BECKLEY — Tracy Hylton, a businessman whom Gov. Jim Justice styled as the last “king” of coal in southern West Virginia, died on Sunday.
Born on the Fourth of July, Hylton was nearly 96 years old and living at The Village at Greystone in Beaver.
Hylton was remembered as a genius at his trade, a coal miner’s coal miner, a pioneer and innovative leader in the modern mine reclamation environmental movement, a kingpin of coal and a plainspoken man who had a generous streak and exceptional organizational skills.
Family members said Monday that Hylton remained active in his last days— and as straightforward as ever.
“In my opinion, we just lost our last true king,” Gov. Justice said Monday morning. “When I was growing up, the real kings were the founders of the Coal Association.
“Those founders that were always together, those were the kings to me,” he said. “That was my dad (James Justice Sr.), Lawson Hamilton, Buck Harless and Tracy Hylton. They were always together.”
Hylton and his contemporaries grew up in poverty in the coalfields. As young men, “The Big Four” established privately-owned, independent empires, built on coal.
Later, they became financial and political stalwarts and philanthropists in southern West Virginia.
Justice, whose own father died June 11, 1993, said his father, Hamilton and Harless were leaders in surface mining and mine reclamation and that they formed a tight bond as they navigated enterprise to build their fortunes in the state.
Hylton was the last surviving member of the group. All of the men operated independent, privately-owned businesses that they’d started in southern West Virginia. Rather than build wealth and leave, all of them “took their last breath in West Virginia,” the governor observed.
“They were heroes to all of us, and so kind and so giving, all of them, such innovators and just geniuses at their trade,” Justice said. “To me, we just lost our last, great king.”
One of six children born in Crab Orchard to Arthur and Grace Hylton in 1922, Hylton grew up in a working family, with a father who was a coal miner and carpenter and a mother who ran a boarding house at Stotesbury.
Hylton was known for his attention to detail. His son, Mac Hylton, said Monday it’s likely his father learned organization and detail from Grace Hylton at the boarding house.
He attended Mark Twain High School with future United States senator Robert C. Byrd, then enrolled at Concord College and also attended West Virginia University before enlisting in the U.S. Army in January 1943. During World War II, Hylton wound up in the Pacific Theatre in the 267th Anti-Aircraft Ordinance Company.
After the war, he returned home and met Betty Jo Foster, his future wife. The couple had three sons: Tracy “Warren” Hylton II, Robert “Bobby” Hylton and Harry “Mac” Hylton.
Hylton’s early foray into enterprise were discouraging, due to coal market conditions. In 1948, he started his own business, leasing property at Goose Hollow near Mullens and opening the Beckley Seam. In 1948, a man knocked on his door at 3 a.m. to tell him his business had failed.
Hylton took a job at Olgebay Norton. In 1950, he bought another mine at Josephine, only to watch it fall flat two years later. Hylton headed back to work in the mines.
In 1954, the indomitable Hylton found a partner, Carl Hale, who invested $3,500. Hylton started pony mining, then conveyor mining. When he couldn’t find transportation to haul his coal, he made a way — or two.
West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney remembered a story Hylton told him about his early days of mining coal.
“He ran most of it out of the front seat of his pickup truck, as he told me,” Raney recalled. “He was a coal miner’s coal miner, there’s not a question about that.”
Hylton eventually bought dump trucks and founded Perry and Hylton, Inc., which became one of the largest mine operations in the state. He later expanded into development and retail.
Raney said Hylton was a “pioneer” of the West Virginia coal industry and a leader in the modern surface mining techniques.
He described Hylton’s reclamation efforts as “exquisite.” His reclamation sites later hosted high schools, housing developments, green houses, farms and orchards, Raney and others reported.
Hylton was remembered by several friends as being a caring employer. Local legend held that Hylton gave several employees brand-new Cadillacs for Christmas one year, along with a bonus to pay the state taxes on it.
Although The Register-Herald could not verify on Monday reports of the Cadillacs, Raney said Hylton was well-loved by those who worked for him.
“He looked after his people, and they loved him,” he said. “He lived a great life and was all-American.
“Of course, he was a great state senator, too,” Raney added. “It wasn’t a day when ‘plainspoken’ was necessarily popular, but, by golly, he was very plain-spoken and very effective as a state senator.”
Hylton served as senator for the 9th District for Raleigh and Wyoming counties from 1964 to 1972. His blunt speaking style often pitted him against one of the most colorful politicians in state history — State Treasurer A. J. Manchin. The two men sparred in the political sphere but were friendly to one another when they weren’t debating, Hylton’s family reported Monday.
Hylton was a member of the Mining and Reclamation Association, director of Gulf National and Raleigh County National banks, a Master Mason of Mullens Lodge No. 151 and an honoree at the West Virginia Coal Hall of Fame. He was awarded the 2000 Spirit of Beckley Award by the YMCA of Southern West Virginia. The late Beckley Mayor Emmett Pugh presented Hylton a Key to the City in 2000.
Austin Caperton, a Beckley businessman who now serves as State Department of Environmental Protection secretary, said Monday that Hylton will be missed in the state.
“I loved Tracy Hylton because of his simplistic way of doing business,” said Caperton. “He told you what he would do or what he wouldn’t do.
“If he told you what he would do, he would do it...It was really easy to do business with somebody like that.”
Many reported that Hylton was generous. He donated to charities at Duke University Hospital and many local charities.
He was known to quietly make personal gifts to those who needed financial help, Justice said. The governor added that, like his own father, Hylton kept the majority of his donations anonymous.
Hylton founded the Grandview Farms Country Store on Grandview Road in the 1980s and took an active role in store operations. Family members reported Monday that he had stayed active until his death, taking steps to maintain and extend his independence.
“He enjoyed cutting and putting up hay each season, along with growing corn, pumpkins and potatoes,” a press release from the family reads. “But what he liked most was to meet and talk to the customers who visited the Grandview Market.
“He also was raising a prize head of Louisville cattle.”
Story from The Register-Herald