Olive Hill & Little Kentucky

There is a good chance we would never have heard of Olive Hill, Kentucky if it hadn’t been for the wartime factory boom of the 1940s.  Mansfield industry had weathered the insecurity of America’s Great Depression in the 30s with a remarkable degree of stability, and so when the incredible escalation of war production revved up the economy in the 40s the mechanisms were already in place for an astonishing rush of employment.  In the space of five years, jobs nearly tripled in the Flats.  Correspondingly, during these same years there were fewer and fewer jobs in Carter County, Kentucky.

Factories in Mansfield needed hands, men in Olive Hill needed jobs.  The genesis of Little Kentucky is quite simply supply and demand.

Across the River

Olive Hill is just a small town lost out in the hills of northern Kentucky, like a thousand other little Appalachian crossroads communities that were just as happy to be off the beaten path because they were largely self-sufficient and proud in the integrity of their hometown values: work, church, and family.

Olive Hill got on the map, though, when the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad wanted to stop there because the hills surrounding the town were rich in natural resources.  In other generations those resources were timber and iron ore, but in the second half of the 1800s and the early decades of the 1900s the nation was interested in Carter County’s clay.

During that early era of US steel production, the mills of America needed to line their blast furnaces with heat resistant fire bricks that required a special kind of clay.  This clay was found in deep seams in the mountains around Olive Hill.  There was plenty of factory work in Olive Hill making fire bricks during the early decades of the 1900s, and there was no reason in that generation for any of those Kentucky folks to go wandering across the Ohio River except to fish.

The methods of steel production changed in the 1940s, though, and the new procedure no longer required fire bricks.  With each passing year demand for bricks waned and there were more men in Kentucky looking for work.

There were several plants making fire bricks down the Tygarts Creek valley in the 18.5 miles between Olive Hill and Morehead. The gradual decline of these refactories sent Kentucky men north looking for work. This plant in ruins stands just outside Olive Hill.
Olive Hill’s fire bricks were used all over the country, not only in steel mills, but also in the fire boxes of steam locomotives.

Unfortunately the railroad industry switched to diesel engines about the same time the steel industry stopped needing firebricks, so the market for Carter County’s clay vanished.

Route 23

The Great Migration from the Appalachian South to the industrial North is well documented in American history.  Major manufacturing cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh were eager for more working laborers, and all those hard working, hungry blue collars down south left their roots to make the move to where they could earn a living.

The men who found their way to Mansfield from Olive Hill had it easier than most who traveled north, because Richland County is only a 4-hour drive from Carter County, and they could go home on the weekends.  Most preferred to think they lived there, and worked here.  Eventually their families moved to Mansfield.

Traditional Kentucky lore has it that the way to get out of the mountains to a ‘better life’ is through the 3 Rs: Readin’, Ritin’, and Route 23.

Though Route 23 doesn’t pass through Richland County it does constitute most of the miles in the trip from the Ohio River.

Olive Hill is not on Route 23 either: it is 35 miles west on Rt 60 by way of I-64.

The Distance from Olive Hill to Mansfield

When you look at it on the map there are only 214 miles separating these two communities, but for the folks who came here in the 40s and 50s the length of the trip was measured in far more than highway miles on Route 23.

When you grow up in the mountains there is always earth around you, rising up surrounding you like soft and safe walls; it’s an unconscious protection like being a little kid among your elders who tower over you.  Leaving the mountains can be quite unsettling.  It can be disconcerting to see all that emptiness around you stretching away forever.

The folks from Kentucky were vulnerable when they got here, and to be honest, at that time in history Mansfield was not especially welcoming to strangers.  It could be a snobby town, a town of cliques and clubs and inner circles.  Though Mansfield economy was glad for new hands, the local society was not so accepting of people who spoke with an Appalachian accent.

It was fortunate for newcomers that they had a section of town that was all their own.  It really was an entirely transplanted community—like you might lift the sod off one place and lay it over a new landscape. For many years it truly was a little revisioned version of Kentucky.

A Successful Graft

It wasn’t that long before Olive Hill natives or their children began to take part in defining Mansfield—as leaders in business, politics and city government.

Decades have come and gone since those days, and though new generations in Little Kentucky have been born and raised in Mansfield, the community next to the Steel Mill never really severed the umbilical cord to Kentucky.  Carter County has always been home, and many people who spend their careers here move back home when they retire.

If Mansfield has a true sister city, it is Olive Hill—we are two branches of one tree.  There are people in Mansfield who come from all over everywhere, but no one place on the globe is more represented here than Olive Hill.

This summer I was walking around Olive Hill taking pictures and quite a number of people stopped and asked, in a friendly, curious way, why I wanted photos of downtown.  When I explained that I was from Mansfield, Ohio every single one of them said, Oh I have relatives in Mansfield.

Though folks in Olive Hill bemoan the decline of their downtown as do most towns in 21st century America, there is a great deal of charm in the streetscapes built of (Carter County) brick.
The railroad depot in Olive Hill has always been the center of town, even after the trains stopped running in 1971. Today it’s a tourist station in a park overlooking the river.


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