BENHAM, Ky. – Travis Warf’s first job was a dishwasher at the Benham Schoolhouse Inn. Some three decades later, he runs the historic inn located in this small community in Harlan County.
“I knew there was something special about this place when I worked here as a teenager,” said Warf. “The building is steeped in history and tradition, and is something that, I believe, can be a part of the future of Benham, Harlan County, and eastern Kentucky.”
Benham was built in the early 1900s by Wisconsin Steel (which was later called International Harvester). Like many towns in Appalachia Kentucky, it was a community built to support America’s growing need for energy and steel which fueled the country’s industrial revolution.
Benham began with 408 ovens to coke coal for the giant furnaces at South Chicago Steel Works. In 1911, the first load of coal was shipped out of the L & N Railroad depot at Benham. A self-contained company town, Benham was a close-knit community, which resembled an extended family. It is very much the same today.
The Benham Schoolhouse was built in 1926, as coal company leaders identified the need of having a place for employees’ children to learn. It was built on the property of the town’s church, which is now the Benham United Methodist Church. Leaders in the community moved the church to its current location (beside the Schoolhouse Inn) and purposely moved dirt to make the steeple of the church higher than the Schoolhouse in a symbolic gesture of the community’s emphasis on faith.
“It’s a remarkable story of how a town was built on the foundations of faith, family, and hard work,” added Warf. “It’s much the same today.”
It was the home of Benham High School until 1961 and then became a K-8 school until it closed in 1992. An initial group of investors created the Benham Schoolhouse Inn in 1992 as a way to preserve the history of the building.
In 2016, Warf submitted a proposal to the Harlan County Fiscal Court to operate the Benham Schoolhouse Inn when it was set to close.
“When I heard that the county was seeking requests to operate the Inn, it just made sense for me,” said Warf. “Thinking back on it, it was a little unconventional. I was living in Richmond, but this area of Harlan County was – and will always be – home. I wanted to do something to help my community, and this seemed like a good fit.”
It has worked out well so far. Warf and his company, Appalachian Hospitality Group, took over the Inn on July 1, 2016. He remembers one of the first conversations with the people of the community.
“The Schoolhouse has a beautiful dome, and as a kid, I remember seeing the dome lit up at night,” Warf recalled. “It was so impressive, and it was a symbol of hope. I had asked about the lights on the dome and someone told me it had not been lit in about 15 years. That was the first thing I did. We put up new lights up and lit the dome at night. For us, it signified the dawning of a new day for Benham and the Schoolhouse Inn.”
Warf and his team have worked to renovate the Schoolhouse Inn to make it more than just a lodging facility. He has developed meeting space, opened a gift shop, opened the Dinner Bucket Restaurant, and built a spacious outdoor patio for dining and events.
Shaping Our Appalachian Region, Inc. (SOAR) was one of the first organizations Warf and his team connected with after coming home to operate the Schoolhouse Inn. SOAR helped Warf establish a digital platform, which resulted in the creation of a new website for the Inn. This included new photos of the facility and the ability to accept reservations and inquiries online. The website was built by BitSource, an East Kentucky partner of SOAR, and its team of programmers and designers who once worked in the coal industry.
“SOAR was helpful in many ways,” said Warf. “They embraced our idea and believed in us when it would have been easy not to. We believe that Benham and Harlan County can be a destination for tourists, especially those wanting an adventure. Making the region a destination is part of SOAR’s Regional Blueprint, and we believe that the work we are doing is bringing us closer to the goal of being that destination.”
The Benham Schoolhouse Inn is on the National Registry of Historic Places. That is important to Warf and his team.
“We are always thinking about bringing modern amenities to our guests while paying close attention to the history of the building,” he said.
The Benham Schoolhouse Inn has 29 guest rooms and has been called the most unique hotel in Kentucky by onlyinyourstate.com.
“If you want to bring people to your region, you have to offer something exhilarating,” said Warf. “We have that in Harlan County. We have history, museums, mine tours, parks, mountains, ziplining, trails, and many other things that cater to those seeking adventure. We want to complement that with a unique and quality lodging experience.”
Where does Warf see the Benham Schoolhouse Inn in five years?
“I see Harlan County as being a destination for those people and families seeking adventure, and I see the Benham Schoolhouse Inn as playing an important role in providing a unique experience to those who visit,” he said. “I also see the Inn being a focal point of community and family events.”