Olney began life as Mechanicsville, a small 19th-century crossroads village built around the intersection of the old road to Baltimore (today’s Rte. 108) and the road to Washington (Georgia Ave.). Both cities were major markets for the products of area farms. And while the town center grew before the Civil War, eventually assuming the name of Olney, on the outskirts of town, there appeared a number of free black households. West of the intersection lived Washington Hodge, a blacksmith, and Samuel Cole, a fence builder and later farmer. To the east, near present-day Old Baltimore Road resided, among others, the families of Arnold Waters and Edward Elkhorn, both free black farmers and landowners. North of the intersection, along Georgia Avenue, rested a small, free black cemetery. The stones are gone; its faint outline remained until recently.
From the late 18th century onward, area farmers hauled their produce and drove their livestock to two major markets: Baltimore and Georgetown, Montgomery County’s original port town until the creation of Washington in 1790. A half-century later, the old rutted wagon roads had become hard-packed, plank-wooded turnpikes, operated by private companies: the Union Turnpike (Georgia Avenue), running from Brookeville to Washington, and the Olney-Ashton Turnpike (Route 108), connecting to pikes on the other side of the Patuxent.
As traffic increased during the mid-19th century, a number of enterprises sprouted around the crossroads, aimed at servicing travelers, with wheelwrights to fix wagons, blacksmiths to fashion iron, Williams, and Boyer’s general store on the corner and eventually a Grange Hall for area farmers to meet.
In the early through the mid-1800s, free blacks and slaveholders lived side-by-side. On the western end of Olney was the home of Samuel Cole. Across Route 108 from Cole’s home, just west of St. John’s Episcopal Church, was the slave plantation of Josiah W. Jones.