Pewee Valley celebrates 150-years but without its historian

The historic Edgewood home sits at 114 Edgewood Way. Built in the 1850s by Walter Haldeman, founder of the Louisville Courier, the estate could’ve been destroyed were it not for the preservation efforts of Donna and David Russell.
Andrew Henderson / The Oldham Era

It started with Edgewood.

It was 1987 and the people of Pewee Valley were banding together to save a historic home in town that was slated for destruction in just a few short weeks.

Developers were eyeing an area for a subdivision and one house, Edgewood, stood in the way of what would become the development’s main road.

Edgewood, at one point called Sunnyside, is a two-story Italianate brick home built in the 1850s by Walter Haldeman, a newspaper publisher and founder of the Louisville Courier. The paper would later merge with the Louisville Journal to form the current day Courier Journal.

According to an archived edition of The Oldham Era, the 6,000-square-foot-home was built with bricks three deep, fireplaces in nearly every room and servants quarters upstairs.

The Craig family bought Sunnyside from Haldeman and changed the name to Edgewood, a name bestowed upon the house by Annie Fellows Johnston, author of “The Little Colonel” book series. 

Johnston settled in Pewee Valley in 1911 across from Edgewood at The Beeches; many of the people and places in Pewee Valley would become inspirations for Johnston’s numerous entries in “The Little Colonel” series. 

The Craig family made an addition to the estate and built a schoolhouse in the backyard so their daughter, Fannie Craig, could become a teacher. Fannie Craig was the real-life model for the character of Miss Allison in Johnston’s books.

Then the Sedley family bought the home and turned the schoolhouse into a rental house. When Elinore Sedley died the heirs sold Edgewood to the highest bidder—Esposito Builders and Adams Custom Built Homes.

Pewee Valley residents scrambled for a way to save the house, and even the developers were hesitant to tear down Edgewood, preferring to find someone to move the house rather than tear it down. People looked and pleaded for someone out there to save Edgewood, to save a part of historic Pewee Valley.

Edgewood made the local news— developers were willing to give away the historic house to anyone willing to pay to move it, build a basement, buy a lot and restore it.

Donna and David Russell saw the news, took the deal and bought Edgewood for $1.

That was the start of it all, the beginning of Donna Russell’s years-long endeavor into preserving and chronicling the history of Pewee Valley.

“I think from the day she moved in there she never stopped,” Suzanne Schimpler, president of the Pewee Valley Historical Society said of Donna Russell’s efforts in chronicling Pewee Valley history. “That was her thing, that was her history, that was her modus operandi. She was going to research everything related to it [Edgewood].”

However, her endeavor, ultimately and untimely, came to an end Oct. 16, 2019 when she died of inflammatory breast cancer at the age of 65. The history of Pewee Valley marches on without Donna Russell, the city’s formally recognized historian, as it prepares to celebrate its sesquicentennial founding celebration on March 14.

Donna Russell was born outside of Cleveland in a town called Bay Village in 1954. 

To hear Claire Andrews tell it, her sister was all but destined from a young age to have a rabid interest in history.

Andrews told the Era that their parents were very interested in genealogy, especially their dad. She recounted the lack of amusement parks they went to growing up that were instead replaced with visits to museums or graveyards. Oftentimes their dad would have them do etchings of the tombstones, which she said he saved.

Andrews recounted one summer they were traveling around Ohio and visited the Native American mound at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. At the mound, Donna Russell pulled out a Girl Scout knife and started to dig—hoping to uncover artifacts.

“We just grew up that way,” Andrews said. “I’m pretty sure that’s what caused Donna to be so interested in it. To see she did this later in life did not surprise any of us.”

Donna Russell imparted her childhood family vacations on to her family, which included her two daughters Alexandra Longstreet and Tess Kurtz.

Longstreet said their mom would read every museum plague and Kurtz said she dragged them to every antique shop in the United States.

In 1989, the Russell family moved into Edgewood. Longstreet, the youngest of the two, was about 4-years-old and her sister would’ve been about 7-years-old.

Edgewood itself had to be physically moved from where it sat on Central Avenue to where it sits today at 114 Edgewood. The estate was moved in 1988 by Edwards Moving and Rigging of Shelbyville. The company received an award for the heaviest building moved that year, having moved the 825-ton solid masonry estate intact.

David and Donna Russell stand outside Edgewood as the home prepares to be moved.
Courtesy of Alexandra Longstreet

Before moving to Pewee Valley, the Russell family lived in another historic antebellum home in the Portland neighborhood of Louisville, which Donna and David Russell also worked to restore.

“We always lived in the biggest house, that’s how all our friends thought of it,” Kurtz said.

The Russells married in 1977. David Russell said shortly into their marriage the two did the unthinkable by “buying a big house” and undertaking the renovation of it, which took about 10 years.

While Donna Russell had long had an interest in history, antiques, artifacts and the like, David Russell, at the time a financial consultant for Merrill Lynch, said the historic preservation of homes was something he had an interest in first and she later picked it up.

“I had the bug first, but she picked up on it quickly,” he said.

The Edgewood home was prominently featured in Johnston’s book “Two Little Knights of Kentucky.”

The 1899 book focused on Lloyd Sherman, the main heroine and titular Little Colonel, and Malcolm and Keith, two “aristocratic children who chivalric ideals take them through a series of exciting adventures” as the “two little knights,” a synopsis of the book reads.

One point in the story in particular stands out, it’s when the two boys smuggled a bear into the Edgewood house.

“’Oh, there’s an awful, awful wild beast in the blue room, nearly as tall as the ceiling! It rose up and came after us out of the corner, and if I hadn’t slammed the door just in time, it would have eaten us up. I’m sure it would! Oo-oo-oo! It was so awful!’” the character Virginia in “Two Little Knights of Kentucky” wailed upon discovering the bear upstairs.

Malcom and Keith “with guilty faces” went up the stairs, opened the door and the bear, awoken from its nap, was standing on its hind legs.

Was there, at one point, a bear hidden in one of the rooms of the Edgewood estate? Schimpler is adamant that much of Johnston’s work in “Little Colonel” is not fantasy and actually happened.

Longstreet said it was possible a bear was snuck into her childhood home, but her mother wasn’t able to completely verify the claim. She said as you walk up the backstairs of the Edgewood house there are floorboards, which flip up, acting like a trapdoor.

“I choose to believe that one was true,” Longstreet said.

Donna Russell had a passion for the “Little Colonel” book series. Sue McDaniel, professor and special collections librarian at Western Kentucky University, said “Little Colonel” was a passion she and Donna Russell shared; Donna Russell would personally purchase Johnston and “Little Colonel” items, such as dolls.

McDaniel has written an article on Johnston and “Little Colonel” books for the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society.

McDaniel said she might have met Donna Russell for the first time at a speech McDaniel gave for the Oldham County Historical Society. She said the Pewee Valley Historical Society’s 2008 event honoring “The Little Colonel” drew many Johnston scholars, like herself.

“Through Donna’s contacts, I got to see the interior of several homes that Johnston used for her Little Colonel novels which otherwise would’ve been inaccessible to me,” McDaniel said.

In 2017, in large part due to Donna Russell’s efforts, a Kentucky Historical Society marker was placed in front of The Beeches, recognizing the home near Pewee Valley town square where Johnston lived and wrote several of her “Little Colonel” novels.

Nancy Theiss, executive director of the Oldham County Historical Society and who also worked on getting the marker, said Donna Russell raised the level and knowledge of Pewee Valley more than anybody she remembers working with.

“It’s a real loss for the county and the Oldham County Historical Society,” Theiss said.

Donna Russell always wanted to help people learn about history, because she also had a desire to learn as much as she could.

Schimpler said sometimes people would call the historical society asking about the possibility of them having an ancestor who lived in Pewee Valley, or if there was any historic value in their home.

Schimpler said Donna Russell would go to the Oldham County Courthouse, or the Oldham County Historical Society, or even the Filson Historical Society in Louisville or wherever it was she had to go or whatever it was she had to do to track down information.

She wasn’t being paid to do any of that work, the town historian position was not something people did for money.

“So Donna, out of the graciousness of her heart, but also out of great interest, went to great lengths,” Schimpler said.

In the same vein, Donna Russell constantly offered her help for the Kate Matthews Collection housed at the University of Louisville. Kate Matthews spent most of her life in Pewee Valley and was best known for her photographs depicting characters in the “Little Colonel” series. Johnston was a friend and neighbor.

Delinda Buie, curator of rare books at UofL Ekstrom Library, said Donna Russell had an encyclopedic memory and an eagerness for research. She said Donna Russell would send them new items to update the Kate Matthews Collection, and through doing that she contributed a lot to the university’s understanding of the people and relationships in the collection.

“What’s unusual about Donna is she was able to give us so much because she was a thorough researcher,” Buie said. “She lived in the community and loved the community.”

Donna Russell’s interest in Pewee Valley history went beyond the “Little Colonel” and touched various facets of the city, such as the Pewee Valley Cemetery and the Kentucky Confederate Home.

Donna Russell poses for a photo with her grandchildren.
Courtesy of Alexandra Longstreet

The two Russell daughters said as they grew up they heard a lot of Pewee Valley history from their mother, whether they wanted to or not. Kurtz said her mom would sometimes just get so excited she couldn’t help but tell her about the people she was learning about and what she was writing.

“She would talk about people and you wouldn’t know if they were alive or dead because she talked about them like they were her friends,” Longstreet said.

That excitement underlined a tenacity to never give up on a project and to see it through.

And Donna Russell kept her determination, perhaps stubbornness to some, up until she died.

Her sister Claire Andrews said in her last months, Donna Russell felt like she was up against a deadline. Andrews said she could tell that her sister was sick and not herself.

Longstreet said the family tried to get her mother to slow down or delegate the tasks she was still working on, but she never relented. Sometimes, Longstreet would drive her mother to physical therapy and then back to Pewee Valley City Hall to meet with someone who was donating an item to the museum.

“She was going to work until she couldn’t anymore, and that’s what she did,” Longstreet said.

At one point, Andrews said her sister developed lymphedema in her right hand, which left her unable to use a computer mouse; nevertheless, Donna Russell continued the work on her two books.

One of the books Donna Russell was working on was a chronology of Pewee Valley history, and despite her decline in health, Schimpler said she got the chronology up to around the 1970s. Her other book examines the homes, people, landmarks and other events of Pewee Valley. The books share similarities, Schimpler said, but the chronology is lighter.

“She had multiple rounds of chemo and everything, she was so sick,” Schimpler said. “I said, ‘You know what, you got it all the way up to the 70s, some other historian will pick this up and finish that,’ and she said ‘Oh no, no.’”

David Russell said it was painful at times to watch his wife fervently continuing her writing and research, but he also felt encouraged by it. He said he could feel her frustration toward the end because his wife knew she wouldn’t be able to finish the books.

Schimpler said the Pewee Valley Historical Society is searching for an editor for the two books and is adamant about getting them published.

Family members said they’re hopeful someone in Pewee Valley will continue the work, but they’re also aware that even if someone were to take up the mantle it just wouldn’t be the same.

“I don’t know if anyone can fill her shoes, ever,” Longstreet said.

While the history of Pewee Valley marches on without Donna Russell, that’s not to say the city will forget about her and the contributions she made.

On March 14, the sesquicentennial of Pewee Valley’s founding, the city will dedicate and name the Pewee Valley Museum, itself a testament to Donna Russell’s work and determination, in memory and honor of her; making it the Donna Andrews Russell Pewee Valley Museum.

Jane Brizendine, secretary for the Pewee Valley Historical Society, said dedicating the museum to Donna Russell was a wonderful thing. Brizendine said in Donna Russell’s last month alive, the two of them inventoried the entire museum.

Likewise, Donna Russell’s family is excited to have the museum named after their mom, wife and sister.

“That museum is sort of a memorial of all the lives she brought together,” Kurtz said.

While the family is happy about the dedication, they still have to navigate a world without Donna Russell.

For Claire Andrews it means being the last surviving sister of the Andrews family, and being without a sister she loved very much and grew up alongside.

For Alex Longstreet and Tess Kurtz it means being without a mother, and for their children not having a grandmother.

And for David Russell it means a feeling of emptiness at the Edgewood estate.

When Edgewood was moved all those years ago, David Russell said some stairs had been “lost” in the move. They were discovered some 25 years later and when his wife died, David Russell decided to use the steps for good use. He’s going to put a bench up next to Donna Russell’s monument, and on the front it’ll say:

“‘Come sit with me, come tell me your Pewee Valley history,’ that’s what I think Donna would say to anybody,” David Russell said.

Donna Russell’s all-consuming interest in Pewee Valley history stemmed from Edgewood, really started with Edgewood. And in this way, it also ended with Edgewood.

Online at The Oldham Era

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