The Beeches: The Lawton Years

"The Beeches: The Lawton Years”
Built by Mamie Craig Lawton after General Lawton’s death
Home of the Waltons in the “Little Colonel” stories

Continue to The Beeches: The Johnston Years and Beyond

Kate Matthews captured this image of "The Beeches” during Pewee Valley’s “Little Colonel” era
Kate Matthews Collection, Photographic Archives, Ekstrom Library, University of Louisville

The Beeches, the Lloydsboro Valley home of the Waltons, first appears in the “Little Colonel” stories in “The Little Colonel’s Hero” published in 1903. Annie Fellows Johnston describes its construction in Chapter XII, “Home Again:”

MEANWHILE in Lloydsboro Valley the summer had slipped slowly by. Locust seemed strangely quiet with the great front gates locked, and never any sound of wheels or voices coming down the avenue. Judge Moore's place was closed also, and Tanglewood, just across the way, had been opened only a few weeks in the spring. So birds and squirrels held undisputed possession of that part of the Valley, and the grass grew long and the vines climbed high, and often the soft whisper of the leaves was the only sound to be heard.

But in the shady beech grove, next the church-yard, and across the avenue from Mrs. MacIntyre's, the noise of hammer and saw and trowel had gone on unceasingly, until at last the new home was ready for its occupants. The family did not have far to move to "The Beeches"; only over the stile from the quaint green-roofed cottage next door, where they had spent the summer.

 In 1902, Mamie Craig Lawton, Annie Fellows Johnston’s model for Mrs. Walton in the stories, built The Beeches using a portion of the money the family received from a national subscription – including pennies collected from school children -- taken up after her husband, General Henry Ware Lawton, was killed December 19, 1899 at the Battle of San Mateo during the Spanish American War. This account of his death, which he, himself, strongly foreboded was imminent, is from the December 20, 1899 issue of the “St. Louis Republic:”

Manila' Dec. 19.--Major General Henry W. Lawton has been shot and killed at San Mateo. He was standing in front of his troops, was shot in the breast and died immediately.
General Lawton left here Monday night, having returned from his northern operations Saturday to lead an expedition through Mariquina Valley, which has been an insurgent stronghold throughout the war. The valley has several times been invaded. but never held by the Americans. General Geronimo was supposed to have there the largest organized force north of Manila, and General Otis wished to garrison Mariquina.
The night was one of the worst of the season. A terrific rain had begun and is still continuing.
Accompanied by his staff and Troop I, Fourth Cavalry, General Lawton set out at 9 o'clock in advance of the main force, consisting of the Eleventh Cavalry and one battalion each of the Twentieth and Twenty-seventh Infantry, which started from La Loma at midnight. With a small escort he led the way through an almost pathless country, a distance of fifteen miles over hills and through canebrakes and deep mud, the horses climbing the rocks and sliding down the hills. Before daybreak the command had reached the head of the valley.
San Mateo was attacked at 8 o'clock, and a three hours' fight ensued. This resulted in but few casualties on the American side, apart from the death of General Lawton, but the attack was difficult because of the natural defenses of the town.
General Lawton was walking along the firing line within 300 yards of a small sharpshooters' trench, conspicuous in the big white helmet he always wore and a light yellow raincoat. He was also easily distinguishable because of his commanding stature.
The sharpshooters directed several close shots which clipped the grass near by. His staff officer called General Lawton's attention to the danger he was in, but he only laughed with his usual contempt for bullets.
Suddenly he exclaimed: "I am shot!" clinched his hands in a desperate effort to stand erect, and fell into the arms of a staff officer.
Orderlies rushed across the field for surgeons, who dashed up immediately, but their efforts were useless.  The body was taken to a clump of bushes and laid on a stretcher, the familiar white helmet covering the face of the dead General.
Almost at this moment the cheers of the American troops rushing into San Mateo were mingling with the rifle volleys.
After the fight, six stalwart cavalry men forded the river to the town carrying the litter on their shoulders, the staff preceding with the colors and a cavalry escort following.
The troops filed bareheaded through the building, where the body was laid, and many a tear fell from the eyes of men who had long followed the intrepid Lawton. The entire command was stricken with grief, as though each man had suffered a personal loss…

Annie Fellows Johnston made several references to General Lawton’s heroic end in the “The Little Colonel’s Holidays,” published in 1901. The book is dedicated to the Lawton children: Manly, “The Little Captain,” and his sisters, Frances, Katherine and Louise:

"The Little Captain" and his sisters

His death actually becomes part of the story in Chapter X:

…she (the Little Colonel) sat thinking of her old playmates, whom she had not seen since their departure for the Philippines, and wondering if they had changed much in their long absence. There were four of them, Ranald (she remembered that he must be fourteen now, counting by his cousin Malcolm's age) and his three younger sisters, Allison, Kitty, and Elise. Some of the happiest days that Lloyd could remember had been the ones spent with them in the big tent pitched on the MacIntyre lawn; for no matter how far west was the army post at which their father happened to be stationed, they had been brought back every summer to visit their grandmother in the old Kentucky home.

Lloyd had not seen them since their father had been made a general, and they had gone away on the transport to the strange new life in the Philippines. Although many interesting letters  were sent back to the Valley, in which the whole neighbourhood was interested, it happened that Lloyd had never heard any of them read. Her old playmates seemed to have dropped completely out of her life, until one sad day when the country hung its flags at half-mast, and the black head-lines in every newspaper in the land announced the loss of a nation's hero…

The grieving Lawton family, who traveled with the general wherever his military career led, returned to Louisville to be close to Mrs. Lawton’s family: her mother Annie, sister Fanny, and brothers Henry, Merton and Aleck Craig who lived in Mamie’s childhood home, Edgewood in Pewee Valley; and her sister, Louise Culbertson, who lived in a mansion on Louisville's Third Street. In severe financial straits, Mrs. Lawton at first rented a house in Louisville. It was not until she received monies raised from the “Hero Fund” -- $99,000 in total -- that she could afford to build a home for her children. An August 17, 1913 article by Louis Ludlow Washington in the “Indianapolis Star” tells the tale:

On several occasions movements have been started looking toward the raising of funds to build a monument. At one time Gen. Clarence R. Edwards, who was Gen. Lawton's chief of staff in the Philippines, conceived the idea of raising a monument fund by appealing to the general's old comrades in arms. The pay of a soldier is so small, however, and the task of reaching so many widely scattered veterans was so great that this movement, like the others, ended in failure.
There is an interesting and true story as to why Mrs. Lawton, the widow of the great commander, never attended to this matter herself. After the general's death she took up her residence in Pewee Valley, near Louisville, Ky., where she still lives with her children. 
She would long ago have built a monument from such means as she had if it were not that Gen. Lawton's wishes, reaching beyond the grave, govern her conduct.

Gen. Edwards relates of his own personal knowledge from a conversation between General and Mrs. Lawton, that the general admonished her, in the event of his death, that such funds as might come to her should be used for the care and education of their children and not a penny should be spent on a monument for him. Gen. Edwards says that undoubtedly Lawton had a strong presentiment amounting almost to a fired bullet, that he would be killed in battle….

In a 1902 letter, Annie Fellows Johnston described the plot for her next book, “The Little Colonel’s Hero,” to Mrs. Lawton and asked what she planned to name her new home:…

They all return to the Valley in the fall where they find the Waltons ensconced in their new home in the country. I should like to call it by name. What can you suggest?  Maybe if you have found a name for your place, you would not object to my referring to it by its real name.

The Lawton girls at play on The Beeches’ front lawn. Many of the parties and events Annie Fellows Johnston 
wrote about in the “Little Colonel” stories occurred in real life at The Beeches. 
Photo from the private collection of Suzanne Schimpeler.

With the book’s publication the following year, The Beeches became a fixture in the “Little Colonel” novels, and in real-life, a popular gathering spot for many Pewees who inspired Annie Fellows Johnston’s characters. The original for the Little Colonel herself, Hattie Cochran Dick, reminisced about The Beeches in this excerpt from an article by Yvonne Eaton titled “Mrs. Albert Dick Remembers“ in the August 7, 1969 issue of “Courier-Journal:”

“All the Walton girls (in real life the daughters of Gen. Henry Ware Lawton) were intimate friends of mine.”

Mrs. Dick also “used to have a lot of fun on that big porch” of the Beeches, home of the Lawtons which Mrs. Johnston bought in 1911.

“Why I don’t know how Mrs. Johnston could cook in that kitchen. I remember it was practically antebellum.”…

In a 1940s interview with Indiana reporter Jeanne Covert Nolan, Mary G. Johnson noted that The Beeches – not The Locust -- was the actual location for many of the most memorable events in the “Little Colonel” stories:

For 10 years the Lawtons occupied the Beeches – and Miss Johnston says that the house literally overflowed with gaiety and laughter then and was constantly filled with you people…most of the gay doings described in the books occurred right at the Beeches…It was this house which was actually the scene of the parties, dances and weddings Annie Fellows Johnston wrote about; on the grounds at the Beeches were staged the tableaux, charades and games; on this veranda were swung the hammocks; and upstairs were the rooms each furnished in its own distinctive color, pink, green or blue….

Correspondence between Mamie Lawton and Annie Fellows Johnston also provides glimpses of daily life at The Beeches. Included in a 1906 letter is a colorful reference to Mrs. Lawton’s difficulties with her cook, who, she writes, “looks like a big black aceofspades prizefighter in petticoats, & knows as much about cooking as a jack rabbit” --  proof that the “practically antebellum” kitchen Hattie Cochran Dick described was never intended for use by the mistress of the house! Years later, after The Beeches was purchased by the Johnstons, Mary Johnston had to call her next-door neighbors for help when the antiquated coal-burning stove blew up, blackening her from head to toe with dust.

In 1911, Mamie Lawton sold her home to Annie Fellows Johnston and moved her family to Annapolis, Maryland, where she remained until her death in 1934.

The Beeches in 1936 from the August 29, 1936 Louisville Herald Post

The Beeches and Grounds
this lawn was the location of many Little Colonel scenes and tableaux


Continue to The Beeches: The Johnston Years and Beyond
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