You’ll find neither mountains nor olives in this charming Wayne County hamlet that serves as North Carolina’s unofficial pickle capital. People searching for the mount in Mount Olive will have a hard time finding it. That’s because the town, the story goes, was named for the Biblical Mount of Olives. Located in the state’s coastal plain, the town in southern Wayne County has nary a hill in sight. But while the town is short on hills, it has always been long on civic-minded enterprise and a robust agricultural economy.
Those two forces came into play in the late 1920s, when Mount Olive operated a huge produce market. A bumper crop of cucumbers prompted members of what was then the Chamber of Commerce to support a plan that would brine cucumbers and sell the brine stock to other pickling firms.
That idea didn’t work, but local businessmen decided to pickle the cucumbers themselves. Thus was born the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, which now manufactures the second best selling brand of pickles in the country. The company carries the town’s name far and wide along the sides of its big green trucks — and on the jars of pickles they deliver.
The town returns the favor each April when it celebrates the award-winning North Carolina Pickle Festival. It is, as they say, a “dilly of an affair.”
Other examples of civic-mindedness are easily seen. In the 1950s, a fledgling junior college came to Mount Olive, and partly through the encouragement and support of local businessmen, it stayed and flourished. Today, Mount Olive College, sponsored by the Original Free Will Baptist denomination, is a four-year liberal arts school with a progressive, regional view.
The community of 4,500 came together in 1995 to raise about $100,000 for a new library. The original structure was built 70 years ago through the vision and efforts of Dr. W.C. Steele, a much-loved and respected local physician. The new library across the street continues to carry his name. A few years later the community again came together, this time to raise over $150,000 for Kids World, a community-built playground at Westbrook Park. Over 1,300 volunteers built the structure from the ground up in just five days.
Mount Olive has never strayed far from its roots. The downtown still has the railroad track running through it, and traffic still stops each day as the freight train rumbles through. Many a child still rushes to the front of stores on Center Street to watch it slowly pass.
The storefronts look much like they did at the turn of the century except that dry goods stores and livery stables are now insurance offices and hardware stores. The office that houses the practice of Dr. James R. Lambert has been the site of a doctor’s office for almost 100 years, and old-fashioned orangeades are still made to order behind at least one downtown drugstore counter.
Many homes from the 19th and early 20th century are still intact. Three lovely downtown churches — Mount Olive Presbyterian, First United Methodist and First Baptist — were all built within the second decade of the 1900s.
The town’s 1863 depot (the first was burned by Union soldiers in 1862) was moved from the railroad and serves as a community center.
Much of downtown is now part of a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to the efforts of the Mount Olive Area Historical Society. The town has four structures listed individually on the National Register: two private homes, the old Mount Olive High School, and the stately brick post office. Built during the Depression years with Works Progress Administration funds and painstakingly restored in recent years, the post office now houses a local law firm.
While not known for its outstanding architecture, the Southern Belle Restaurant (located just off the U.S. Highway 117 Bypass on N.C. Highway 55) is a lively place for breakfast early each morning. There, the regulars serve themselves coffee, swap gossip and argue the politics of the day. Politicians do not overlook the place’s importance — even governors have paid visits for breakfast over the years.
Whatever Mount Olive made of itself in later years, it owes its birth to the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, which was completed by 1840. Land for the railroad was purchased from Adam Winn, the head of a prominent free black family who had extensive land holdings in the area at the time. The first part of the railroad right of way is believed to be the present Center Street of Mount Olive. The railroad opened a depot in the vicinity, and by 1853 a post office had been added. A Canadian named William Pollock teamed up with Benjamin Oliver of nearby Duplin County to build a store there.
Oliver’s son-in-law, Dr. Gideon Monroe Roberts, however, is considered the town’s founder. He bought land around the depot, and in 1854 conveyed four acres of it to five others including Oliver, and they laid out a town. Oliver, the son of a Baptist minister, supposedly came up with the town’s name. By the time it was formally incorporated in 1870, Mount Olive was already a thriving little village. Today, it serves as a small commercial center for the mostly rural southern Wayne and northern Duplin counties.
Over the years, Mount Olive’s farmers have grown everything from tobacco to cotton to rice, which actually was a big local commodity for a time in the 1900s. From 1900 to 1905, the town was known as the strawberry capital of the world, and cucumbers now are certainly a well-known Mount Olive story. But as yet, no one has tried olive trees.
No mount. No olives, either.
This article first appeared in its original form in “Our State” magazine. It has been updated over the years.