In about 1972 the bridge was converted to a two lane bridge.
1917 was the year that nearly wiped Olive Hill out of existence. In that year of 1917 there was a flood January 21 that was caused by near record snowfall and a January rain. Then on June 4 the worst disaster in Olive Hill’s history occurred, most of the two blocks of the business district burned in an early morning fire. The loss was tremendous. According to local accounts from the Carter County Herald, $100,000.00 dollars worth of damage were incurred, and there was only $1,200.00 dollars of insurance on the total loss. The fire was supposed to have started in the restaurant of Whitt and Clay and spread to an adjacent pool hall that was a wooden building full of paper. The fire was discovered about 1:00 A.M. when a train crew was arriving for work. They blew the train whistle until nearly everyone in the town awoke and came to help to try and save what was in the stores. At times there were too many people trying to help and they got in each others way. Many people say this was a fire that stopped the growth of the town and that it never recovered back to the same after this fire.
Olive Hill always placed a great deal of emphasis of the spiritual side of life. As soon as the town moved from off the hill to its current location, churches sprang up almost immediately. Some of the first churches were the Methodist Church, Christian Church, The First Baptist Church, Nazarene Church and the Pilgrim Holiness Church.
The Methodist church was organized by Rev. Isaac Cline in 1890 on a plot of ground donated by the Eifort family heirs. It still stands in that location. Early Methodist preachers that came into Eastern Kentucky were some of the first to bring the gospel to this area. The church was instrumental in the establishment of Aiken Hall and Erie School.
The Christian Church probably started sometime in the 1880’s or early 1890’s with their first church sitting at or near the bottom of school house hill. In 1908 they started work on the building that served the congregation 100 years. They in 2010 the old church was leveled and work on a new building has begun. Some of the early preachers in the Christian Church were Bro. R. B. Neal, Bro. Henry Easterling, and Bro. Isaac Gilliam.
The First Baptist Church was established around 1902 by the Reverend R. L. Baker at that time it was known as the Presbyterian Church. Later Reverend Ruben Reynolds encouraged the congregation to build a church near the banks of Tygart Creek. In 1941 ground was broken where the current church now sets by Reverend George Schroder.
The Nazarene Church was organized in February of 1916 by the group’s leader Mr. and Mrs. J. P. Zimmerman (known as Uncle Jay and Aunt Melissa). The church began as the Apostolic Holiness Church and later became the Nazarene Church. The first pastor of the church was Bro. N. G. Grizzle and then in 1918, Rev. J. A. Williams, a well known evangelist, was called to be pastor. In the early 1920’ the church built the historic building that stood on U.S. 60 for many years at the bottom of school house hill. In 1959, when U.S. 60 was widened, the church was forced to move to Jordan Heights, where it still stands today.
The Pilgrim Holiness Church was organized in 1927. Pilgrim Holiness Churches at Upper Tygart, Clark Hill, Bens Run, and Kings Chapel joined together and held their first services on Woodside in a store front building until a church could be built. The present location of the church was decided in 1928; sadly flood waters have closed the doors of this historic building. Currently the congregation is holding services near I-64 near the Smokey Valley Truck Stop. Today they church is the Wesleyan Church.
In 1918 the epidemic of Influenza hit the Olive Hill area. Estimates had that 3,000 of the 4,000 residents in the area contracted the disease with nearly 100 dying from the disease each month. There were only limited medical facilities at the time, so the infirmary at the Akien Hall School was used to house some of the sick in the community.
In 1923 Congressman William Jason Fields was nominated by the Democratic Party as that party’s candidate for governor of Kentucky. This was made necessary after their original candidate, Campbell Cantrill, died suddenly before the election. W.J. Fields won the election with a motto of “Honest Bill From Olive Hill”. The governor elect did raise a lot of eyebrows though when he announced that there would be no dancing allowed at the executive mansion while he occupied it, and that he, nor Mrs. Fields would not be attending any of the inaugural balls.
May 20, 1924 the citizens of Olive Hill pass a bond to build the city’s first water and sewage project at the cost of $30,000.00
In 1937 one of Olive Hill’s first and the areas oldest banks closed, the Commercial Bank of Carter County.
February 16, 1928 Olive Hill was awarded a National Guard Company and it will be known as Company E, 149th Infantry. The new unit was under the Command of Cpt. Walter E. Miller.
In 1953 the first dial up telephone was installed in Olive Hill. It was installed in the office of City Judge Everett Bradley. By the next year a dial up exchange had been installed in Olive Hill.
Olive Hill education also has a storied history. The first school was built about 1884 and was located east of Camp 60 along a road that ran behind it. It was small, one roomed and made of log. The school had three trustees, a system used then, they were L.C. Wilson, A. M. Johnson and Elwood Heflin. The school was moved shortly after this to the hill above the town, only to be moved again after a few years being there, it was moved to accommodate the large increase of children in town due the opening of the brickyards. A large building was erected near the bridge at Tygart’s Creek in 1898. Within just a few short years, the school was again too small to accommodate the number of children and so 1919 the town passed a bond issue to build a new school located on School House Hill. Then in 1929 another bond was passed to build Olive Hill High School. The city had its own board of education at this time. The old Olive Hill Graded School was torn down 1966-67 almost 46 years after being built. Olive Hill High School creased to exist in the fall of 1971.
Olive Hill also had a private school that was built 1912 by the Women’s Missionary Society of the Methodist Church. The school really took off in 1915 when General Refractories donated a large tract of land where Aiken Hall School was built that served as a school and dormitory. It expanded in 1927 with and additional building and gymnasium. This was the first gym ever built in Olive Hill. The school ceased to exist after 1958, but was used by the county school system for several after this.
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s transportation again changed the face of Olive Hill. U.S. 60’s course was changed. The area known as Garvin Ridge with its hairpin curves was removed from U.S. 60. In the downtown area, U.S. 60 was rerouted from Railroad Street to its current position. The street had to be widened so many stores, churches, and homes had to be torn down to make room for the road.
More recently, Interstate 64 was constructed in the late 1960’s; this again changed the face of the city. The main road in Olive Hill, U.S. 60 no longer carried many of the driving public that once travelled through our small town, but one attraction that remains on U.S. 60 is Carter Caves State Resort Park. Carter Caves has always had a positive impact on Olive Hill because Olive Hill is the closet town to the park. The park became a state park in 1946 and has provided an enormous economic lift to local businesses. The park was purchased in 1946 from the Lewis Family. The purchase was made possible by the efforts of many in Olive Hill and the surrounding area. One group known as the Kentucky Coronels played all over Eastern Kentucky raising money to help purchase the park.
In 1961 the City of Olive Hill held its 100 year centennial. It was quite an event with many activities such as a play depicting the history of the city, residents dressing in costume, men growing beards, and of course a beauty pageant. The Centennial Queen was Joyce Bellew, runner up Carol Sue Masters and the queen’s court were Patty Boggs, Betty Sue Raybourn, Gayle James, Betty Tackett, Kay Griffey, Joyce Stevens, Nancy Brown, and Joyce Layne.
Those of us, who are old enough to remember the Olive Hill of yesteryear, look back to a simpler time with nostalgia of the little town that we grew up in. We remember Frank James’ grocery, Glen Clay’s store, Stamper Brothers. There was always the Dairy Cream on a hot day, John Elliston’s Restaurant, James’ Drive-Inn, The Little Hobo, and Willie Grills’ Burger Bar. Clyde James’s skating rink, Stevie’s Pool Room, little league baseball on the hill, Archie and McCarty’s Men’s Shop, Gabbard’s Dept Store, Layne’s Dad And Lad Shop, Howell’s Clothing, Kiser Style Shop, Fern’s Marca Mae Shop, The Justice Sisters, Walter Smith’s Drug Store, lemon blends at DeHart Pharmacy, or waiting for the latest comic books to arrive at the bus station. Having your hair cut at Tom Parson’s Barber Shop or at “Fiz” Tackett’s. Going to the Dixie Theater on Saturday mornings and getting to stay all day for two milk tops off of Spring Grove Dairy milk cartons. Eating at the Cobblestone Restaurant, bowling at the Bowling Alley. And don’t forget all the wonderful Christmas productions and giveaways put on by local merchants. And finally, the Homecoming events in July, parades, greased pig contests, Tom T. Hall, Billy Carter, Jim Ed Brown. I think that most of us feel like that we were blessed by having the opportunity to share just a little of the storied history of Olive Hill.
Throughout all the history of the town of Olive Hill, it has always shown a spirit of loyalty, neighborliness and civic pride that makes it a place where people want to live and raise their families.
References for this history:
The Comets Tale, A History of Olive Hill High School Athletics, compiled and written by Jack Fultz, 1983
Out Of These Hills, souvenir program, written and compiled by Fred Evans, 1961
Historical Views Of Carter County, written and compiled by Francis Nash, 2007
Carter County Genealogy website, John Grace site administrator, www.kycarter.com
Carter County Herald, Microfilm Collection, Olive Hill Historical Society.