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Whenever he could get a little money saved up he would buy an option on a piece of land

John C.C. Mayo (1864-1914) was born a poor mountaineer in Paintsville, KY, and by the time of his premature death at 49 of Bright’s Disease, had amassed a fortune in the neighborhood of $20,000,000, making him Kentucky’s wealthiest man.

Mayo became a teacher at age 16, interrupted his classroom activities to enroll in Kentucky Wesleyan College in Millersburg, and later returned to Johnson County to resume teaching at Paintsville, for $40 per month.

At college he heard geology lectures by visiting professor A.C. Sherwood, and learned about east Kentucky’s vast mineral resources. Some day, he felt, somebody would want that coal, and whenever he could get a little money saved up he would buy an option on a piece of land. He read geological surveys made by William Mather, David Owen, Nathaniel Shaler, and John Proctor and filled notebooks with mineral data.

He abstracted titles and paid a few dollars each for options to buy minerals underlying tracts of land. He pledged fifty cents to five dollars per acre if the option was later exercised.

In time Mayo saved $150 and with partners he formed the trading firm of Castle, Turner & Mayo, capitalized at $450. Mayo continued to teach and bought out his partners. At twenty six he engineered changes in the state’s land law. He read law and was admitted to the bar.

By the late 1880’s Mayo spent his days traveling around to purchase land for coal rights. He paid little attention to Alice Jane Alka Meek, who worked as a telegraph operator at the Alger House in Paintsville, other than when he wanted to send a message by telegraph to his sweetheart. But according to Carolyn Turner, co-author of the book John C. C. Mayo: Cumberland Capitalist, Miss Meek never sent those messages. When Mayo became deathly ill with pneumonia not long after they met, Miss Meek nursed him back to health at the hotel. Eventually, the two fell in love and were married in 1897. She was 20; he was 33.

When the constitutional convention met in 1890, Mayo knew many of the delegates, whom he lobbied to drop from the new constitution the ‘Virginia Compact provision’ that shadowed the title to hundreds of thousands of acres of eastern Kentucky land.

Mayo hired Floyd County attorney F.A. Hopkins to draft the broad form deed, and used this form in mineral buying to sever title to Mineral Rights from the remainer of the land title, making mineral rights dominant and residuary rights subservient ‘forever.’

Until the Mayo children were born, Mrs. Mayo traveled with her husband on business trips, often stashing gold – used to pay for mineral rights – in a specially made riding skirt ordered from Pogue’s, a store in Cincinnati. The gold could be tied to straps hidden underneath the skirt, and as much as $10,000 could be carried at a time.

The Mayo Mansion in Paintsville, built between 1904 and 1909.

Mayo had been collecting options for almost twenty years when he made his first sale — a big parcel of coal land to the Merrits of Duluth. From them he took $200,000 in notes, and had these discounted. The Merrits failed, and he took it upon himself to make these notes good.

It was not until about 1901 that he began to be a really wealthy man, as the value of his land was still rather problematical. But he got Peter L. Kimberley, president of Chicago’s Sharon Steel Company, Frank Buell of Sharon, PA, and several other capitalists to help him form the Northern Coal and Coke Company in the beginning of 1902, and they started coal operating on a big scale, branched out into the Elkhorn field of Kentucky, and started the town of Jenkins. This concern finally sold out to the Consolidated Coal Company, in which Col. Mayo became a big stockholder.

“While never holding office, Col. Mayo always took a keen interest in politics,” observed his obituary in the NY Times. “He was National Democratic Committeeman for Kentucky, and in the last presidential campaign took an active part and was a liberal contributor. Friends say his most remarkable trait was his personal magnetism. He was essentially a man of peace.

“In a lawsuit, he never settled by fighting it out, but always by compromise, instructing his attorney to see that the other fellow got what was due him, and a little more. To educational and charitable institutions in Kentucky he was a liberal contributor, and his private benefactions were large.” At the time of his death his holdings included 75 companies.

source: NY Times, May 12, 1914 online at
Alka Mayo: Mountain matriarch, by Diane Comer, Ashland Daily Independent, October 29, 1985 – Page 8, Today’s Living online at
The Kentucky Encyclopedia, by John E. Kleber, University Press of Kentucky, 1992

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Whenever he could get a little money saved up he would buy an option on a piece of land


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