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Women Worked To Save Mountain Town

The mafia invaded Berea College’s campus March 27-28. The Petticoat Mafia, that is. The group of five mature ladies who transformed their mountain town with their leadership and tenacity were guests of the women's studies department. They told their story at the Peanut Butter and Gender luncheon lecture March 28.

Five members of the 'Petticoat Mafia' share their story

Twenty years ago Benham, Ky., was a dying town and looked it. The Harlan County coal mining community, once thriving with more than 1,500 citizens when the International Harvester Co. mine was in operation, had lost two-thirds of its population since the mines closed in 1980. With few jobs, young people moved away and the majority of those who stayed were retired natives. Fortunately for Benham, there were some among them who were not content to watch helplessly from the sidelines.

“It was necessary that somebody step up. In our community, somebody had to do something. Our town was dying … the public areas were left to decay,” remembered Betty Howard. In 1990, Howard and other women in the town joined forces to raise funds for a new fire truck for the volunteer department. They began running a thrift store in the old market and held large rummage sales every other weekend. Within a few years, the new truck was purchased.

The women enjoyed themselves so much and were so successful that they formed the Benham Garden Club. Soon what started off as a beautification committee became much more as the ladies began looking around at the areas that needed improvement. The abandoned International Harvester union office, which had also served as a one-cell jail, needed major renovations if it was to be saved along with the old school, theatre and other buildings in the “circle” – the town’s center. These company-built buildings were historically significant and in danger of being lost.

When their suggestions and requests to the town council went unheeded, the ladies decided to take matters into their own hands. They performed a democratic-style coup. Fed up with the inaction, Howard and several others filed for election to the council. Five of them were voted in along with two men. One of the men refused to serve with “a bunch of women who didn’t know what they were doing” and a woman was appointed in his place.

Dubbed the “Petticoat Government” by regional leaders, the six women (Howard and her mother Ruby Sweet, Thelma Brock, Lacey Griffey, Wanda Humphrey and the late Carolyn Helton) and lone man (Sandford Baskin) plunged into unknown waters under the leadership of Mayor Howard. Since they didn’t know the conventional way to get things accomplished, they used their naďveté as an advantage with innovation and directness.

In the 13 years that they served, the women, later dubbed the “Petticoat Mafia” by a male Benham citizen, had all the buildings in the town circle placed on the National Register of Historic Places. They kept up their thrift store and applied for grants and renovated the school, turning it into the Benham Schoolhouse Inn, now a popular hotel and restaurant that draws tourists to the town.

The council acquired the $700,000 needed to restore the 1920s-era movie theatre, which was dedicated this past December. With private funds they supervised the building of two memorial parks, one honoring Benham veterans and the other coal miners. They were instrumental in opening the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in the former company store and acquired a 1949 CSX caboose, which they cleaned, restored and put on display for tourists downtown. The caboose was delivered in a town-wide celebration that included a picnic and marching bands. “If you’ve ever seen anyone cry when they heard a train whistle, it was us. It had been eight years since we’d heard a train in Benham,” recalled Howard.

Also, while on the council, they had a feasibility study done regarding building a bottling plant for pure spring water that bubbles up in an abandoned mine shaft. “It would provide more diversification in our economy and jobs. ... We’re in a low economic level, so we could qualify for grants for 100 percent of the cost,” Howard said wistfully. The project has been put on the back burner by the new council, but judging by the tone of the ladies’ voices, Harlan County hasn’t heard the last of them yet.

Women’s studies director Peggy Rivage-Seul praised the visitors. “One of the big ideas we try to teach in this program … is that we live in a social pyramid and people who do not rank high in the social hierarchy … often live with a different value system." That system reflects Berea College’s commitment to place a priority on the good of the community and the world at large rather than individual gain. “These women took these values and they became leaders and began to run that town.”

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