The town of Harts — originally named Hart’s Creek — was established at the mouth of Big Harts Creek in the summer or fall of 1870 when Henry S. Godby, a peg-legged Confederate veteran from Chapmanville, petitioned the government for the creation of a post office called “Hart’s Creek.” At that time, Green Shoal was the most thriving spot in the Harts section of the Guyandotte River. A.S. Fry was its chief businessman and postmaster. Godby’s effort to establish Harts as a postal town was a short-lived venture. By 1876, Green Shoal still reigned supreme in local affairs. According to a business directory, it could boast a gristmill, free school and a Baptist and Methodist church. T.H. Buckley and G.S. Fry were physicians, while Joseph Workman was a clergyman.
Around that time, in 1876, Bill Fowler — a local general storekeeper — petitioned the government for the creation of a “Hearts Creek” post office and established his business headquarters at Harts. Fowler had migrated to the area in 1847 and married a daughter of Elias Adkins, an early settler. After a short stint as a schoolteacher in 1871, Fowler was by 1876 a general storekeeper and owner of some 30 acres of land on the Marsh Fork of West Fork. In March of 1877, he became postmaster of “Hearts Creek;” he was also a saloon keeper according to oral tradition. As his business interest generated profits (primarily in timber), he extended his land holdings. In 1878, he purchased 75 acres on the Guyan River from Abner Vance, valued at $5.00 per acre. The following year, he added a 90-acre tract to his estate on the west side of the Guyan River, valued at $3.25 per acre, which he purchased from brothers-in-law, Aaron and Enos Adkins.
Throughout the period, Fowler was unquestionably the chief businessman in Harts. Curiously, Andrew D. Robinson replaced him as postmaster of Hearts Creek in 1879. Robinson was a Union veteran and former township clerk, justice of the peace, and secretary of the district board of education. He was a brother-in-law to Ben Adams, as well as Sallie Dingess (Hollena Brumfield’s mother). In 1881, Robinson shortened the name of the Hearts Creek post office to “Hart.”
The Green Shoal area, meanwhile, fell into a state of decline as a local economic center. A.S. Fry gave up his postmaster position in 1878. He maintained his local business interests well into the next decade, then turned them over to his son George and left to pursue a hotel business in Guyandotte, a town situated at the mouth of the river in Cabell County. The Green Shoal post office was discontinued in 1879.
By 1880 — roughly the time that Milt Haley came to Harts from “over the mountain” — Harts reigned supreme as the hub of local business affairs. In that year, according to census records, the population of the Harts Creek District was 1,116. There were 1,095 white residents, fifteen blacks and six mulattos. 93-percent of locals were born in Virginia or West Virginia, while six percent were born in Kentucky. Most men worked at farming, although A.S. Fry and Paris Brumfield both had stores. In 1882-1883, Brumfield was listed in a state business directory as a distiller.
At that time, Bill Fowler was the undisputed kingpin of the local business scene. According to Hardesty’s History of Lincoln County, published around 1884, Fowler owned 200 acres of land at the mouth of Harts Creek and 254 acres on Mud River. He also owned 200 acres on Sand Lick Run, a branch of Francis Fork, based on land records at the Lincoln County Courthouse. “That situated on Hart creek produces well,” Hardesty wrote, “and has a good orchard and a part is heavily timbered with oak, poplar and pine; coal and iron ore are quite abundant.” Fowler was the father of four small children, recently born to his second wife.
There were other notable business folks in the neighborhood, namely Isham Roberts, who operated a store near Fowler on the Guyandotte River. He was the son of Dicy Roberts and the stepson of Jack Johnson, a local farmer. In the early 1880s, he married Martha Jane Brumfield, a daughter of Paris Brumfield, and opened a store on rental property at the mouth of Harts Creek. By 1884, when Hardesty wrote his history of the county, he referred to Roberts as “a prosperous young merchant in Hart Creek district, having his headquarters on Guyan river, at the mouth of Big Hart creek. His prices are the most reasonable and the business very extensive.” Roberts was the postmaster at Harts from 1883 until 1884, when Dr. T.H. Buckley replaced him.
James P. Mullins, who operated a general store building above Roberts at Big Branch, was also a budding merchant. By 1882, Mullins was the owner of a $200 storebuilding situated on a 203-acre tract of land. Over the next few years, he added another 55 acres on lower Harts Creek and 150 acres on Francis Fork (this latter tract likely acquired for timbering purposes). Hardesty referred to Mullins as being “of good business qualifications and prosperously engaged in merchandising, with business headquarters on Hart creek, one and one-half miles from its mouth.” In that year, Mullins purchased an additional 93 acres on Harts Creek. One year later, the value of his store building increased by $100, hinting at his growing prosperity.