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Businessman James H. “Buck” Harless (October 14, 1919-January 1, 2014) was born in Logan County. He grew up in Gilbert, Mingo County, where he was raised by an aunt and uncle after the death of his mother.

After graduating from high school, Harless married his high school sweetheart, June Montgomery. He worked several jobs before going to work at Red Jacket Coal Company, first as a laborer and then in the engineering department.

In 1947, Harless became part owner of a lumber company, launching his career in the timber business. He soon bought out his partners, and his business, Gilbert Lumber Company, thrived in the post-war economy. In 1966, he sold the company – including extensive timber leases – to Georgia-Pacific Corporation. The deal prohibited him from timbering in the state for 10 years, and he turned his attention elsewhere. Harless built a sawmill in Brazil and became a major importer of mahogany. He also returned to the coal industry as an operator, going into business with several friends just as the industry started to boom in the mid-1970s.

Harless remained in Mingo County after coal and timber had made him rich. He and his family lived in a house he built on an island in the Guyandotte River where his high school football team had once practiced. He served two terms as mayor of Gilbert in the 1960s; otherwise, Harless mostly wielded his political influence behind the scenes, supporting Republican candidates on the state and federal level.

In 2000, Harless backed George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, serving as Bush finance chairman in West Virginia and helping the Republican candidate take the state. He also served as one of the state’s five electors. After the election, a national reporter attributed Bush’s win to Harless, calling him “the last of West Virginia’s homegrown coal barons.”

In addition to his business success, Harless is remembered for his extensive philanthropy. Following a religious experience in the 1950s, he embraced the idea of stewardship. He contributed millions of dollars to needy individuals, churches, schools and other causes. He donated the money to build a community center in Gilbert and a school auditorium. Despite not attending college himself, Harless gave generously to Marshall University and West Virginia University.

During his lifetime, Harless was honored by both universities and other West Virginia organizations. The Charleston Gazette-Mail named him West Virginian of the Year in 1983.

Buck Harless and his wife had two children, son Larry Joe and daughter Judith. June Harless died in 1999. Harless married Hallie Lois Chapman in 2001. He died at age 94 in Gilbert.

This Article was written by Becky Calwell

Last Revised on February 09, 2018


Foster, Ruel and Conner, Robert B.. Buck: A Life Sketch of James H. Harless. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 1992.

Harless, Buck. A Most Fortunate Life. Parsons: McClain Printing Co., 2012.

Nyden, Paul. James ‘Buck’ Harless dies: Longtime W.Va. philanthropist, coal and timber magnate was 94.. The Charleston Gazette, Jan. 3, 2014.

Cite This Article

Calwell, Becky "Buck Harless." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 09 February 2018. Web. 18 May 2024.


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