Past Chairman of J.H. Fletcher & Company J. Robert Fletcher

Still Looking Ahead at 91 Years of Age

By Gary Lockney

When Bob Fletcher cut his teeth in the coal mines, things were different. Much different, he says. Those were the days in the 1930's when men wore cap lamps. Some used live canaries to test the air quality; others burned off pockets of methane with the flames from their gas lamps. In those times he says. 600,000 miners produced about half the tonnage that 100,000 do now. Thanks in part to forward-thinking people like Bob and those who surrounded him, there are fewer mine accidents.

The Early Years

J. Robert Fletcher grew up in Wilmette, IL. He had been born in Centerville, IA in 1915, where his father, James Herbert, was working on a consulting job. The elder Fletcher had graduated from Armour Institute (now Illinois Institute of Technology) in 1911, and was working for Allen & Garcia Company as a mining consultant.

"I was small," Bob says. "The shortest boy in my freshman gym class, but I began to grow about 6 inches a year. As a Sophomore I only attended class from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm, and then went home to rest and eat an extra meal.

I was involved in scouting, rising through the ranks to Junior Assistant Scout Master. This was an opportunity for leadership, and after college I became a Scoutmaster. I have tried to pattern my life on the scout laws."

He smiles as he remembers his boyhood. He was 12 when radio first became common. The family would group in front of the set and listen to "Amos and Andy" or "Little Orphan Annie" from one of the two available radio broadcasting stations.

He recalls his dad's first car, a 1921 Dodge with 4 doors. Both front and back doors were hinged on the same center post. Tires lasted 6,000 miles at most. He recalls a 6-inch screen on a television set he saw in 1950.

These were the early years of the Great Depression. Times were tough on everyone in 1932. "My parents lost an account they had with a national bank. The state bank, though, was OK. Money was kept in safety deposit boxes," he says.

A Defining Moment

That same year, 1932, Bob met Kathlyn Holway, an attractive, energetic 15-year-old. She was a junior and he a senior at New Trier Township high school. The two hit it off from the start. As the relationship blossomed, Bob and Kae realized their first goal was to graduate from college and he must have a job that would support a family.

He enrolled at Northwestern University in pre-law. His first part-time job was in the college bookstore to earn extra money. "I worked the first two weeks free, just for the training," he says. "After that, I was paid $15/week for 40 hours. But the job only lasted during the busy times."

Kae graduated from high school, and entered DePauw University in Greencastle, IN, where she studied Home Economics. Bob says he was about a C+ student, Kae made all A's. In addition, she tutored other students in Spanish, played basketball and volleyball, and honed her tennis skills (later she was women's tennis champion of Wilmette). She worked on the school newspaper, became copy desk editor, was president of her sorority and voted into Mortarboard.

With Bob in Evanston and Kae in Greencastle, the two would be separated 5-6 weeks at a time. Bob would drive the round trip on weekends when he could. Otherwise, the couple stayed in touch through the mail.

"We both wrote every day. I still have more than two thousand of our letters written during those times (with a 3 cent stamp)," he says.

For Bob to earn his law degree would have taken seven years, but an engineering degree would only take five years. So after the third year, Bob transferred to the University of Illinois at Champaign, and changed his major to Engineering. As the distance between Champaign and Greencastle was only 125 miles, he could hitchhike in 3 hours, which reduced the couple's time apart to every other week. In May, 1938, they graduated the same day, Kae with honors from DePauw and Bob with a Mechanical Engineering Degree from Illinois. The following Sept. 17, on the anniversary of Bob's parents wedding, they were married.

"We borrowed the family car for our honeymoon at Lake Lure in North Carolina," he says. "We spent the last night in Gatlinburg, TN, and had $5 left to get us back to Chicago." The young couple set up housekeeping in a Chicago apartment.

Birth of a Company

J. H. Fletcher, Bob's dad, was a forward-thinker. He had been assigned to the company's Butler Consolidation Coal Co. account in Pittsburgh, where he had installed conveyor belts and loaders. He was now head of A&G's underground mining department.

Jim was fascinated with what he thought was the potential of haulage trailers and other non-track vehicles improving underground mine productivity. He decided to go out on his own in 1936, forming his own consulting firm. As a consultant he was working with several midwest coal mines with "trackless haulage". Rather than using mine cars to gather and transport coal to the surface, tractor-trailers carried it from the face to the main line belt-conveyor.

To market equipment of its own design for this system, J. H. Fletcher & Co.™ was incorporated in October 1937. "My father was president and treasurer, my mother secretary, and I was listed as vice-president."

When Bob graduated in the spring of '38, he joined his Dad as a draftsman and began selling equipment. He earned $150 per month working 44 hours/week. He and Kae checked the family bank account every night, he recalls, and tried to put $5 into savings every month. Lunch was a roast beef sandwich, mashed potatoes, gravy, and milk for 13 cents. "In the evening we would walk to the grocery store with our empty gallon jug. They would then give us a new filled one for 44 cents. A loaf of bread cost 6 cents."

In 1938, they displayed a rubber tired tractor and drop-bottom trailer at the Cincinnati Coal Show.

His dad and a friend, A. L. Lee, designed a shuttle car with 4-wheel steer and 4-wheel drive, as well as an elevating conveyor. Lee and Chief Arentzen, who had designed a continuous miner, formed the Lee-Norse Company to start manufacturing this equipment. J. H. Fletcher & Co.™ was Midwest sales representative.

"In 1939 we bought a six-room, two story house in Wilmette for $6,500," Bob recalls. "Our first child was born in 1940. When World War II broke out, I was passed over for the draft as I had a family and was working in the coal industry. My brother Bill was a sophomore at Purdue and enlisted in the Naval Air Corps and flew PBY's in the Pacific."

Roof control in deep mines had received little attention by the mid-1940s. Things were done pretty much as they had been for decades: 4-6 men carried heavy timbers, cutting them, and placing them as cross bars throughout the mine.

To operate in gaseous mines, Fletcher developed a "permissible" battery tractor. By mounting a swinging and elevating boom on the tractor and with the addition of a 24" circular saw, they had a timbering machine. This was the first mechanization of roof control.

The efficiency of the timbering machine was recognized by the industry, and in 1947, the company opened the Huntington office, a location adjacent to both eastern and midwest coal fields, Bob explained.

Initially, the principals were Bob, his father, George Benjamin, and Bob's brother Bill. Bill had returned from the Navy, gone back to Purdue and earned his degree in the spring of 1947. Jim maintained his consulting office in Chicago.

The U.S.B.M. started talking about roof bolting in 1950. The timbering machines were converted to roof bolters. The company moved into its first plant and began manufacturing its own equipment.

Early bolt holes were drilled with scroll augers. At first, the cuttings simply dropped to the floor; but shortly, a cup supported by a roof jack and connected to an MSA dust collector drew the cuttings into the storage tank.

The scroll auger was replaced with hollow steel using an arrowhead bit. The suction was attached to the drill head and the cuttings were drawn into the tube. Though this reduced penetration rate, it was an efficient way to collect the cuttings.

"We were fortunate in the fact that most manufacturers were interested in large mine equipment leaving the roof control field open to us," Bob explains.

The following years were filled with Fletcher improvements to underground roof control - the first machine canopies, first dual-head bolters, first temporary roof support systems, first machines with walk-through chassis. Ideas were put forth by different individuals in the company.

In 1956, J. H. Fletcher & Co.™ sold six bolters to a coal company in Australia. As he hadn't had a vacation in several years, it seemed a good time to take a trip around the world with Kae and their three children: Lynn, Sally, and Jim. They flew to Australia via Hawaii in May, where Bob established an agency and installed the drills. They then visited several Asian countries, riding elephants in India and camels in Egypt. They drove by car from Lebanon through Syria and Jordan to Israel. There was the same Middle East tension 50 years ago that exists today, according to Bob.

"From there we toured Europe, visiting 23 countries and realizing the cultures in each. We returned to the United States in time for school in September. Someone asked Sally, who was 12 years old, how she enjoyed the trip and she replied, 'It was OK, except I got gypped out of my vacation.'"

During his absence, Bill and the other company officers did a fine job of handling the company. "At work, Bob and George Benjamin were an effective operating team," says Bob's son, Jim, looking back. "I can recall one day in my office, when Dad, George and I were talking about ways to improve the use of canopies to protect bolter operators. Dad was sketching something on his note pad as we talked. After a few minutes, he lifted the pad and showed an H-shaped outline. He asked why we couldn't place such an attachment between the booms on a dual-head machine that would support the roof while the holes were drilled and bolts installed. Within a very short time, George showed us the engineering that made it the first temporary roof support system used in the mines. Before long, every roof bolter was required to have similar protection."

"We were driven by the need to make the mining process safer," says Bob. In addition to an extended line of single- and dual-head roof bolters, the company began building track tampers, mobile roof support systems, and even a jumbo face drill for a Detroit salt mine.

When Bob retired in 1980, the company controlled most of the U.S. roof bolter market. He and Kae had a 47' sailboat, christened "Carefree," built in Florida. They lived on it several years before buying a condominium. He still serves on the Fletcher Board of Directors.

Ingredients for Success

The company's most important feature is its ability to rise to the occasion. I've been blessed with a lot of good people. They made the company.

As the company grew, additional space was required, and in 1991 it moved the entire operation to its present location in Altizer, east Huntington.

Today, J. H. Fletcher & Co.™ controls more than 90 percent of the bolter market in this country. The company continuously searches for ways to improve the safety of underground mining. New Fletcher machines incorporate microprocessor controls in the operator's compartment that sense roof conditions, map the roof, set the parameters for bolting consistency, and contain complete parts and service manuals. The company has expanded into the industrial minerals industry, where it manufactures roof bolters, face drills and scalers.

"We learned early that if you let your people be responsible for their work, they do a better job," Bob says. "With that in mind, we established the company's single-bay manufacturing process, in which the same crew of workers builds the machine from the ground up. We try to keep our people. Every year their knowledge increases. We pay all but a small portion of our employees' health insurance, and it covers their entire families. We put a big emphasis on education, and we pay the tuition for their children to go to Marshall University in Huntington (or the dollar equivalent at another accredited school). Each employee participates in our profit sharing retirement fund. We add up to 15 percent to their yearly earnings and put it into their retirement fund, which he or she can begin to draw at 59-1/2 years of age."

"Everyone in the company seems ready to help. They're always willing to work overtime when needed; in many cases, we've made changes in our manufacturing when an employee suggested an improvement. We've built a very flexible organization, on the basis of safety and quality."

Giving Back

I was given a chance when born into this environment to do what I can to better it.

Bob is a Professional Engineer, and is a member of SME. He has given papers and cooperated with others doing the same at several coal conferences (usually about roof bolting).

He and Kae were joint chairs of the Huntington area March of Dimes when the Salk polio vaccine was introduced.

Bob was president of the Huntington United Fund the year it became the United Way. He also was president of the YMCA. He was a director of Huntington Federal Savings & Loan and was a member of the board of directors of Columbia Gas System.

He received an honorary Doctor of Law degree from West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he had been a board member for years.

He served as a member of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce, and belongs to the Rotary Club of Huntington.

A Lifetime in Coal

Bob Fletcher has worked his whole life in the coal industry. He's been with J. H. Fletcher & Co.™ for 70 years. His only job.

"In all my years, I've met very few people in the industry who weren't friendly," he says. "West Virginia people have been great to work with. They have a good attitude and work ethic. You can be looking for troubles, or looking at the good things you've enjoyed."

In 2001, Kae suffered a heart attack, followed by a stroke the following year. Bob was at her side, caring for her full-time until she died of another stroke in 2004, almost 72 years to the day after they met.

Bob Fletcher's pace may have slowed from his younger days, although he appears fit and stands straight. The penetrating eyes are still sharp and the mind quick. Today, he spends summers in West Virginia and winters in Florida. Every quarter, he attends the board of directors meeting of the company.

Controlling interest in the company is held by the family. A few years ago, Ray Parks became the first non-family member to be named president of the company, a position now held by Doug Hardman, also not a member of the Fletcher family.

"Shortly before Kae passed away, I sat beside her bed. We held hands and agreed we had lived a life without regret."

Additional Information

This article was originally featured on coalpeople.com.