Midnight In Lonesome Hollow


Lonesome Hollow by Kathleen Ernster448w


I have always loved the southern Appalachian mountains. Although I’ve lived in Wisconsin for many years now, I went to college in West Virginia, spent many summers in western Maryland, and have enjoyed many hikes and rambles through the mountains in the southern states. My editor at American Girl knows that, so when she invited me to write a second Kit mystery, she suggested setting the book in Kentucky.  (My first Kit mystery, Danger at the Zoo, was set in Cinncinnati.)

In the original Kit books, readers meet Aunt Millie, who lives in the fictional community of Mountain Hollow, Kentucky. Setting the mystery in that region, during a visit Kit makes to Aunt Millie, opened up all kinds of new possibilities.

I did some preliminary reading about Eastern Kentucky during the Great Depression. Then I headed to Kentucky! I started at the Kentucky History Center.

KY History Center

Members of the Folklife Program staff showed me some of their collections, recommended people I should talk with, and suggested places to visit.

Then I visited the archives. The staff there helped me identify some wonderful audio tapes made in the 1960s. Elderly people were interviewed about their lives, and many of them talked about life in the mountains during the Great Depression. I learned a lot, and picked up some great details to use in the mystery.

After that, I was ready to go exploring! I stopped at a number of museums, libraries, and historic sites.


One of my favorite places was the Hensley Settlement, part of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.


The Hensley Settlement was established on top of Brush Mountain in 1904, and was occupied until 1951. I was able to tour the preserved buildings in this remote community. The park ranger who led the tour was great!

Park Ranger448w


I loved being able to walk into the Hensley Settlement School.

Whenever possible, I try to look at a variety of sources relating to a particular topic I’m researching. To learn more, I decided to look for old photographs.

When I got home from that trip, I searched for images of schools in the Kentucky mountains during the Great Depression.


This photo helped me further imagine the experience of students attending Aunt Millie’s fictional school. (LC-USF34-055720-D)

I was able to find many photographs taken in Eastern Kentucky during the Great Depression. Some of the photographers were hired by the government to document life in the mountains. All of the historic photographs on this page are part of the Farm Security Administration collection in the Library of Congress. They were taken by Marion Post Wolcott. The number beneath each photograph is its identification number.


Historical photographs help me describe things, such as these miners’ lamps…


Or the potted flowers on the porch, and the type of butter churn this woman is using.
(LC-USF34- 055754-D)

Portraits like these also help me imagine characters. Do these people remind you of anyone in Midnight in Lonesome Hollow?

Photographs also help me develop scenes. After seeing this one, I wrote about Kit and her friends using creek beds as paths in steep terrain.


These boys are walking home from school, carrying their lunch pails. (LC-USF33-031082-M2)


A mailman on horseback stops to deliver letters, packages, and news—just as Mr. Tibbets does in Midnight in Lonesome Hollow.
(LC-USF34- 055794-D)

The steep mountains in rural Kentucky provided lots of transportation challenges during Kit’s time.


These boys are using the most reliable method of getting from one place to another. (LC-USF34-056440-D)


People who brought cars into the mountains sometimes got into trouble! These men needed the mule to pull the car from the creek. (LC-USF34-055695-D)

The photograph below was labeled “Mountain woman with groceries and supplies resting by the roadside.” During the 1930s and 1940s, people were switching from using home-made items to store-bought ones.


Although this woman brought some sacks to carry her supplies, she still carried one beautiful basket as well.

You can find more photographs by visiting the Prints and Photographs section of the Library of Congress website. Perhaps you’ll find photographs taken during the Great Depression in your area!

PS:  My visit to the Hensley Settlement in Cumberland Gap National Park on that gorgeous autumn day inspired me to write several poems.  One of them, “Inarticulate, 1908,” was published in a journal called Appalachian Heritage.  That was my first published poem!

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40 Responses to “Midnight In Lonesome Hollow”

  1. Kim DuBois Says:

    My daughter loved the Kit books and now it seems he has another one to read.

  2. Arletta Dawdy's Blog Says:

    Your research was thorough and had to have been great fun. Thanks for sharing…I love the Depression era photos from all around the country. They hum with the feel of the times.

  3. caroleestbydagg Says:

    Thanks for sharing your research trail, Kathleen! Travel is much more satisfying when there’s a focus, isn’t it?

  4. kathleen white Says:

    Happy Easter Kathleen! We have come along way in this country since then!

  5. Ruth Nelson-Lau Says:

    Maybe this will be my lucky week?! Kentucky is beautiful, the history center is wonderful. You really do your research to make these books as close to life as possible.

  6. idlivru Says:

    I loved my Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew books…and yes the Hardy Boys which I took from my brothers….would have been great to have these to read also back then.

  7. Janelle Zachow Says:

    Our A.G. Club studied Kit, and I love the spryness of her & her Aunt Millie. Fingers crossed to win a new book:)

  8. teece - patrice. Says:

    the pictures were very moving. such a sad time. thanks for sharing. sometimes we don’t see the reality of other periods of time.
    a Blessed Easter to you.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      I hope you had a wonderful Easter as well. I love to share stories and photos because it helps honor the people who faced such challenging times, often with great grace and creativity.

  9. nancyloswald Says:

    I’m inspired by your research. Loved the old photos. I’m hankering to write a depression story, too, but urban. Just have to finishe up with 1896 Cripple Creek first. Best of luck with your continued give-aways. Nancy

  10. Lori M-C Says:

    My daughter would love this book!

  11. Sara Y. Says:

    A great glimpse into your process as an author! Thanks for sharing!

  12. Liz V. Says:

    Wonderland Creek by Lynn Austin introduced me to the pack horse librarians of Kentucky, part of a WPA program to deliver books to secluded areas.

  13. Tricia Says:

    Sounds like a great book – after reading it, I would donate it to my 4th grader’s teacher or the school library.

  14. Suzanne Says:

    My daughter would love to win your book! Kit was her first AG and she still loves her (and her stories) so much after 6 years!

  15. Donna Says:

    My daughter loves the American Girl mysteries AND wants to be an author! Thanks for showing how you researched for this book.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Donna, please tell your daughter that I think it’s wonderful that she wants to be an author. She should keep reading, and practice writing, and follow her dream!

  16. Madelon Says:


  17. Barbara Campbell Says:

    My daughter would love this book. Her dolls read her books together with her. 🙂

  18. marabird Says:

    Kit is a amazing American Girl. She helped in the Great Depression which is great. I hope you will visit my blog.

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