Early Prose Pioneer

Johnston’s ‘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 children’s stories.”
– Annie Fellows Johnston,
1929 autobiography

Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

(June 2001) Pewee Valley, Ky.– Annie Johnston didn’t 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 profoundly.

Annie Fellows Johnston

Annie Fellows Johnston

She clearly felt a calling to pen books for a different audience but couldn’t deny her talent in the children’s 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. Johnston’s mother was left alone to raise Annie and her two sisters.
After moving about for some time, Johnston’s family settled near her maternal grandfather’s farm in MacCutchenville, near Evansville. Her mother had a house built, and it is there that Johnston’s earliest carefree memories formed.
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 grandfather’s 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 many readers.
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. 11, 1888.
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 wife’s 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,” wrote Johnston.
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 John’s condition. But it didn’t 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 master’s degree in library science.
“I first became interested in Annie Fellows Johnston while processing Frances Jewell McVey’s 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 Johnston’s 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 Johnston’s books.
Virginia Chaudoin, a life-long Pewee Valley resident, has fond memories of Johnston and the real people about whom she wrote. Chaudoin’s 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 father’s Sunday School teacher at the Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church. “Before my first child was born, Miss Mamie (Johnston’s step-daughter Mary) called and asked if I would like to have the Little Colonel’s carriage,” said Chaudoin.
She was thrilled at such an offer. Chaudoin’s 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 Johnston’s 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 servant’s 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. Lawton’s 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 was alive.
The Samuel Culbertson family also played a significant role in the plot of the Little Colonel series. Samuel’s 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 Louisville’s 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 mansion’s 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 Culbertson’s were in the heart of her stories,” said Lock.
In 1935, Twentieth Century Fox contributed to the longevity of America’s 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 or http://www.oldlouisville.com.

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