The Clay Industry in Rowan County
Deposits of high quality clay in Rowan and surrounding counties prompted the establishment of fire brick, paving brick, building brick and ceramics companies in the late 1800s.
The large deposits of clay in Rowan County, were first mined by the Kentucky Fire Brick Company and General Refractories Company, which operated several small brick plants in Rowan and Carter Counties as well as a large fire brick plant in Olive Hill, Kentucky.
These mines were both deep and surface mines. The shale or clay was broken up with explosives and carried out of the mine by narrow gauge horse or mule pulled hoppers (later narrow gauge locomotives) where the clay was then transferred to the larger standard gauge cars for transport.
Lee Clay Products company located in Clearfield. Kentucky in 1925 bought the struggling Morehead & North Fork Railroad from the bankrupt Clearfield Lumber company and began strip mining the surface clay, hauling it via narrow gauge hoppers to the point of transfer to M&NF cars which made the four mile run to the kilns at Clearfield.
Lee Clay specialized in utilitarian ceramic products such as sewer pipe, chimney flues, etc. but also produced some artwork type ceramic artifacts.
Demand gradually lessened and General Refractories closed its Olive Hill plant in 1971. Only a couple of small brick plants continue to operate.
Management/union troubles and the introduction of plastic, particularly PVC, spelled the doom of the ceramics company and it ceased operation in 1970.
At its peak Lee Clay was a major employer in the area. An old smokestack still stands with LEE emblazoned on its side in the area where the plant once stood.
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