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Coal town's key to revival: lots of bake sales

By Sara Shipley Special to The Christian Science Monitor / December 28, 2000



BENHAM, KY.

For years, this eastern Kentucky town had seemed little more than a crumbling memorial to Appalachian coal.

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There had been good days, sure. During World War II, Benham was as rich as the black seams of rock that generations of men and women extracted from the surrounding hills - a jewel of Appalachia with its country club, lawn tennis, and theater.

But it couldn't last. Eventually, Northern steel mills no longer devoured Kentucky coal. Miners fell out of work. Stores closed and windows were boarded up. At one point, the town didn't have the cash to fix its lone police car.

The time had come for a revolution - and it came, but in the most unlikely manner.

No dotcom start-up saved this hamlet of 700 residents from despair. Rather, it was a group of gray-haired ladies, their garden tools, and lots of bake sales.

Around town, they are known as the "Petticoat Mafia" - seven members of the Benham Garden Club who, come January, will hold every major elected office. Betty Howard is mayor; her six comrades in straw hats are the town council members.

In the past decade, this gardening junta has resuscitated Benham almost singlehandedly. They've bought a new $147,000 fire truck, two police cars, and a garbage truck; built one park and refurbished another; and erected a $30,000 statue to coal miners. All this with money from a thrift store, picnics, and community events.

Calls have come from as far away as New York and Canada, asking for the Benham Garden Club's old-fashioned recipe for urban revitalization. Indeed, it's being held up both here and across the country as an example of how one small group can change the future of a community.

"It's small-town America in action," says Sylvia Lovely, executive director of the Kentucky League of Cities. "And it's in a part of the state that can use a lot of that."

The patina of poverty still rests here on the heart of Kentucky's coal fields. During the war years, Harlan County consistently ranked among Kentucky's top five tax-revenue-producing counties. Now, the poverty rate is 29.9 percent, more than double the US average, according to Census figures.

Yet Benham shines like a bright penny. The town has no grocery store, gas station, or significant employer, but the garden club makes sure the ditches are clean, the flowers are blooming, and the parks are open. Club members have painted street signs themselves.

"You haven't seen us in our straw hats and gardening gloves," says Mayor Howard with a chuckle.

Garden club members, many of them retired or widowed, work six days a week to raise cash for their projects. Most of the money comes from a thrift store run by the club, which sells shirts for a quarter and dresses for $1. The club also sponsors community events, such as this summer's political picnic, where they sell home-cooked meals for about $5 a plate. An elaborate Halloween haunted house brought in another $2,500 this fall.

The events draw people from around the county and even from other states. Volunteers from nearby towns pitch in, too.

A decade ago, however, shortly after the mine closed, Benham's future seemed dark. That's when the Petticoat revolution began. In 1990, the town needed a new fire truck. Knowing the town was broke and not wanting to raise taxes, former Councilman Gary Huff suggested having a garage sale to raise money.