Each year at Christmastime, residents of this tiny mountain town run a yarn drive, gathering extra bits and pieces and donating them to the inmates of the Alderson Federal Prison Camp. In return, prisoners knit colorful hats and mittens for local needy children.
With the country's most famous homemaker on the inside this year, townspeople will be closely inspecting for quality and style, to see if they can sense a little Martha in the mittens.
Most here agree that an unlabeled Martha Stewart creation is the closest they're likely to come to the celebrity -- the latest of many -- sentenced to spend the next five months living down the road. Stewart, who was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction and lying to federal investigators about a stock sale, is scheduled to report to the sprawling minimum-security campus by Friday afternoon.
"We most likely won't even see Martha," said Patti Grafton, who owns the Wolf Creek Gallery, a crafts store on Railroad Avenue, the town's main street.
The media mogul won't be here long enough to train for the prison's volunteer fire crew, which can be spotted around town backing up volunteers whenever a serious blaze breaks out. Residents speculate that she's apt to avoid joining any of the work crews that leave camp, such as the prisoners who help build Habitat for Humanity homes or clean up litter along the Greenbrier River, which bisects the town. So if the river floods during her stay, invading homes as it did in 1985 and 1996, they don't expect her to be among the inmates helping to muck out the mud.
They might never see Stewart, but they've sure seen the people who have come to see her. The satellite trucks showed up soon after the Bureau of Prisons assigned Stewart to do her time here, rather than in the Danbury, Conn., facility she requested closer to home. It was for their benefit that Grafton hung a sign from a birdbath in her shop window: See you in the spring, Martha, in the garden -- a reference to Stewart's decision to start her sentence now, rather than waiting out her appeals, so she would be free by planting season.
The town of 1,100 is ringed by steep wooded foothills and accessible only by twisting mountain roads. Its population is almost matched by that of the nearby prison, which has been an important part of the town's economy -- along with the posh Greenbrier resort about 30 miles away -- and identity since it opened as the nation's first federal prison for women in 1927. It has hosted famous inmates before, including jazz singer Billie Holiday after a conviction on drug charges and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who tried to assassinate President Gerald R. Ford.
Even so, the town hasn't gotten this much attention since John F. Kennedy campaigned for president in front of a swooning crowd at the old Alderson High School, 62-year-old Mary Godby said. And residents seem determined to make the most of their time in the national spotlight.
For John Massie, 54, it means a little cash. Massie's property is so close to the prison camp that he waves to inmates as they mow the grass and weed along his property line. He has been letting all the television trucks and cars line up in his front yard to await Stewart's arrival -- for a price. "I'm a businessman," said Massie, a sign maker. "This is good for business."
Likewise, Betty Alderson -- whose husband, John, is the great-great-great-great-grandson of the town's founder -- is hoping to steer some of the media throng into the 117-year-old Alderson Store. The upscale women's clothing store has been in the same storefront since 1932 and still boasts original art deco walnut shelving that Martha Stewart would just love, Alderson said.
To aid the marketing effort, she printed up Martha-inspired T-shirts: "West Virginia Living, It's a Good Thing," reads one, a play on Stewart's motto. "Alderson, W.Va. -- A Great Place to Spend Time," reads another. She thinks Stewart, as a fellow businesswoman, would understand. Besides, she said, the signs are in good taste.
Mayor Luther Lewallen, on vacation this week, contemplated canceling the trip to help guide the outsiders but in the end left retirees Tom and Neta Roush in charge of making visitors feel welcome, the couple said. With a son in public relations, the Roushes are determined to drum up interest in Alderson -- and thwart any impression that Stewart might be uncomfortable in the backwoods.
"People think of West Virginia as a bunch of hillbillies and hayseeds," Tom Roush said. "This is a really nice town, and we want to put a nice face on it."
They think the town, with its lovingly restored train depot, quiet streets of Victorian homes, stunning mountain views and growing number of country craft stores, is the kind of place Stewart would appreciate -- as a tourist.
"This is a quaint, charming town that would appeal to her," said Deborah Bryant, 38. Bryant plans to open a tanning salon in a restored historic storefront downtown and said she is always inspired by Stewart's example. They're both divorced, both trying to make a go of their own businesses, and both own Chow dogs.
"My hope would be that someday she'd come back and visit Alderson, maybe even buy property or vacation here," she said.
Up the hill is Alderson Hospitality House, where families of inmates have found free room and board since 1976. Each week, the house fills with husbands and boyfriends, mothers and children, many of whom drive all night to spend a few hours visiting a loved one. Hillary Benish, who runs the house with her husband, sees Stewart's incarceration as a chance to talk about all the families that gather at their table for dinner each week.
"There should be this much attention for every woman who goes through those gates," she said. "Every one of them has a compelling story."
Townspeople won't be surprised if the fascination with Stewart fades after this week, to bloom again in spring with her release. But the tabloids will probably lurk for months in hopes of catching a glimpse, Benish said. She has already declined a magazine's offer of $50,000 to smuggle out a photo of Stewart in prison garb.
Even when the eyes of the world turn elsewhere, the town will feel her presence in subtle ways. Katie Skaggs, 35, who lives in a cluster of homes with a view of the prison's dorms and kitchen, said the world's best sledding hill is on the prison grounds. Though the guards haven't minded when neighborhood children trespassed for a ride in years past, she said, the hill will almost certainly be off-limits this year.
But Stewart will leave someday, and so will the gawkers, and there will be sledding another year.
"If we're okay with ourselves and each other, then we'll be fine," Skaggs said. "After all, we're the ones who're going to stay."
Vivian Pranulis looks out of a shop with a sign on Stewart's spring release. Owner Patti Grafton said, "We most likely won't even see Martha."