Historic home offers tours

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On Sat., Oct. 26, in conjunction with Pewee Valley Woman’s Club’s Arts & Crafts Day, the Pewee Valley Historical Society is holding tours of The Beeches, 125 Central Avenue, former home of “Little Colonel” author Annie Fellows Johnston.

Current owners Chris and June Kramer are opening the 13-room home for tours  from 11 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. The Kramers purchased the property in January 2011  and have spent the past two years renovating the home and restoring the nearly five-acre lot on which it stands. “Structurally, the house was in good shape. It was important to us to keep the original architecture, including the original floors and windows,” Chris said. “We concentrated on updating it – the plumbing, the electrical – and even reused the original pine butler’s pantry cabinets we found stored in the attic for our new pantry.”

The Beeches was built in 1901 by Mary “Mamie” Craig Lawton, several years after her husband, General Henry Ware Lawton, was killed in battle during the Spanish American War. After his death, Mamie returned to her home town, so she could raise her children close to her family. Her mother, Annie McCown Craig, and several brothers and sisters, lived across Central Avenue at Edgewood. Her niece lived at Woodside, two doors down from Edgewood, and another sister in a 52-room mansion on South Third Street in Louisville.  The widow built the house using a portion of the $99,000 she received from the “Lawton Fund,” a national subscription set up shortly after the general’s death to provide for her and her four children.

The story of how The Beeches ended up in Annie Fellows Johnston’s hands is actually the story of a long friendship.

The Craigs had met the authoress several years before The Beeches was built, while Annie was renting the Dutch Colonial cottage known as The Gables directly across Central Avenue from Edgewood. Members of the Craig family eventually inspired 12 characters in the “Little Colonel” stories, starting with the publication of “Two Little Knights of Kentucky (Who were the Little Colonel’s Neighbors)” in 1899. Even after the novelist left Pewee Valley, journeying to New York, California, Arizona and Texas in search of a cure for her stepson John’s tuberculosis, she maintained a lively correspondence with Mamie Lawton and used details of the Lawton family’s lives in her books.

In 1911, John Johnston died of TB in Boerne, Texas. His stepmother and sister decided to return to Pewee Valley. Around the same time, Mamie moved to Annapolis, to be closer to her daughter, Frances, who had married a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy. Mamie sold the house to Annie, who lived there with her stepdaughter, artist Mary G. Johnston, until her death on October 5, 1931.

For many years, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, The Beeches was a major tourist attraction. “Little Colonel” fans young and old made the pilgrimage to Pewee Valley to meet the beloved author and see the house that had played a starring role in the series. After Annie’s death, Mary kept the house as a shrine to Annie and continued to welcome her stepmother’s fans, until her own death on July 16, 1966.  During the tour, Pewee Valley native Iva Barbee Marse, whose father was close friends with John Johnston and who was herself friends with Mary G. Johnston, will share reminiscences of The Beeches, the Johnston family and some of the other people who inspired characters in the “Little Colonel” stories.

Parking for both events – Arts & Crafts Day and the walking tour of The Beeches – is available at the Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church, 119 Central Avenue, just two doors south of The Beeches. The Beeches is a private residence and is not handicap accessible.

Cost of the tour is $15 cash or check, with proceeds to benefit Friends of Pewee Valley, a 501c3 organization for the City of Pewee Valley. The ticket cost is tax deductible.

For more information, contact Suzanne Schimpeler at 502.241.4242 or by email, sschimpeler@yahoo.com.