EDITOR’S VIEWPOINT/Bake sales, thrift shops fund the town that women run
I like little old ladies. This may have something to do with the fact that, one day, I plan on being one.
The residents of Benham, Ky., like little old ladies, too. In fact, they like them so much that they’ve basically turned the town over to them.
In most places, lawyers’ offices and big business are the springboards to political success. In Benham, a town of 700 in the Appalachian foothills, it’s the garden club. In many ways, it makes perfect sense: Garden club members are well-versed in the intricacies of fund-raising, and their sense of civic pride is deep and sincere.
Benham’s garden club is not your run-of-the-mill group of ladies who discuss the virtues of annuals versus perennials over lemon bars and camomile tea. It is really just the formal name for an informal group of women who have long been involved in town affairs. “We thought ‘Garden Club’ sounded better than ‘busybodies,’” says Mayor Betty Howard.
In traditional garden clubs, members are generally content to host monthly pansy plantings. In Benham, they were a trifle more ambitious. So, in a bloodless coup, Betty, Beverly, Thelma, Ruby, Lacey, Billie, Mary, Wanda and a gang of 54- to 80-plus-year-old women dubbed the “Petticoat Mafia” wrested power from the guys.
Actually, it wasn’t all that hard. The three men who used to sit on the city council saw the writing on the wall and retreated graciously in the face of the feminine onslaught. One of them, Gary Huff, is even credited with unleashing the woman wave. Back in 1990, it was Huff’s idea to use yard sales to raise money for a new fire truck. He turned to the garden club for help.
The town got its fire truck. It also got a police car, a garbage truck, two maintenance pickup trucks and a dump truck. Much of the financing was done through the garden club-operated thrift shop and annual events, such as Christmas dances, gospel music shows and bake sales. Money from the thrift shop also has helped the garden club build parks on either end of the town — one to commemorate veterans and one as a memorial to the town’s coal mining heritage.
The Benham women, all retired, use their work for the town as a way to keep busy. “It gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” Howard says. The fact that it also makes the town a better place to live is almost secondary.
Still, Howard notes that their efforts have prompted other residents to get involved. “It’s made people think,” she says. “When you throw out trash and you see a little old 80-year-old woman picking it up, it affects you.”
Benham started out as an International Harvester company town. When the company pulled out in 1961, the town could easily have died. Partly because of the garden club’s dedication, it didn’t. All I can say is “You go, girls.”