Little Colonel Series
brought fame to Pewee Valley, Ky.
It was my great ambition
to write the
great American novel some day, but it seemed
as if everything conspired to keep me writing
nothing but childrens stories.
Annie Fellows Johnston,
(June 2001) Pewee Valley, Ky. Annie
Johnston didnt have an inkling that her Little Colonel
series would shape the lives of every young girl who read
them, touching their tender, impressionable hearts so
She clearly felt a calling to pen books
for a different audience but couldnt deny her talent
in the childrens field of literature. She became
an icon to many adolescent girls.
Johnston was born on May 15, 1863, in Evansville, Ind.,
during a critical period in American history. Her father
was Albion Fellows, a Methodist minister who died when
she was only 2 years old. Johnstons mother was left
alone to raise Annie and her two sisters.
After moving about for some time, Johnstons family
settled near her maternal grandfathers farm in MacCutchenville,
near Evansville. Her mother had a house built, and it
is there that Johnstons earliest carefree memories
She writes in her autobiography of lying on the
grass looking up at the sky through boughs of pink peach
blossoms; of lullabies in the summer dusk with tiny wax
tapers on the high mantel shelf and fireflies flashing
past the open door.
The peace and tranquility afforded Johnston on her grandfathers
farm would later spill over into the lifestyle she described
in her novels. It was the grandeur of this lifestyle belonging
to the aristocracy of old Kentucky that appealed to her
Throughout her adolescence, Johnston began to try her
hand at writing. She attended the University of Iowa from
1881-1882 and worked as a secretary and teacher for three
years. It was at this time that she became engaged to
her cousin, William L. Johnston. They married on Oct.
William was older than his wife and brought his three
children, Mary, John, and Rena, into their marriage. In
the five years since his first wifes death, the
children had remained with their aunt and uncle Burge
in Pewee Valley. Thus, Johnston was introduced to the
town by her step-children, who now provided a ready audience
to critique her work.
Pewee Valley to them was only another name for Paradise,
But her life was far from idyllic from this point on.
Tragedy struck with the death of her husband in 1892.
After only four years of marriage, William was killed
in a flood, leaving Johnston to raise three children alone.
The old saying, Bad things happen in threes,
was true for Johnston. The second tragedy occurred when
Rena died of appendicitis in 1899. John, who was only
7 years old when his father remarried, contracted tuberculosis.
Johnston then began to write seriously for publication
to support herself and the two children.
In 1901, Johnston and the children moved westward to Arizona,
California, and then Texas with the hope that the dryer
climate would improve Johns condition. But it didnt
and he died in 1910.
From these experiences and those to come, Johnston recorded
life as she knew it, said Sue Lynn Stone, university
archivist for Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green,
Ky. She has spent many hours researching Johnston, especially
while working toward her masters degree in library
I first became interested in Annie Fellows Johnston
while processing Frances Jewell McVeys childhood
correspondence at the University of Kentucky, Stone
said. Frances and her chums commented frequently
in their letters about the Little Colonel books. I wanted
to know more about the books which these young girls were
so interested in. She made Pewee Valley famous.
Stone recently gave a presentation about Johnston at the
Little Colonel Playhouse in Pewee Valley.
Dressed in period attire, Stone reiterated what she had
learned of Johnstons life.
Johnston based her books around the Little Colonel,
said Stone. The title character, Lloyd Sherman, was based
on a young girl named Hattie Cochran, who was both friend
and neighbor to Johnston. Johnston took the people she
knew personally and cast them into various roles in her
series. Her fictitious Lloydsborough was based on the
real town of Pewee Valley.
Cochran had made a lasting impression on Johnston when
first they met. Cochran was 5 years old and possessed
a bullying nature, reminiscent of the military traits
of her grandfather, Col. George Weissinger. Weissinger
had been a Confederate colonel, thus the label Little
Colonel stuck with Cochran.
In a 1943 article written for the Louisville Courier-Journal,
Hamilton Howard stated that the elder colonel had a vile
temper and cursed every breath he took. Hattie also
became famous for her temper-tantrums. Both became immortalized
through Johnstons books.
Virginia Chaudoin, a life-long Pewee Valley resident,
has fond memories of Johnston and the real people about
whom she wrote. Chaudoins mother had read the books
to her when she was a young girl.
When we found out that our Daddy knew Hattie Cochran,
that made it so much nicer, she said. We actually
knew some of the people in the books.
Her family came to know Johnston better, because Johnston
was her fathers Sunday School teacher at the Pewee
Valley Presbyterian Church. Before my first child
was born, Miss Mamie (Johnstons step-daughter Mary)
called and asked if I would like to have the Little Colonels
carriage, said Chaudoin.
She was thrilled at such an offer. Chaudoins father
and grandfather Herdt were wheel wrights and mended the
carriage so that Chaudoin could use it for her own child.
The people and the town of Pewee Valley seemed to have
captured Johnstons heart after she moved there permanently.
She wrote of it: I felt as if I had stepped back
into a beautiful story of anti-bellum days. Back into
the times when people had leisure to make hospitality
their chief business in life, and could afford for every
day to be a holiday; when there were always guests under
the spreading rooftree of the great house, and laughter
and signing in the servants quarters.
By 1911, she and Mary had moved into a home on Central
Avenue known as The Beeches. The home had
been built in 1902 by Mamie Lawton, widow of Maj. Gen.
Henry Ware Lawton. Lawton had been a hero in the Spanish-American
War and was killed in 1899 in the Philippines.
The Lawtons were transformed into the Walton family in
the Little Colonel series. Mamie Lawton was known to readers
as Maimie, and her husband as Uncle
Henry. Gen. Lawtons widow and daughter lived
in the Beeches until Johnston purchased the home.
Johnston easily settled into the The Beeches and the surrounding
community. She became a disciplined writer, working from
9 a.m. noon every day.
Long after her death on Oct. 5, 1931, Mary kept the room
where her step-mother wrote just as it had been when Johnston
The Samuel Culbertson family also played a significant
role in the plot of the Little Colonel series. Samuels
two sons, Craig and William, became The Two Little Knights
of Kentucky. The Culbertson boys were childhood friends
of Hattie Cochran.
Their mother, Louise Craig Culbertson, was a sister to
Mamie Lawton, who had originally built the Beeches. Samuel
was one of Louisvilles most influential tycoons.
He had spent three years prior to 1897 building an impressive
50-room mansion in Old Louisville.
The mansion was purchased in 1975 by Rudy VanMeter, who
renovated it, transforming it in 1998 into a bed and breakfast.
It is a large place and a very lovely building,
said VanMeter. He has preserved two autographed photos
that Johnston sent to the Culbertson boys. He also has
three guest rooms appropriately named for their link to
Johnston, such as The Little Colonel Suite.
Steven Lock is responsible for researching the mansions
history, said VanMeter. Lock said it was very probable
that Johnston was an occasional guest at the home, since
she was a friend of the family.
The Culbertsons were in the heart of her stories,
In 1935, Twentieth Century Fox contributed to the longevity
of Americas fascination with Johnston. The story
of the Little Colonel came to the big screen, staring
Shirley Temple and Lionel Barrymore. The movie gave America
a glimpse of The Land of the Little Colonel, which was
situated in the heart of Pewee Valley.
To learn more about Annie Fellows
Johnston, visit the websites: http://www.culbertsonmansion.com