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

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

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.

Garden club members ran the event. Originally scheduled to last two weekends, it never stopped. Donations rolled in from around the country, and eventually, the garage sale became the garden club thrift shop, known as the This 'N' That Store.

"We were just doing so well. Why stop?" says Thelma Brock, a town council member and Howard's mother, sitting at a plywood table in the store.

From there, the ladies began their assault on municipal office. The revenue brought in from the thrift shop and special events paid for refurbishing Veterans' Park with new benches and flags.

The club's greatest pride, however, is the Coal Miners Memorial Park, built on the site of a former dump. The completed park includes a picnic shelter, a gazebo, a mile-long walking trail, and a memorial to the 35 miners who died in Benham mines. A bronze statue of a miner carrying a pick and lantern stands in the middle.

Town council member Wanda Humphrey remembers how old miners cried the day the statue was dedicated. "One of the coal miners [got] down on his knees. The others put their arms around each other. I'll never forget that," she says.

But the garden club doesn't stop at beautification projects. Their fundraising contributes as much as $3,000 a month to the city for items such as furnaces and police uniforms. In fact, the club provides about one-fourth of the city's annual $120,000 budget.

"I doubt very seriously this city could survive, if not for these ladies," says Bob Clay, who is both police and fire chief.

During the first half of the 20th century, Benham didn't have to worry about its survival. It was a company town, founded by International Harvester in 1911. Harvester operated the mines, where local workers toiled in three shifts to supply coal for the steel mills that fueled the Industrial Age.

When Harvester prospered, so did Benham. There was the hospital and country club. Coal-company doctors made house calls, and the company commissary sold name-brand clothing and fine fabrics to housewives.

"I guess we lived in the best world," says Ruby Sweet, a council member whose husband died in a mine accident in 1978.

Harvester disbanded in the late 1960s, leaving residents to build a government from scratch. When the mine closed in the late 1980s, Benham fell into disrepair. "In the early '90s, ... all the windows were busted out," says Howard, who has been mayor since 1994. "It was a town that had gone to nothing."

Today, the Petticoat Mafia is talking about refurbishing some of the historic buildings, such as the old company clubhouse. The goal, says Howard, is to get more tourists to come through and visit the town's major attractions: the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum and the Benham Schoolhouse Inn, a bed-and-breakfast set in the old company school.

Garden club member Debbie Hammond says some people were at first skeptical about the garden club. One town councilman elected in 1994 even refused to take office with the gals.

But no one is complaining now. "They're wonderful," says Harlan County Circuit Judge Ron Johnson, a Benham native. "I can't say enough about them."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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