Harlan County businessman shares story of success

BENHAM, Ky. – Travis Warf adjusts his hat, unpretentious paper coffee cup in hand and stares toward the entrance of the Benham Schoolhouse Inn. He is between conversations with employees, sips his coffee, and launches into the history of the building and how it came to be his. He’s told the story countless times, but it never gets old.  It has gotten better with time.

Our people here in Appalachia are tough.
— Travis Warf

Warf’s chronicle has been covered by numerous outlets, including Governor Matt Bevin, a principal officer of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, Inc. (SOAR), and the Kentucky Department of Tourism’s Better in the Bluegrass video series.  The secret is out, and the Inn, tucked away on a hill nestled in the small Harlan County community of Benham, is gaining worldwide attention for its unique blend of history, culture, and all things that make Appalachia Kentucky special.

The Benham School house was built in 1926 to educate the local company’s employee’s children. It served as the community’s high school until 1961 and then transitioned into a K-8 school until it’s closure in 1992.

Almost three years ago, Warf took a chance.  The Benham Schoolhouse Inn was on the verge of closure.  In a final effort to save the Inn, the Harlan County Fiscal Court issued a request for proposal to operate the facility.  Warf caught wind of the request and felt compelled to take a risk.  The Inn was special to Warf.  His first job as a teenager was as a dishwasher at the Inn. 

He put together a plan, and it was accepted.  And, some three years later, he’s turning a profit.  Total tourism expenditures in Harlan County in 2017 accounted for more than $41 million, according to the Tourism, Arts, and Education cabinet.  The Benham Schoolhouse Inn is situated near the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum, the Portal 31 exhibition coal mine, and Black Mountain, the tallest peak in Kentucky.  Earlier this year, the towns of Benham, Cumberland, and Lynch, often referred to as the Tri-Cities, were awarded $2.55 million through the Abandoned Mine Lands Pilot program to boost tourism in the region.  These funds will go towards the renovation of the Portal 31 mine, the development of a dulcimer factory at the Lynch Bathhouse, the expansion of a mushroom farm, and the construction of an overlook at Black Mountain.  

The Benham Schoolhouse Inn is truly a step back in time. Lockers still adorn the halls, paying homage to the days when the Inn was a fully functional school. Beyond the rows of lockers, guest rooms are tucked away, requiring key card access and featuring all the comfort one would expect from an upscale hotel.  Some recent renovations include a patio deck in front of the Inn and updated heating and cooling units.  On Sundays throughout the year, the old gym is home to a Sunday Supper, which attracts hundreds to enjoy homemade favorites such as fried chicken, pot roast, and delicate, handmade desserts.  The gym is barely recognizable, with upscale drapery, custom lighting, table top decorations, and an awe-inspiring Christmas decor complete with multiple trees, a bevy of lights and a small fireplace.  During the week, visitors can enjoy the Dinner Bucket restaurant.  One of the favorites on the menu is a hand cut thick bologna sandwich.

 Outside the Inn, perched atop a hill, Warf points out the church next door. “They built the mound that church is on because they believed the church should be elevated – closer to God.” The scenery is tranquil. The perfectly situated, quaint white chapel, the rolling hills and lush greenery all add to the soothing ambiance.

Warf’s vision was questioned by some, but through hard work and ingenuity, a landmark of Benham’s rich history is now a pillar to its future.

Through his work, Warf has created jobs and rescued an Inn that was on the brink of collapse.  One of his first orders of business was creating a website for the Inn.  He turned to BitSource, a Pikeville, Ky.-based software development company that received national attention by training coal miners to code.

“It’s pretty remarkable to imagine what has happened here over the past three years,” said Warf. “It is also neat to tell people that coal miners designed our website and software to take reservations and manage inquiries.”

The secret to Warf’s success is focused on one common denominator: His people.

“Every one of our employees go above and beyond,” added Warf. “This is their home, this is their Inn, and we are building a new future for Benham, the Tri Cities, and Harlan County.”

From washing dishes at the Inn to becoming the key driver to its revitalization, Warf demonstrates the new narrative of Appalachia Kentucky. “People are writing their own success stories now... Just because we got knocked down a little bit doesn’t mean we can’t get back up and rise from that.”

For more information on the Benham Schoolhouse Inn, visit https://www.benhaminn.com/.