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Governor Aretas Brooks Fleming (October 15, 1839-October 13, 1923) was born in Fairmont. He came from a prominent family with political connections throughout the region. Fleming studied law at the University of Virginia and began his practice in Fairmont during the Civil War. He was not rich, but he was well-born and able. He followed the Virginia tradition of marrying well when he joined himself to Carrie M. Watson in 1865. Her father was the industrialist James O. Watson, and her brother, Clarence W. Watson, was later U.S. senator.

Fleming’s family ties and dedication to the Democratic Party brought political and business success. He won election to the House of Delegates in 1872, where he served until 1875. In 1878, he was appointed as judge of the second judicial circuit. He remained a state judge until he ran for governor. Fleming’s basic interest in politics, however, derived from his primary interest in business. He invested in railroads, land, timber, oil, and coal. After 1886, Fleming’s fortunes were joined with those of U.S. Sen. Johnson Newlon Camden, a Rockefeller business associate. Fleming gained the support and the backing of Camden, and the two men devoted their considerable talents to developing the Upper Monongahela coalfield.

In 1888, with Camden’s support, Fleming won the Democratic nomination for governor and then won West Virginia’s most controversial gubernatorial election. Nathan Goff, Fleming’s opponent, showed a 106-vote majority in the initial count, but Fleming challenged the residency of many black voters in Mercer and McDowell counties. Both Goff and Fleming were sworn in on inauguration day, but incumbent Governor Emanuel Wilson refused to leave office. The state Supreme Court upheld Wilson, and the issue was finally settled in Fleming’s favor in a party-line vote in the legislature on January 15, 1890, more than a year after the election. As governor, he moved decisively to establish a business-friendly environment by adhering to the policies of limited constitutional government and low taxes. The state’s reluctance to interfere in the economy made West Virginia a sanctuary for entrepreneurial energy. Commerce and industry grew steadily, creating new sources of wealth and further integrating West Virginia into the mainstream economy.

Questions were raised as to Fleming’s character and whether he personally profited from his term in office. The evidence is strong that Fleming engaged in business and indeed expanded his multifaceted financial activities while in office. He operated within a regional culture that was captivated by the spirit of progress, and the governor, whether a Democrat or Republican, was expected to use the office to spur the state’s economy and lure investors into West Virginia. Governor Fleming built an economic program that he expected to benefit both himself and the state.

Fleming returned to the practice of law after leaving office in 1893, aggressively pursuing his business interests. He and his brother-in-law, Clarence W. Watson, formed a number of coal companies prior to merging them into the Fairmont Coal Company in 1901. Efforts to eliminate competition reached their peak in 1903 when the Fairmont Coal Company was absorbed into the larger Consolidation Coal Company of Maryland.

The Fleming-Watson group controlled Consolidation Coal for the next 25 years. Operating in a time of great industrial expansion, they were successful in capturing most of the mines in the Fairmont field. Their success was marred by the deaths of 361 men and boys at Fairmont Coal’s interconnecting Monongah mines in 1907. After the Monongah disaster, Fleming recognized that good business required the owners to operate a safe work place. Fleming wielded considerable influence among West Virginia coal operators, and he led the movement to establish the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1910. His vision included an industrial transformation that was directed and controlled for the benefit of the home state. The Fleming-Watson family built a number of Fairmont businesses, and they retained controlling interest in Fairmont Coal and Consolidation Coal Company well into the 1920s.

Aretas Brooks Fleming died in Fairmont and is buried there.

Read Gov. Fleming’s inaugural address.

This Article was written by Jeffrey B. Cook

Last Revised on December 20, 2016

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Sources

Morgan, John G. West Virginia Governors, 1863-1980. Charleston: Charleston Newspapers, 1980.

Williams, John Alexander. West Virginia and the Captains of Industry. Morgantown: West Virginia University Library, 1976.

Cook, Jeffery B. "The Ambassador of Development: Aretas Brooks Fleming." Ph.D. diss., West Virginia University, 1998.

Workman, Michael E. "Political Culture and the Coal Economy in the Upper Monongahela Region: 1774-1933." Ph.D. diss., West Virginia University, 1995.

Cite This Article

Cook, Jeffrey B. "Aretas Brooks Fleming." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 20 December 2016. Web. 21 September 2018.

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