This town began saying goodbye to its favorite convicted felon Thursday, with Martha Stewart Swedish Meatballs cooking at the Dinner Bell restaurant and T-shirts and mugs commemorating the homemaking authority’s involuntary visit.
Since inmate 55170-054 entered the Alderson Federal Women’s Prison on Oct. 8, the town has seen a long line of Stewart supporters, celebrity friends and the just-plain-curious make the 12-mile drive off the interstate to see where she spent five months locked up for her part in a stock scandal.
That comes to an end early Friday, when Stewart, 63, leaves Alderson to begin serving the next phase of her sentence, five months under house arrest at her $16 million Bedford, N.Y., estate, about 550 miles from here.
Stewart’s Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia announced Thursday that she’ll board a private jet bound for New York between 12:30 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. The company said she would make no public comments, but that a written statement would be posted on www.marthastewart.com.
In letters to a Wall Street Journal reporter, Stewart expressed concern about her fellow inmates, sentencing guidelines and prison medical care. She also wrote about the prison experience.
“The judges, the lawyers and the prosecutors do not really know what it’s like” to be incarcerated, Stewart wrote in one letter, according to the newspaper. “They do not know that time passes slowly, there are no good educational opportunities, there is little of value with which to pass the time.”
Betty Alderson, who has sold more than 1,300 “West Virginia Living, It’s a Good Thing,” T-shirts — a play on Stewart’s “It’s a good thing” catchphrase — said the town needed the economic boost Stewart’s celebrity provided.
At $17 each, the shirts helped pay last fall’s bills, the Alderson Store owner said. “Every business in town profited,” said Alderson, who is married to a descendant of the town’s founders.
For Stewart’s release, Alderson is selling two new shirt designs and a commemorative mug that reads, “I spent time in Alderson, W.Va.”
Mayor Luther Lewallen said Stewart’s presence has been good for his town of about 1,100. “As people came in, they found things they liked in the stores,” he said.
Visitors not only purchased trinkets, but some brought mementos of their own to show their support for the gardening guru.
Jackie Hord of East Hampton, N.Y., brought hundreds of Martha Stewart-brand snow crocus bulbs last fall, hoping residents would plant them so Stewart would see a splash of spring color as she left town.
“I just want to support Martha the best way I can,” she said.
The crocuses were planted, but a recent cold snap and several inches of snow have kept them from blooming. “I have been trying to force some out, but they won’t even force,” Alderson said, no doubt employing the kind of gardening tricks Stewart herself knows so well.
Other Stewart supporters have sent about 1,000 day lilies. Residents plan to pick a sunny spot to plant them and call it “Martha’s Garden.”
Linda Blaney and her friends are making a cross-country trek to show their support. “We want to make sure she knows we were there and let her know we support her,” said Blaney, who lives near Seattle. “This would not have happened to someone else. They slam-dunked her because of who she is.”
Blaney plans to hold up a Stewart-brand floral print sheet bearing the signatures of Seattle-area supporters.
Since it opened in 1927, Alderson’s minimum-security prison has seen the likes of Billie Holiday, Tokyo Rose, Axis Sally and presidential assailants Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore.
Dinner Bell owner Annette Kellison has hired a couple of more workers, plans to extend her hours and will have Martha Stewart Swedish Meatballs on the menu. She is philosophical about Stewart’s release.
“It’s a phase, she’s here, she’s gone. We’re still here,” Kellison said. “This is our community, it’s not hers. She didn’t want to be here to start with.”