Governor Aretas B. Fleming.
"As a legislator, judge and Governor he has served the state and his native country with fidelity and reflected credit upon himself and the people he served. Public spirited as a citizen, he carried his enthusiasm for righteousness and efficiency into the offices he has held. He has attracted the attention, especially while governor, of the whole country to the then almost underdeveloped mineral and timber resources of West Virginia, by public addresses and published articles in trade and other papers."
While the above description briefly touches on his career in the public forum, it can rightly be said that there were few men more prominent in late 19th century West Virginia than Aretas Brooks Fleming, a two-term member of the state house of delegates and circuit court judge who in 1890 was inaugurated as the Governor of his state. Undoubtedly one of the oddest named men ever to serve as the Governor of West Virginia, Fleming is referred to by me as an "old guard" strange name political figure, as I located his name way back in 2001 via a copy of the Who Was Who In America 1896-1942 edition, which contained biographies of a good majority of American governors elected up to that time.
Aretas Brook Fleming was born near Fairmont, Virginia (now West Virginia) on October 15, 1839, the son of the Rev. Benjamin Franklin (1810-1876) and Rhoda (Brooks) Fleming. Raised on a farm, Fleming's youth saw him engaged in farm work, and would attend school during the winter months, being a student at "private and select schools" near the area of his birth. Like many of the men profiled here in the past, Fleming decided to pursue a career in law early in his life, and in the late 1850s enrolled at the University of Virginia. After completing his studies in 1859 he taught school briefly and in 1860, after receiving his law degree, settled in Gilmer County.
Fleming's stay in Gilmer County proved to be brief, and during his residency there operated a private school "while waiting for clients." This school was later headed by Aretas' brother Robert, and at the outbreak of Civil War Fleming closed his practice and removed to Fairmont, where he would reside until his death over sixty years later. After settling in Fairmont Fleming recommenced with his law practice and in 1863 was elected to his first political office, that of prosecuting attorney of Marion County, West Virginia, which had been admitted as a state in June of that year. He was reelected to that post in 1865 for another two-year term and in September 1865 married to Caroline Margaret "Carrie" Watson (1844-1931), to whom he was wed for nearly sixty years. The couple's lengthy union saw the births of five children, Gypsy W. (1868-1954), Ida (1872-1906), twins George (1874-1935) and Virginia (born 1874), and Aretas Brooks Jr. (1882-1945)
Fleming as he appeared in the Prominent Men of West Virginia, 1890.
During his second term as prosecuting attorney Fleming entered into a law practice with Alpheus Forest Haymond (1823-1893), a former member of the Virginia house of delegates, as well as a Confederate veteran. Their law practice extended until 1872 when Haymond was elected to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, and in that same year, Fleming advanced to higher office himself, being elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates from Marion County. He would be reelected in 1874 and during his two terms was a member of the house committees on the judiciary and finance and taxation (serving as chairman of the latter.)
Further political honors came Fleming's way in February 1878, when, following the death of sitting judge Charles Lewis, he was appointed as judge of the West Virginia's 2nd judicial circuit court. He would be elected to a term of his own on that court in November 1878 and would continue to be reelected, serving until 1888. In August of that year, Fleming's name was brought forward at the state Democratic convention as a candidate for Governor, and following a unanimous motion from the delegates in attendance on August 17th, officially became the nominee. Fleming's opponent that year was Republican Nathan Goff (1843-1920), former U.S. Secretary of the Navy under Rutherford Hayes, as well as a U.S. Representative.
Through the fall of 1888, Fleming's upright character and previous government experience were boomed in Democratic-leaning papers of the state, with the Point Pleasant Weekly Register referring to the candidate as a man of "probity, temperance, and manliness," and further related that:
"As a gentleman we believe he will elevate the office; that he will not simply use it as a stepping stone to gratify his own personal ambition; that he will not be a mere political schemer; that he will not represent a clique or faction, but that he will have the courage to be governor of the whole state; that he will have that concientious regard for the common weal, and that broad and enterprising spirit toward our public interests that will encourage and assist in the development of our resources and the general development of our state. In a word, Judge Fleming will make a governor of whom we shall not be ashamed, and who will command the respect and confidence of the whole people."
Portrait from the Men of West Virginia, 1903.
The West Virginia gubernatorial election of 1888 proved to be an electoral quagmire when the votes were tallied in November, with Republican Nathan Goff's vote total being a small margin (just 106 votes) ahead of Fleming. The Democrats of West Virginia could not be swayed, however, and after contesting the electoral results issued a call for an investigation. With then-incumbent Governor Emanuel Wilson declining to step down from office until a clear winner had been decided upon, this investigation would be headed up by a joint committee of members of both houses of the West Virginia legislature. This fact-finding investigation lasted more than a year and in January 1890 the legislature (then heavily democratic), voted along party lines to declare Fleming the duly elected Governor by 237 votes. Despite the brouhaha surrounding votes and rightful claim to the governorship, "no personal animosity" developed between Fleming and Goff, who were referred to as having been "personal friends long before the contest and have been ever since."
Aretas Fleming officially took the governor's chair on February 6, 1890, and served until 1893. With Republican legislators still bitter over losing the governorship, Fleming's legislative successes proved to be minimal, excepting the successful adoption of the "Australian ballot", which limited the possibility of election fraud. While hampered legislatively, Fleming's administration did much good to encourage future investment in the natural resources of the state, including mineral and timber, mining operations, petroleum fields, and railroad construction.
After leaving office in 1893 Fleming returned to the practice of law and was affiliated with various coal mining interests in the state, and in 1901 became a director and attorney for the Fairmont Coal Co., which had been organized that year. This company would later develop into the Consolidation Coal Company, with Fleming continuing to serve on its board of directors, and he would also hold the post of general counsel for that company's properties in West Virginia. Other business accolades that came Fleming's way following his governorship include service as a director for both the Cumberland and Pennsylvania and Monongahela railroads, being a stockholder and director for the Watson Company in Fairmont, and also held a directorship in the National Bank of Fairmont.
Aretas B. Fleming died in Fairmont on October 13, 1923, two days short of his 84th birthday. He was survived by his wife Carrie, who, following her death in 1931 at age 87, was interred alongside him at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Fairmont.
From "West Virginia and Its People", 1913.