By: Joseph W. Dumire
In August 1884 The West Virginia Central & Pittsburg Railway, building from Cumberland, MD, extended its road to Thomas, WV. Owned by industrialist U.S. Senator Henry Gassaway Davis, the railway entered a region surrounded by a vast wilderness of red spruce, laurel, rhododendron, an abundant population of wild animals and aquatic life, and coal lands that were owned by Senator Davis and his empire that included the West Virginia Central & Pittsburg Railway as well as the Davis Coal & Coke Company.
The railroad was built for the purpose of providing efficient transportation for the seams of coal and timber holdings of Senator Davis that lay in and around the town of Tomas which was named after Hon. Thomas B. Davis who was the brother of Henry Gassaway Davis. A coal mine had been opened in the winter of 1883-1884 and was ready to ship coal as soon as the railroad arrived. This venture led to the forming of the towns of Thomas and Davis which survive today mainly through the tourist industry. Thomas was granted a charter in 1892 and was bonded in 1899 for the purpose of building a water system. Electric service was added in 1904, and in 1901 a fine depot was constructed.
The next eight years witnessed great changes and improvements. More people came, more businesses were opened, more mines were opened, and large mills began to convert the great virgin forests into lumber. Eventually, nearly one thousand coke ovens were constructed to add to Senator Davis’ wealth and empire. The population included a cosmopolitan influx of sixteen different nationalities.
In 1888 the firm of Davis Brothers & Elkins reorganized and incorporated to better handle their interests and increasing the business of mining, coking and shipping. Accordingly, On January 7, 1889, Messrs. Sen. Davis, Col. Thomas B. Davis, Stephen B. Elkins, Harry G. Buxton, Fairfax Stuart Landstreet (nephew of H. G. Davis) and Major W. J. Armstrong organized Davis Coal & Coke Co. Collieries were enlarged, six-hundred tenement houses and superintendent houses were built, as well as a club house for staff enjoyment. Adding to the mix were coke ovens, tipples, a depot, a freight house, machine shop, powerhouse, etc., everything necessary to support this new industrial empire in the high Allegheny mountains of Tucker County. Passenger train service would also be added to the mix. In July 1893 the Davis Coal & Coke Co. absorbed the Davis & Elkins Co., Fairfax Coal & Coke Co., and the Henry Coal & Coke Co. Then, in February 1894 the company acquired Jefferson Coal & Coke Co. as well as all the Franklin property now giving Davis Coal & Coke Co. ownership of over 100,000 acres of land in Mineral, Grant, Tucker, Barbour, Randolph and Taylor counties with coal production of 8,000 tons per day. Thirteen hundred men were employed at Thomas alone.
As was common for the day, Davis Coal & Coke Co. added to the Davis family interests a retail arm known as the Buxton & Landstreet Company Store (the B & L). It was incorporated August 7, 1889, by Fairfax Stuart Landstreet and Harry G. Buxton. The B & L became the first retail chain in the State of West Virginia and did the largest general retail business in the State, owning and operating seven large stores at the time, with the Thomas store being the anchor store.
The initial subscription for the B & L was $1,300 with a proposed capital of $25,000 and a par value of shares at $100. The incorporators held the following shares: Harry G. Buxton, 5 shares; Fairfax Stuart Landstreet, 5 shares; R. F. Bopst, one share; A. F. Gerstell, one share; and H. F. Harrison, one share. As Davis Coal & Coke Co. never built a store within the city limits, the Thomas store was built in 1889 south of Thomas at the east end of East Avenue in Coketon. The store property has since been annexed into the town of Thomas. On October 11, 1899, the original structure was destroyed by fire and burned to death the night watchman, William Nicon.
The current building which sets on the site of the original structure, was built in 1900 and is an imposing structure being of 81 feet wide and 121 feet long with two stories above the basement which housed the butcher shop. An immense arched doorway fills the front and opens onto a platform extending the full width of the building. It is lined with white tile brick and has ornamental sheet steel ceilings that are supported by lines of graceful metal columns. By day numerous windows provide an excellent source of natural light. The B & L sets directly across the street from the Davis Coal & Coke Administrative Office which was also constructed in 900 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.
The B & L occupies land containing 1.64 acres and was sold to Vandalia Heritage Foundation on November 4, 1999. The structure contains 9,837 square feet on each of 3 floors, including the basement level, for a total of 29,511 square feet. The super structure of the building is steel support beams with brick and sandstone exterior walls. Decorative support poles extend up through the building space 27.1 feet apart with spaces 14.8 feet between each pole in the column. The building sets on a sandstone foundation which extends up to the bottom of the first floor for the base of the brick. Floor joists are all wood with wood plan flooring throughout the main and second level of the building. Windows are all wood framed.
The interior of the building offers different types of finishes including drywall and glazed white brick wall, tin and tongue-in-groove board ceilings that are 16.17 feet tall, and original plan wood flooring as well as a magnificent carved oak staircase. A column crane still exits from the back-loading door to a trap door to the basement. The second floor has a 12-foot-tall ceiling. The building has a full unfinished basement with garage access from the right side of the building.
Here was an immense general store, managed by H. C. Berry, with a corps of thirteen efficient and courteous clerks. In addition to this store, there were branch stores in Elk Garden, Wabash, Beryl, Simpson, Weaver, Henry, Kempton, Benbush and Pierce. It was a sizeable operation that sold everything to the miners of Davis Coal & Coke Co., including food, clothing and furniture. It was a one stop operation that sold quality brand merchandise such as Florsheim shoes. It even included a post office on the main floor. Miners either used the B & L’s system of scrip or trade coins to purchased goods at the store or charged purchase to their accounts with the charges being deducted from their pay.
The Davis Coal & Coke Co. maintained a payroll ledger for each employee that showed how much coal they had dug and what their corresponding pay was for the period. The ledger would then show everything that was deducted from their pay such as B & L store charges, rent on the company house in which they lived, water, lights, medical expenses to the company doctor, medical expenses to the company hospital in Elkins, UMWA dues, Social Security tax, etc. In truth, the miners often ended up in the hole and as the old song goes, “they owed their souls to the company store.” The B & L used the McCaskey Credit Register system for accounting purposes.
One by one the B &L stores closed and died as the coal industry petered out. The store in Thomas permanently closed May 27, 1950, and with that an era died. The B & L stores used a system of “trade coins” little brass discs, stamped in various denominations from one cent to one dollar. After the closing of the anchor store, the last remaining store, all this trade money was collected and thrown down the shaft at the Kempton, MD mine with earth bulldozed over it.
The Western Maryland Railway acquired the Thomas store and in 1958 it was sold to the Tucker County Development Corp. for $25,000 and was leased to John G. Purrs Manufacturing Co. of New York City which made sewing machine cabinets. They operated in this location for about one year before closing. Then, the Ruben-Curtis Cop., a Rockville, MD firm which was headed by Ashton Curtis, took over the lease. This was a firm that designed and produced commercial interiors. It was a woodworking concern that employed forty men. It to eventually closed. The property is now owned by Vandalia Heritage Foundation which uses the space as an artisan gallery and offices.
The Davis Coal & Coke Co., owner of the B & L, was one of the largest and best-known coal companies in the world. It’s central point, or hub, was at Thomas and consequently the town of Thomas became known far and wide. At the peak of operations about 1910 or 1912 there were within a radius of one mile of the company’s Thomas office, located across the street from the B & L nine producing mines, supervised by nine mine superintendents, and nearly one thousand coke ovens that stretched from Thomas, to Coketon and Douglas. The company had its own electric light and power pants, its own water system, and its own telephone system, with direct connections to the outside world through Cumberland, MD and Elkins, WV. The Buxton & Landstreet Col. Followed the Davis Coal & Coke Co. and wherever the coal company opened a mine and started a town they opened a store. At one time the sky over Coketon was so brilliantly lighted with the glow from the fires of one-thousand coke ovens that it was comparable to the aurora borealis. During the golden age the Davis Coal & Coke Co. employed nearly 1,600 workers in Tucker County with a payroll approximating $100,00 per month.
During 2020 Vandalia Heritage Foundation applied to have the Buxton & Landstreet Company Store listed on the National Register of Historic Places with approval being granted by the State Historic Preservation Office in Charleston and the Department of Interior. The property was officially listed on April 15, 2022.
A public reception celebrating the National Register listing of the B & L will be held in the main floor gallery at 571 Douglas Road in Thomas on December 3, 2022, at 1 p.m.