History of Kentucky Governors

Kentucky Governors and Elections

"Honest Bill From Olive Hill"  William Jason Fields


1874 -1954


                The 40th person to serve as Kentucky’s governor was William Fields, known as “Honest Bill from Olive Hill”.  A native of Carter County and a graduate of the University of Kentucky, Fields was elected constable at age 21.  After his defeat as a candidate for a seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives, Fields decided to abandon the slow climb up the political ladder.  Instead he became a salesman for an Ashland Wholesale Grocery Company which enabled him to travel the state in order to meet more people.

            After working as a salesman for 14 years, Fields, using the slogan “Honest Bill from Olive Hill” sought the 9th District US House seat in 1910 and defeated incumbent Republican Congressman Joseph B. Bennett.  The 9th District House seat had been in Republican hands for over two decades.  Fields won that election and six others.  During his tenure in the House, Bill Fields rose to become the ranking member of the Military Affairs Committee and the Appropriations sub-committee during World War I.

            Fields was chosen the Democratic nominee for Governor in 1923 after the sudden death of the winner of the primary 7th District Congressman, J. Campbell Cantrill of Georgetown in September by the Democratic State Central Committee.  Cantrill had won the nomination in a bitter primary fight with KY 1st District Congressman Alben Barkley of Paducah.   

            Fields running mate and Lt. Governor was Henry Denhart of Bowling Green.  About ten years after leaving office, Denhart was charged with the murder of his girlfriend and tried in LaGrange. The trial ended with a hung jury. Before Denhart could be tried a second time, he was shot to death, at the Armstrong Hotel, in Shelbyville on September 20, 1937.

            Fields was given an advantage due to the unpopularity of the incumbent Republican Governor Edwin Morrow.  Morrow had become unpopular due to his pardon of bank robber Frank Blair.  Morrow had pardoned the body of Frank Blair at the request of Republican State Committee Chair Maurice Galvin of Covington.  Blair had been shot during the course of the robbery.

            With the support of the influential Kentucky Jockey Club, Fields won the November 1923 General Election over the Republican nominee, Kentucky Attorney General Charles I. Dawson 53.8% to 46.2 %.  (Dawson was later appointed U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Kentucky by President Calvin Coolidge in January 1925.)

      Upon becoming Governor, Fields kept a rather austere atmosphere when entertaining at the mansion due to personal beliefs against drinking (This was during prohibition) and dancing.  His inaugural ball was held in the rotunda of the capitol in order to allow for dancing rather than at the mansion where it was now banned.

Fields agenda for the 1924 Session of the General Assembly included a $75 million bond issue for building of state highways and to increase the state tax on gasoline to three cents per gallon.  Robert Worth Bingham and his Courier Journal opposed Field on almost of his proposals.  The General Assembly passed the legislation concerning the bond issue which was placed on the November 1924 ballot.  As written by the legislature the voters were to approve $50 million for highway construction and $25 million for education, prisons and social programs. 

Although Fields spent over ten weeks campaigning for the bond issue with the support of the Desha Breckinridge the editor of the Lexington Herald and the Kentucky Good Roads Association the bond issue was defeated. 

In 1926, Fields was able to persuade the General Assembly to pass an increase in the gas tax to five cents per gallon.

            Achievements of Fields’ administration included the founding of a trade school at Paducah for black students, funding for the colleges at Murray and Morehead, an increase in the gasoline to fund major highway bonding and building programs and assisted in obtaining Cumberland Falls for a future state park.  He is also responsible for suggesting the establishment of a state park in his home county, now known as Carter Caves State Park.

            After leaving the governor’s office he was unsuccessful to regain his former Congressional seat which was then held by Democrat Fred Vinson who later became U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  He later became an attorney and served as Commonwealth Attorney for Carter and surrounding counties.  Governor Happy Chandler appointed Fields to the Workers Compensation Board where he served for almost ten years.  He moved to Florida in the 1940s but moved back to Carter County where he died on October 21, 1954.