Someone (I think an International Harvester enthusiast) asked me recently if I knew anything about Benham, Kentucky.
Well, I read about it long ago in Red Power magazine and here’s the story as I’ve been able to reconstruct it from several sources.
Coal mining days
Farm implement manufactures require vast quantities of steel, and between 1900 and 1902 the Deering Harvester Company had acquired a controlling interest in the South Chicago Furnace Company.
After the 1902 merger that formed IHC, the rest of the steel company’s stock was purchased and it was renamed Wisconsin Steel.
One of the requirements for making steel is a good supply of coke, so IHC mining engineers looked about for a good source of the bituminous coal that makes the best coke.
They found it in Harlan County, in far southeastern Kentucky. There was a huge reserve of bituminous coal in the area; the locals had been burning it for years, but no way of getting it out of the rugged terrain and to the mills.
Then, during the early 1900s, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad pushed their tracks eastward from Corbin, Kentucky, into the coal rich valley where Benham was built.
While the L&N was busy grading and laying track, IH bought or leased some 6,000 acres of coal land and hauled mining supplies in by wagons and teams over the narrow roads.
On the lower slopes of Big Black Mountain, IH engineers laid out a town in a circle. Around it were the main buildings, the mine offices, a company store, hospital, theater, clubhouse, school and church, as well as sturdily constructed single and duplex wood frame homes and boarding houses.
A 1948 article in an IH publication tells us that there were 520 Harvester-built houses in the town, many of them five-room bungalows with a “spacious yard and garden.”
Benham was a genuine “Company Town.” Every building but the railroad station had been built by Harvester.
Nearly every person in Benham worked for the IH Company — everyone but the local judge, postmistress, minister, shoemaker, and a few others who were employed by the railroad, hotel and theater.
Even the teachers at the first-through-12th-grade school were paid in part by IH and part by the county.
The 1948 article gave the story of the life of “John,” a hypothetical baby boy born in Benham, which I’ll paraphrase.
John’s momma went to the Harvester Hospital and the birth was tended by one of three Harvester-paid doctors. IH Group hospitalization insurance, plus a $2 per month medical fee taken out of John’s father’s check, paid the bill.
Baby John’s family lived in one of the five-room bungalows which cost his dad $2.30 per room per month rent and the furniture belonged to the family. IH maintained the house exteriors, but the tenant was expected to keep up the inside.
The Harvester Commissary, a large, three-story brick building that was built in the 1920s to replace a large wooden structure, was the only place in town to shop, but they had everything.
Here, John’s folks could buy groceries, including fresh meat and vegetables, clothing, furniture, appliances and other household goods, jewelry, hardware and sporting goods.
Benham residents could also shop in Cumberland, Kentucky, a somewhat larger town three or four miles to the east, which wasn’t owned by IH and had two supermarkets, several clothing and other stores.
And there were always the Sears and Montgomery-Ward catalogs to fall back on.
There was one church in town that served all faiths and John was christened there. Of course he attended the Benham school for twelve years, where his high school courses prepared him for a career in Harvester’s mines if he so desired.
If he did hire on with IH he would likely learn the ropes from his father. Of course, young John wasn’t required to work for IH, he could go on to college (if he could afford it), find work on the railroad, or go out of the area to find employment.
The 1948 article, which appeared in an IH publication, ended with sweetness and light: “With its main street, public school and church, John’s home town resembles many other American communities. It offers its people security, clean, pleasant homes, the necessities of life and some of the luxuries.
The people of Benham are proud of their town and their Company. Their respect for International Harvester means a great deal, for it comes from people who know it best.”
Of course, things weren’t always rosy. The racially and ethnically mixed work force caused some friction.
IH tried to minimize this by providing the same pay and housing for all. Even so, one Benham resident remembered that there were four distinct sections of the town.
“Smokey Row” where the blacks lived, that included a black’s only school — like many other towns. “New Benham,” is where the European immigrants lived; Here there was a street known as “Hunky Street.” Native born white workers lived in “Middle Benham” from Poplar to Hemlock Streets.
The big fancy houses, on a tree-lined street on the mountain above the town, where the mine officials, superintendents and foremen lived was called “Silk Stocking Row.”
Since the town was unincorporated and was all private property owned by Harvester, Federal, state, or local authorities refused to interfere in any policies set by the corporation.
There were no elected officials in the town, giving the residents no voice in what happened.
Prices in the company stores, the school curriculum, and all laws were set by IH, and they had a hired police force to enforce their wishes.
Even so, the miners in Benham made a pretty good living and led generally safe and decent lives, so long as they kept their noses clean.
If a man was fired and blacklisted, he immediately lost his house and his livelihood, and he and his family were forced to leave town.
In the 1960s, IH was in trouble and the demand for coal was dwindling, so the buildings were sold to private owners and the mines were closed around 1980.
Benham essentially became another defunct Appalachian coal camp, except the town’s women got busy. With help from the Southeast Community College in nearby Cumberland, they turned the schoolhouse into a four-star inn.
They also raised funds to get the Kentucky Coal Museum established in the old Harvester Commissary building, turn a former dump into the Coalminers Memorial Park complete with a $30,000 statue of a miner, buy a new fire truck, a couple of police cars, and a garbage truck for the town.
I’d like to visit there some day.
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