School consolidation in Kentucky was a necessary and positive step on the long journey toward improved education. That was the good news.
The bad news was a trail of broken classrooms, buckled gymnasium floors, dangerously groaning
What will become of old thresholds of learning? Whatever happened to dignity and respect for what once was treasured?
There comes a time in the life of abandoned school buildings when a decision has to be made. Watch them go on and slowly fall apart? Condemn them, tear them down, cover them over? Or see unusual possibilities, take hold of them, and build something new and uniquely vital?
Next time you’re down in Harlan County, take a little extra time to travel to Benham in the long shadows of Black Mountain.
Ask just about anyone how to find the Benham School House Inn, and they’ll more than likely be pleased to tell you. When you arrive, quietly stand there on the outside and shape the sight into your mind, mix it with memories of the days when you attended your now-abandoned school. You’ll probably ask yourself, “Am I thinking what I’m thinking?”
Has somebody actually taken an old, ghostly school building, preserved most of the original appearance, and turned it into something that will attract visitors who will pay to spend several days and nights there? Better still, they’ll think it’s so good they’ll accept it as a final destination, go home, and tell their friends.
There you have the Benham School House Inn.
Walk in. Look around. Students’ lockers still line the main corridor walls, but the high schoolers have been gone since the last graduation 38 years ago. Elementary students have not been in school here since 1992.
A high school letter jacket hangs on the outside of one of the lockers, a reminder that it was earned and worn but is needed no more.
Wisconsin Steel Corporation, which became International Harvester, built the Benham School in 1926. The company wanted it to be a good school so it subsidized salaries to attract good teachers.
The day would come when the school would close. Perhaps it would be said it had outlived its reason for being.
Former students and teachers must have had other ideas about the place where laughter once spread across the playground.
A group of private investors purchased the property, which now belongs to Harlan County. The structure and its new reason for being is administered by the Southeast Education Foundation in support of the Southeast Community College.
“I like to call it the best-kept secret in Kentucky,” says General Manager Mike Hensley.
Walk into one of the former classrooms. Experience what a difference creative decor can make: 30 rooms with a summer occupancy rate of about 70%; conference rooms and the Great Room (the former gym) can accommodate 400. Excellent dining is available in the Apple Room. There’s a Sitting Room where one may meditate beneath a 300-year-old English chandelier.
Nearby is the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum and Coal Miners Memorial Park. Within easy driving distance there’s the Trail of the Lonesome Pine Outdoor Drama at Big Stone Gap, Virginia. The Benham School House Inn is only four miles from Kingdom Come State Park.
It takes more than one once-was school and one forward-looking community to attract tourism dollars from as far away as Arkansas and South Carolina. It takes a multi-layered vision of pride in a region too often portrayed as impoverished.
The better news is what’s happening today in one little corner of the Commonwealth. It could be happening anywhere.
It’s not to say every abandoned school is a sure bet instant-success tourist attraction. Without a deeper sense of community it might be better to tear down and cover over. But a visit to the Benham School House Inn might help change some minds.