Town bids farewell to famous felon      

ALDERSON, W.Va., March 4 - Annette Kellison already had given 10 radio interviews by noon Friday, squeezing them in between the breakfast and early lunch trade at the Dinner Bell restaurant.  Like a handful of others in this tiny town of 1,100, Armstrong had become a Martha Media Celebrity. She was a near-regular on a morning radio show from Oregon, fielded regular calls from the Associated Press and befriended the BBC. She and the rest of the ladies of the Dinner Bell had watched television Friday morning and seen Stewart survey her snow-covered 153-acre Bedford, N.Y., estate, where she begins the second phase of her sentence five months under house arrest, wearing an electronic ankle bracelet to monitor her movements.

"She went from the big house to the really big house," said Twyla "Twinkle" Armstrong, the matron of this tiny joint, laughing.

A celebrity unseen
Snow-covered Alderson, tucked tightly into the Appalachian hills, was beginning the post-Martha phase of its 228-year history. The town is remote good luck getting a cell phone signal but not out of touch donation cups for tsunami relief are common. And it seems full of a reservoir of welcome general across this state.

Even though nobody here ever saw her, Alderson residents seem to have formed a bond with America's most tasteful felon. And even with the media, which turned the Dinner Bell into a work and grub station. The Dinner Bell ladies took free coffee down to the prison gate Thursday night, as the freezing press corps was out in temperatures near 20 degrees, anticipating Stewart's midnight springing. The women of the Dinner Bell have, however, seen Stewart proxies. Her daughter (steak and cheese) and publicist (tuna and veggie) dined next door at Subway.

The Bureau of Prisons was tight-lipped about Stewart's final moments in jail, saying it does not reveal details of inmate releases. Generally, it is a swift process, however, with some paperwork and identification to be done. Employees on duty at the Alderson prison Thursday night were under orders not to talk about Stewart's release, and the prison information officer could not be reached for comment.

'It's a good thing' sells
Stewart's presence has had a measurable fiscal impact on this town. Downtown at the art deco Alderson's department store, Betty Alderson said she has seen a 15 to 20 percent increase in revenue over the past five months. Alderson's husband is descended from Elder John Alderson, a traveling Baptist preacher who founded this tiny town in 1777, next to the Greenbrier River in southeastern West Virginia. Unlike neighboring towns to the west, which went boom and bust with timber and coal, Alderson was largely a farming community until the women's penitentiary arrived in 1927, becoming the town's largest employer and population center with 965 inmates.

Betty's daughter, Sarah, a video producer in Richmond, came up with a merchandising idea for her mom's store: T-shirts catering to tourists who came to get a look at the town where Stewart was imprisoned. Betty Alderson initially ordered four dozen shirts reading, "West Virginia Living: It's a good thing!" and "I spent time in Alderson, West Virginia!" about the time Stewart arrived. They sold out in a day.

Five months later, she has moved more than 1,200 of them, along with sweatshirts and mugs. "Martha Stewart coming here was the best thing in the world to happen to this town," Betty Alderson said. There is talk of creating a Martha Stewart commemorative garden downtown this spring.

Betty Alderson hopes Stewart comes back; some of her New York friends visited Alderson's store and suggested that Stewart would enjoy browsing inside, picking over the locally oriented gifts.

Commotion will be missed
Alderson native Harold Massie likes crowds, so he enjoyed the commotion out at the end of his property next to the prison gate, as reporters and fans set up camp there, anticipating Stewart's release. He also liked the half-dozen network satellite trucks and television camera positions stationed there each one paid him $750 to rent a parking space on his land for the past several days. Same deal when Stewart arrived in October.

How did the landowner and silkscreen shop operator settle on $750? "That's what NBC offered, and it seemed fair," he said, wearing an NBC cap.

Inside his shop, he and friend Robert Wilson and Wilson's son Jacob, 8, discussed Stewart's early Friday exit. "I liked the plane," Jacob said, referring to the chartered Falcon jet at nearby Greenbrier Valley Airport that took Stewart home. A moment later, he added, "She looked 20 years younger" than her age of 63.

As talk turned to her five-month incarceration, Jacob asked, "Why did she go to jail?"

Stewart was convicted of obstructing a federal securities investigation.

Though Alderson had a nice run with Stewart, it was clear where the area's heart is. After the town's five-month flirtation with celebrity, there were sober reminders of the return to real life. A few signs, such as those outside the Dinner Bell, offered "Good luck Martha" and "We'll miss you Martha." But it was hard to travel more than a mile in any direction from Alderson without seeing signs welcoming an Army National Guard unit back from Iraq.

top of page