Road Trip: A Small Prairie Town Honors Willa Cather
A visit to Red Cloud, Neb., offers a richer understanding of the author’s evocative writings
Sophia Dembling is a freelance writer who specializes in travel stories.
by Sophia Dembling
I am obviously a stranger in this small Nebraska town (population: 1,000) but the residents are used to seeing my kind. Red Cloud is the onetime home of author Willa Cather. Each year about 10,000 of her devotees make the pilgrimage to “Cather Country.”
Much of Cather's body of work can be traced to these streets and houses, to the long-gone souls who once lived here and the wide prairie that surrounds the town. Red Cloud was the inspiration for three of her most enduring novels, O Pioneers (which turns 100 next year), The Song of the Lark and My Antonia.
(More: The Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve)
How Her Prairie Roots Took Hold
Cather was born in Virginia in 1873 and moved to Red Cloud when she was 10 years old. She was not impressed. “This country was mostly wild pasture and as naked as the back of your hand,” she told The Omaha Bee in a 1921 interview. But, she continued, “by the end of the first autumn, that shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake."
Cather’s father, Charles, tried farming on the prairie but struggled. He later moved his growing family into a little rented house in Red Cloud and opened a land office. Willa lived there until 1890, when she left for college in Lincoln. After that, she returned often to visit, but lived in Philadelphia and New York, where she died in 1947. But Red Cloud, which was named for the Oglala Lakota chief, and the prairie provided Cather with enough fodder to pen a canon that places her among America’s greatest 20th-century authors.
A Town as Literary History
One of the benefits of becoming famous in your lifetime is that people figure out pretty early that they should hang onto stuff for posterity. And so Willa Cather’s Red Cloud is lovingly preserved. The Willa Cather Foundation, established in 1955, is trustee of the writer's legacy. The foundation owns several significant structures in and outside of town and manages others owned by the Nebraska State Historical Society. The foundation also has “Cather Country” markers at other important sites.
A Novel Place to Stay
For my stay, I booked a room in Willa Cather’s Second Home. She never lived here full-time, but her family bought the house in 1903 and owned it until 1944. The foundation purchased it in 2011, restored it and opened the inn in 2012. Today, the house features six pretty guest rooms, inviting common areas, and a full kitchen; you can rent a room, or the whole house. My comfortable room was called Haverford, for a town in the novel Lucy Gayheart. It was once the room of Willa’s brother Douglas.
Let the Tour Begin
Your first stop should be the foundation headquarters in the 1885 Red Cloud Opera House. Here you can buy maps for a self-guided walking/driving tour of Cather sites. However, to see building interiors you must take one of the four daily tours offered by the foundation. (See sidebar: Other Authors, Other Homes.)
Held all year, the tours start in the opera house, where Cather’s high school class — of three students — graduated. She gave her valedictory address from the stage. From the front window of the lobby you can see the offices of Dr. McKeeby, who was the prototype for the encouraging Dr. Archie in The Song of the Lark.
The 1886 Farmer’s and Merchant’s Bank houses a small Cather museum. I am drawn to a circa 1951 photo of Anna Pavelka (nee Sadilek) at 80. Pavelka, a Bohemian immigrant, was the model for Antonia, the title character in Cather’s most beloved novel, My Antonia, published in 1918. Here too, set around the bank’s original ornately carved tellers’ windows, are mementos from Cather’s life and books: a music box with a figure of a Turkish lady atop it that the lovely little Marie played in O Pioneers; a calling-card holder mentioned in A Lost Lady; and a 1931 photograph of Cather and a passel of children at Christmas, taken in the living room of the Second Home during Cather's last visit to Red Cloud.
Cather's First House
Nine people, including her maternal grandmother and a housemaid, Margie Anderson, were all tucked into the Cathers’ first, trim little frame house on North Cedar Street. The home still contains many relics of the family's life, from furniture to canned fruit. Willa’s little attic room is preserved behind Plexiglass because visitors kept tearing off souvenirs of the original wallpaper, which Willa bought with money saved while working for the local pharmacist. Young Willa, just like Thea in The Song of the Lark, found retreat, herself and her voice as an artist in this attic nest.
Where Antonia Worked
The Harling House is named for the family that hired Antonia as a house maid and softened her rough edges, just as the real-life Miners, who lived here, hired Anna Pavelka. Willa played with the Miner children, and Mrs. Miner left a lasting impression. “There’s a little of Julia Miner in every mother in her fiction,” said my guide, Angela Duca. This house, too, contains artifacts from the family and an apartment for visiting Cather scholars. (The town hosts an annual Cather conference; the next is May 31 and June 1.)
Other Sites to Visit
The town tour also stops at the railroad depot and a couple of churches, including the St. Juliana Falconieri Catholic Church, where Pavelka had her out-of-wedlock child baptized and was married — Cather fans will recognize more of Antonia’s story here.
At the Red Cloud cemetery, you can visit the graves of Cather’s parents and grandmother, and Margie Anderson. (Cather is buried in New Hampshire.) On the other side of town, I saw the house where Dr. McKeeby lived and where, in Cather's fictional world, Thea picked strawberries. Someone appeared to be living there as if it were an ordinary house, so I kept a polite distance.
Writing My Own Final Chapter
The Cather foundation also offers tours of the surrounding countryside, but instead I picked up a map and tooled around that Big Sky scenery myself. I visited Anna Pavelka’s grave on a windy piece of prairie, as well as the spot where her father was buried after he committed suicide (a tragedy depicted in My Antonia).
And I drove to Pavelka’s last home, a rambling, worn white farmhouse surrounded by prairie. It is owned by the state historical society but has not been restored and feels stopped in time. Around the side are doors leading down to the root cellar described in one of My Antonia’s sweetest scenes, when Antonia’s flock of towheaded children burst from underground into the sunlight.
I finished each day of my visit to Red Cloud at the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, 610 virgin acres, unchanged from the author's day. I would hike out to a spot where the very few passing cars seemed far away, watch the sun set and imagine young Willa Cather doing the same.
Other Authors, Others Homes
Why stop at Willa Cather? Here are five other iconic American authors whose environments you can visit.
Flannery O’Connor: Childhood Home, 207 East Charlton St., Savannah, Ga. 31401; (912) 233-6014. Also Andalusia, P.O. Box 947, Milledgeville, Ga., 31059; (478) 454-4029.
William Faulkner: Rowan Oak, Old Taylor Rd., Oxford, Miss.; (662) 234-3284.
Edith Wharton: The Mount, 2 Plunkett Street - Box 974, Lenox, Mass., 01240; (413) 551-5111.
Louisa May Alcott: Orchard House, 399 Lexington Rd., Concord, Mass., 01743; (978) 369-4118.
Mark Twain: Boyhood Home and Museum, 120 North Main, Hannibal, Mo., 63401; (573) 221-9010 and Mark Twain House and Museum, 351 Farmington Avenue, Hartford, Conn., 06105; (860) 247-0998.