Itmann: A Millionaire’s Forgotten Legacy

“A new era is now dawning. The capitalist has discovered, with keen vision, the abundant coal, iron, petroleum, and other wealth thus hidden, and the central location of the lands containing them; he has planted his money in these hills, and is determined to gather a golden harvest.”

– J. R. Dodge, 1865
The Itmann Company Store

New York, 1901. John sat at his large office desk in New York and looked across at the young banker from West Virginia who sat in front of him. Mr. Mann had traveled all the way from the isolated hills of West Virginia in the hopes of gaining financial backing, and he held a convincing argument for his cause. In a short seven minutes, he had managed to convince one of New York’s most successful capitalists to invest in his venture. In truth, it wouldn’t take long for anyone to see the benefit of this enterprise. For John, it was an easy decision. He had done his research on the newfound Pocahontas coal in the southern hills of West Virginia. Now he was being asked to provide the funding to lease coal lands, and in return, he would receive coal and coke to help power his steel mills all over the northeastern United States. It was a promising venture, one he couldn’t let pass him by. And so, just as he had with numerous other investment opportunities, John promised his financial support and he signed his name … J.P. Morgan.

This is the story of a famous American capitalist and tycoon, a millionaire coal operator, and a towering company headquarters that still stands today. 

Bramwell Depot

In 1863, amid the ravages of civil war, Isaac Thomas Mann was born on a warm July morning on a farm near Fort Springs in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. It was one month after the birth of this new state, and this little boy would soon grow to become one of it’s largest and wealthiest bankers, businessmen, and coal operators. He started small, as an apprentice in his father’s bank, but the draw and potential of the newly developed Pocahontas coalfields drew him in. He soon moved to Bramwell, the hub of all business and the home of all successful businessmen. He started his first job at the Bank of Bramwell and quickly rose to prominence from clerk to bank president. Now Mr. Mann found himself the president of what was quickly becoming one of the most successful banks in the state, and the owner of a growing fortune. Soon, he had ideas of investing in other fields and enterprises like lumber, land, and even coal. One short meeting in 1901 would send him on a fast track to do just that..

New York, 1901. Isaac T. Mann found himself sitting face to face with one of America’s wealthiest businessmen. He was there to ask J.P. Morgan, American financier and banker, for backing to acquire hundreds of acres of coal lands in southern West Virginia. He could only hope that his plea for funding was convincing. Isaac T. Mann would agree to serve as the middleman between J.P. Morgan and the Flat Top Land Association who owned most of the land in the Pocahontas coalfield. Mann started explaining the basics of this venture, but, in all his preparations he never expected it to be this easy. In less than ten minutes, Mann walked away from the meeting with all the support he could possibly need to obtain land, mine coal, produce coke, and feed the furnaces of U.S. Steel. 

For J.P. Morgan, this marked his entry into the coalfields and the start of his operations in West Virginia. U.S. Steel and their subsidiary company, United States Coal and Coke Company would begin mining coal from their headquarters in Gary, West Virginia. For decades, it was the most productive coal operation in the state. 

For Issac T. Mann, this was only the start of his long career in finance, business, and management.  In addition to being president of the Bank of Bramwell, he was president of the Pocahontas Fuel Company. He controlled a chain of nine prosperous banks, owned real estate, businesses, and hotels, and held stakes in mining and lumber companies from Florida and West Virginia to New York, Chicago, and Mexico City. In 1923, his fortune was estimated to be somewhere between $18 and $25 million. It was reported that he was even offered the position of ambassador to Spain by President Coolidge in 1928. 

Among Mann’s many investments and ventures, was one mining operation in Wyoming County. Opened and operated by the Pocahontas Fuel Company, the mine, and subsequently the town,  were named Itmann after their prosperous company president. It started as a simple driftmouth operation along the Guyandotte River, but it soon grew into a bustling community. From 1916 to 1918, over 100 houses were erected for coal miners and their families, along with 2 company stores, a church, a theater, and two schools to maintain segregation among the miners and their children. When not at work or at church, the folks of the community enjoyed basketball and baseball as did the other coal camps in the region. 

As the company and community grew, the need for a larger and more permanent company store became more obvious. And so, in 1923, famed Bluefield architect Alex B. Mahood drew the design for what would soon become a massive structure that would house not only the company store but also the offices of the Pocahontas Fuel Company. For two years, the building was under construction, being built by Italian immigrant stonemasons who were part of the large immigrant population that made up the diverse coalfields of the state. The stone was hand cut from the cliffs across the river, hauled down the mountain, back across the river, and perfectly placed by dozens of workers.

The town of Itmann with company store at the center, circa 1920.
Source: The West Virginia Encyclopedia

Finally, in January of 1925, the building was complete; the end result unique from any other in the entire state. Looking more like an English castle or a Spanish prison, it was an unforgettable sight among the other frame structures of the town. The building towered over the town and was made up of several sections connected by an archway and surrounding an open courtyard. The left side housed the offices of the Pocahontas Fuel Company, postoffice, and doctor’s office, along with a pool room and barber’s shop. On the right side was the company store. At the time, it was estimated to have cost $350,000 to construct and was labeled “one of the most pretentious in the Winding Gulf Coalfields.”

As expected, the operation at Itmann was successful. The mine produced hundreds of tons of coal each month, and at one point the population of the town was over 1,200. By 1925, the town also was equipped with telephone lines installed by the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company, an amenity even the county seat of Pineville could not boast. They held regular safety meetings hosted by the Itmann Safety Club, and it was even rumored that miners in Itmann had the privilege of choosing which color their house was painted. 

The town of Itmann prospered for several years, but unfortunately the mine closed in 1928, a mere three years after the completion of the company store. This marked only the beginning of the fall of the Mann fortune and empire. One year later came the great stock market crash of 1929, and Isaac T. Mann’s business collapsed. He lost his entire fortune; it was said that he was worth $78 million one day and owed $81 million the next. As the Great Depression continued on through the 1930s, it took not only Mann’s wealth, but also his health. He passed away in 1932 from heart complications. Later that same year, his 33-year-old son committed suicide, and not long after, the Bank of Bramwell closed. 

As Isaac Thomas Mann passed from this earth, it seemed that the once prosperous town named after him would die with its namesake. But, what Mr. Mann never got to see was the rebirth of the town and mine twenty years later. The mine was reopened in 1948, and was even more successful and productive. During the 1950s the mine shipped 2 million tons of high quality “smokeless” coal each year and employed over 1,800 men. Over two decades, the Itmann mine would be reported as the most productive mine in West Virginia. But, just as before, the operations could not remain open forever. The mine closed once again in the 1980s, and the town and store were all but abandoned. 

Today, not much is left in the town of Itmann, the home of the Pocahontas Fuel Company. All that remains are a few houses and the now empty company store and offices. The once “pretentious” castle-like structure that was the hub of Itmann society now sits along the road abandoned and mostly forgotten. It seems as though it has been lost along with the stories of its namesake. If only the walls could talk, what stories they would tell. Stories of a man whose seven minute meeting with an American tycoon launched his career as one of West Virginia’s few-native born coal barons. The story of the town named after him, and the people who once called it called their home. 

And so, when you have the urge to explore and learn more about West Virginia’s history, make sure to mark the town of Itmann and its company store as a must see landmark. You won’t believe your eyes as you marvel at the hand-cut stone building unlike any other that is still standing after almost 100 years.  

For more on the Itmann family, particularly Isaac’s daughter Alice, make sure to read the story titled The Wee Vee: An Inspiring Tale of Resurrection from a Watery Grave.

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Sources:

  • Beckley Evening Post. 1924. “Idle Mines Now Hum With Industry.” October 21.
  • Beckley Post Herald. 1927. “Painting Miners’ Homes.” January 6.
  • Beckley Post Herald. 1925. “Wyoming County Asks for Phones.” November 17.
  • Beckley Raleigh Register. 1925. “Open Itmann Store.” January 16.
  • Beckley Raleigh Register. 1928. “Wyoming Mines are Faced With Disaster; Many Closed.” January 24.
  • DellaMea, Chris. n.d. Itmann. http://www.coalcampusa.com/sowv/gulf/itmann/itmann.htm.
  • Dodge, Jacob Richards. 1865. West Virginia: Its Farms and Forests, Mines and Oilwells; with a Glimpse of Its Scenery, a Photograph of Its Population, and an Exhibit of Its Industrial Statistics. J.B. Lippincott & Company.
  • Garay, Ronald G. 2011. U.S. Steel and Gary, West Virginia: Corporate Paternalism in Appalachia. University of Tennessee Press.
  • n.d. Isaac Thomas Mann. https://www.bramwellwv.com/isaacmann.html.
  • McGehee, C. Stuart. 2018. I.T. Mann. December 6. https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/1486.
  • McGehee, C. Stuart. 2018. Itmann Company Store. December 4. https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/926.
  • McGehee, C. Stuart. 2010. U.S. Coal & Coke Company. October 6. https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/844.
  • Miller, Thomas Condit, and Hu Maxwell. 1913. West Virginia and Its People. Vol. III. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing.
  • 1990. “National Register of Historic Places Nomination.” West Virginia Division of Culture and History. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/96bfb1d4-7dd0-4baa-8e79-eca01ebe2d9f.
  • Tams, W.P. 1964. The Smokeless Coal Fields of West Virginia. Morgantown: West Virginia University Libraries.

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