Special to the Tribune-Courier
The town of Benton “is situated near the center of the county, about one mile west of Clark’s River, and 22 miles south of Paducah, and like the great city of Rome, she sets on seven hills, surrounded on the south and west by poor hills, and on the east and north by rich and loamy farming lands of the Clark’s River bottoms.”
That was the description of the seat of county government from Lemon’s Handbook of Marshall County in 1894. Many elements of the description would still be applicable today, although the town has gone through many changes.
Named for United States Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, the city of Benton was incorporated on Jan. 11, 1845, on a 30-acre tract of land donated by Francis Clayton. The small town was chosen as the county seat and an additional 50 acres was soon donated by John H. Beardon.
The first courthouse was constructed of logs and built by Francis Clayton. With the growth of the county, the courthouse became obsolete and a new one was built in 1847 for the cost of $6,000. A brick two-story courthouse was built in 1888 which lasted until 1914 when it burned. The present day courthouse was constructed in 1915 and still serves the county today.
An early plat dated 1874 by attorney Philander Palmer shows the town laid out with five streets running east to west and six streets running north and south.
All the early residential houses were frame or log homes. The streets were dirt and travel was by horse and oxen. One of the first industries in Benton was the Tannery and Carding factory which was located east of the court square. At this factory, a mechanical process was used which disentangled, cleaned and intermixed fibers to produce a continuous web of sliver suitable for subsequent processing.
The Benton Seminary School (later named the Marshall County Seminary School) was formed in 1868. In 1888, the school was consolidated with the Benton common schools by an act of the Kentucky General Assembly. In the early 1900s, the Benton School Board reorganized the seminary school into the Benton Graded and High School.
The high school closed during the consolidation of Marshall County schools in the 1970s.
By the 20th Century, Benton had grown considerably. The Paducah, Tennessee, and Alabama Railway arrived in the 1890s which brought with it more people and the establishment of new businesses. By 1900, the town included three churches (Methodist, Baptist, and Christian), two restaurants, one hotel, four dry goods stores, a barber shop, two drug stores, a hardware store, two shoe shops, two butcher shops, one paint store, two livery stables, a photography studio and two millinery shops.
A tobacco warehouse was owned by J.D. Peterson on 12th Street and the town also had a planning mill, printing office and a flour mill. Four doctors and seven lawyers practiced in the town. The Bank of Benton opened in 1890, followed by the Bank of Marshall County in 1903. The Benton Tribune began publication in 1888 and the Marshall Courier in the 1930s. Both newspapers were merged in the 1970s to form the Tribune-Courier.
In the 1930s, Judge H.H. Lovett donated a portion of his own land for a city park for the benefit of the children of Benton. However, the city did not have enough funds to make the park a reality, so Lovett lobbied state officials and the Works Projects Administration (WPA) to fund and build the park.
In 1942, Lovett’s dream was realized and the Benton City Park was opened. The park was renamed H.H. Lovett Park in 1979 to honor Judge Lovett.
In addition to the park’s offerings, tent shows were very popular until the Benton Theater was opened in the 1930s. The grand opening movie was “The Wizard of Oz” and ticket prices were 35 cents for adults and 11 cents for children. The theater was owned by the Ruffin Amusement Company and was operated by Shelby McCallum, who later on went to establish WCBL radio in 1954.
The town was first governed by a board of trustees and a city judge until the 1930s when the city went to a mayor/city council form of government. Some of the people who have served the city as mayor have been Van Albert Strow, Cliff Treas, Hatler Morgan, Louis R. O’Daniel, and Coy Creason. Those who have served as city judge have included H.A. Riley, Artelle Haltom, John Rayburn and Pomp Barnes.
The task of keeping law and order in the town fell to the town marshal until the creation of a police force in the 1930s. Richard Heath and Hardy H. McGregor served many years as town marshal. When the need came for a full time police chief, men such as Neal Owen and “Chewing Gum” Charlie Carroll filled that role.
Martha Strow has lived in Benton a majority of her life and recalls when days were much simpler in the small little town she calls home.
“Times were much different back then,” she said. “When I was a little girl the big hangouts for kids was Nelson’s Drug Store and the Strow Drug Store [which later became the Corner Drug Store],” she said.
“Another form of entertainment was the theater. When I was young, the theater was located where MTG Insurance is now, but it later moved to Poplar Street,” she said.
Transportation was limited during Strow’s childhood and residents walked everywhere.
“My family lived on the corner of 9th and Poplar streets and I walked to school every day as did everyone else because there were hardly any cars,” Strow recalled. “We also walked to the grocery and there were a couple groceries at the time – Kroger’s which was on court square and later moved to where the Arts Theater is now. It later became Marshall Austin’s store. The Hunts also owned a grocery down in north end and a U-Tote-Em was down below the hill from the courthouse.”
Benton has been the home of two of the county’s longest-standing traditions: Big Singing Day and Tater Day.
Celebrated on the fourth Sunday of May, Big Singing Day is one of the oldest indigenous musical traditions in the United States.
The first Big Singing was held in 1884 when the editor of the Benton Tribune, James R. Lemon, and a few other Southern Harmony enthusiasts joined together at Benton Seminary School to sing from the Southern Harmony and Musical Companion song book. Their goal was to revive the popularity of the music they all had loved so dearly in their youth.
The tradition has stood the test of time and continues to be a thriving tradition.
Tater Day all started back in 1843 when local farmers would bring their sweet potatoes and potato slips to the court square to sell them. The festival has since grown with a parade, flea markets, and a carnival.
“The biggest day when I was younger was Big Singing Day,” Strow said. “I couldn’t sing, but we always attended because my mother sang. The day was a big homecoming when those who had moved off from here would come back home. Vendors would set up on the courthouse lawn and sell food and drinks and everyone would have a picnic on the lawn.”
Tater Day “was another big day,” she said, “but it was more commercial with the farmers coming into town to sell their crops.”
Progress slowly came to Benton in the 1920s when the Benton Hosiery Mill became one of the first factories to locate here.
“My mother’s sister worked at the mill and it was located where the water plant is now,” Strow said. “When women quit wearing cotton hosiery, the mill shut down and a cigar factory came in. I was 18 at the time and I went to work there.”
The cigars, she said, were rolled and came down a conveyor belt.
“My job was to put the rings around the cigar,” Strow said. “It was hard to keep up and I soon found out I wasn’t cut out for it. After two days, I went home and told my mom I was quitting and I went to work at the drug store scooping out ice cream.”
Technology also made its way to Benton during Strow’s childhood and she remembers the first radio in town. “We lived a few houses down from the Jones family and we would go down and listen to their radio. I remember thinking they must be rich because they could afford a cabinet radio,” Strow said.
During World War II, Strow was absent for some time from Benton.
“There was a period during the war where I lived all over the country with my husband but nowhere compared to Benton,” she said. “It was and is home.”