By Lee Buchsbaum
Though part of a larger organization, Rockhouse and Hampden Coal very much reflect the character of the founder, Buck Harless. A legendary figure in southern West Virginia and throughout Appalachia, now in his 90s, Harless still lives in Gilbert and stops by the mines regularly to chat with his men.
As a young man, Harless first became involved in the coal industry while he worked on an engineering crew for a local lumber company that had coal holdings in the area. While working on the engineering crew, he became part owner of a sawmill. Over the next three decades, Harless created a prosperous lumber company that was eventually sold to Georgia Pacific. A U.S. restricted non-compete covenant led him to import wood from South America. Over time, he built a series of sawmills that made him the largest importer of mahogany and later one of the largest Appalachian wood products producers.
In the mid-1970s with the coal business booming, Harless was approached by several businessmen from the Logan-Mingo area. Together they formed the Dash Coal Co. and began mining in the Gilbert area. After a series of labor disputes, Harless temporarily exited the industry, but a decade later he returned and formed the Hampden Coal Co. in 1984. Beginning in 2002, Harless began eliminating contract mining on his properties and created a management team. His first hire was Scott Mills, underground mine manager, Rockhouse.
Harless, who will turn 91 this October, has spent the past 70 years not only developing industries but creating opportunities. Growing up an orphan, Harless is keenly aware of the stigma of poverty and the horror of “doing without.” After seeing his community plagued by the booms and busts of the coal industry, Harless has long been determined to bring stable jobs to the area and give back to the region he loves. He remains committed to developing and maintaining local industries that provide good jobs with competitive wages.
Harless has also generously donated funds to colleges and universities throughout the U.S., though primarily in West Virginia. Beyond giving to WVU and Marshall, Harless has been very supportive of various local community colleges and the Louisville Seminary. “Though Mr. Harless has been very fortunate to accumulate lots of wealth, he has given most of that wealth away. Legions of kids who would never have had the opportunity to further their education can today attend school because Mr. Harless either paid for their tuition or they won a scholarship that he created,” said White.
In Harless’ hometown of Gilbert he has also built a large community center that includes a movie theater and a hospital clinic. “We already have a program where WVU and Marshall students travel there to treat patients. Now we’re going to develop an emergency room clinic as well since the whole area remains very underserved from a medical point of view,” said White.
Driving up in his truck with his German Shepherd companion co-piloting, “Mr. Harless still comes by and checks on the mines twice a day,” said Mills. When he arrives on property he chats freely with the employees, many of whom he knows personally as well as professionally. But if production has slowed and the mine has stopped loading, “he’ll immediately stop and ask what’s going on. He may be almost 91 years old, but he’s very sharp, very intelligent and very aware,” said Mills.
Last November, during Thanksgiving, Harless drove down to his mines, waited for the shift to end and “had his dinner down here with the men who had to work. He shared Thanksgiving with his employees and thanked every one of us for the jobs we do. That’s just the type of person he is. He personally sets an example of hard work and humanity for all us of to follow,” said Mills. By Lee Buchsbaum