I’ve been out of town four out of the past five weekends, and from Oct. 11-Nov.11, I was in Seattle, Albuquerque, San Diego and Louisville on eight flights coming and going. Amazingly, I haven’t picked up any bugs from all those airports. Last weekend, I was researching a magazine article at the Galt House Hotel (which was truly gorgeous) on the Ohio River, when I had a fun field trip that Sunday to go see Pewee Valley. The pewee is a bird with a distinctive call in this area about 20 miles north of Louisville although unfortunately development has all but destroyed the bird’s habitat so apparently one almost never hear it anymore.
The place is also known as Lloydsboro Valley in the Little Colonel books, a series of girls’ books written from 1895-1912 that I began reading when I was 8. My mother got me interested in them and we’d haunt antique stores when I was young so I could buy a few. Now I think the originals are almost impossible to find. My children’s book “Knights, Maidens and Dragons: Six Medieval Tales of Virtue and Valor” has six stories taken from the Little Colonel series and retold. The copyright expired in 1987, so I was able to re-tell these jewel-like allegories in 20th-century language. The book first came out in 1998 with the title of “Waiting for True Love” but after I got the rights back, I renamed it. And a year ago, Chalfont House re-issued it with the illustrations.
Anyway, I had always wanted to see the region where the events of the books (made famous by the 1935 movie “The Little Colonel” starring Shirley Temple). I began corresponding with Suzanne Schimpeler, who heads up the historical society there and she met me at the hotel Sunday morning to show me the highlights of Pewee Valley.
We first drove to The Locusts, where I posed by the gate and on the driveway leading to a majestic white mansion with columns. Although it’s furnished, unfortunately it is not inhabited at present and thus not open to the public. But it was wonderful walking down that long avenue, which in the spring is decked with white locust blossoms. She then took me by other homes that were in the books, such as The Beeches and Edgewood, both the site for numerous incidents in the books as well as the local Episcopal church, which was the stone church in “The LIttle Colonel’s Knight Comes Riding” – or was it the Presbyterian church? What amazed me was how so close – walking distance – everything was from each other whereas the book made them sound miles apart. Of course everything was by horseback or train – mostly – as the car was just coming in. We also visited a Confederate cemetery. And a black and white cemetery, as the races were divided back then even by death. Later I told Suzanne about visiting Prince Edward Island, home of Anne of Green Gables, a book written in 1908 which was when Annie Fellows Johnston was in the midst of her Little Colonel series. There was a whole industry around those books: Two bookstores of Anne memorabilia; play that ran *daily* of Anne’s life, an estate you could visit where you could live out in your mind what Avonlea would have been like. Avonlea, Anne’s home, had far less basis in reality than did the Little Colonel books, but hadn’t stopped the Canadians from building a fantasy world that brings in tourism dollars to an out-of-the-way place. It was one of the first places Kate Middleton went to when she visited Canada in 2011.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if somehow Pewee Valley could be developed like this? Currently, the area has nowhere to eat and no commercial space – other than a veterinary clinic – to speak of. Just think if someone bought The Locusts, staged a Little Colonel play in the theater at the main intersection, put in a few restaurants and parking, established a bookstore with tourism goodies – the possibilities are endless. It’d be interesting to know how many Little Colonel fans would find their way to Pewee Valley but don’t linger there because there’s no place to eat, nothing to buy and very little to keep them there. Of course it takes money to build that kind of infrastructure to bring the tourists. Pewee Valley is right on a major commuter train route.