Yesterday we drove to Red Cloud, Nebraska. I’ve longed to see Willa Cather’s childhood home since we moved to the midwest, but something always prevents us: storms, heat, drought, or dismay at the prospect of such a long trip. But the weather was mild (mid-80s), and, after some discussion, we left, early for us - around 9 a.m.
I slept through Omaha, woke up in Lincoln, and as we cruised through rural Nebraska, stared at prairie and corn for miles. (I also jotted down the slogans for many obnoxious billboards to pass the time.) As soon as we turned south - Red Cloud is very near Kansas - the landscape changed. Corn, yes, but brown wheat, too - the first time I've seen wheat.
Then we turned off the highway toward Red Cloud. Suddenly the flatness gave way to rolling prairie and lovely farms with old-fashioned farmhouses. So beautiful. And when we drove into Red Cloud we were amazed by the cobblestoned street of well-maintained red brick and red sandstone buildings (the stone was from Colorado). The town is devoted to Cather in a modest, unobstrusive way: Willa Cather Hardware Store, the Cutter Cafe, Cather & Co. Bookstore, etc. It is not a redneck town or a ghost town. (Our fear.)
We strolled into the Opera House (1885; restored by the Willa Cather foundation in 2003). A charming Foundation guide, who knew everything about Willa and her work, regaled us with information and anecdotes. Willa went regularly to the opera house to see the theater and opera companies, which arrived almost daily on the train, and herself acted in a hometown production of Beauty and the Beast. The guide told us about some of the originals for Willa's fictional characters. Silas Garber, the model for Captain Forrester in A Lost Lady, who was the fourth governor of Nebaska, built and founded the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank in 1889. When the bank failed in 1893, he used his own money to make sure that nobody lost theirs. And Willa loved Mrs. Garber (the model for Mrs. Forrester), a charming woman who was very sociable and brought sophistication to Red Cloud. We also saw photos of Mrs. Anna Pavelka, the hired girl who became Antonia of My Antonia. Willa loved her so much that she paid her taxes in the thirties when everyone was broke.
Above: Willa Cather's house
It was such a thrill to see Willa Cather’s house. It made me understand her in a whole new way. Ordinary and small on the outside, it is surprisingly spacious inside, with 14-ft. high ceilings, some of the original furnishings, all familiar from Thea’s house in Song of the Lark and “Old Mrs. Harris.” After Mr. Cather gave up his farm and moved to Red Cloud for his wife’s health and opened a realty and insurance company, they lived here with their seven children (Willa the oldest), a grandmother, a cousin, and a hired girl. Willa's parents slept in a small room off the pretty parlor, Grandmother in a little room with a sewing machine and a rocking chair, Willa in her own small but very pretty attic room, which has a ceiling-to-floor window and a collection of seashells displayed in a small cabinet, the children in three beds in the open area of the attic, and the hired girl in a small space in the front of the attic. No one knows where the cousin slept.
At the Opera House I stood on the stage where Willa gave her high school valedictory speech. The opera house has the original wood floor and stage. There are still performances there. There are countless photos and posters, and a glass case holds Willa Cather’s lipstick, a notebook in which she recorded her sales, and confederate money in which the Cather's packed some belongings when they moved from Virginia to Nebraska (the money was worthless after the Civil War).
We saw much more, but I’ll just add some pictures and a quotation from "Old Mrs. Harris" which describes the grandmother's room at Willa's house. Unfortunately we don’t have photos of the inside of buildings. Our camera had flash (not allowed)!
Above: a happy pony across from the depot!
Above: the Miners' house, where Anna Pavelka (Antonia) was a hired girl.
Above: The bank, founded by Silas Garber (Captain Forrester in A Lost Lady), in 1889. Inside the building is gorgeous, with elaborately carved wooden banker's cages from Chicago.
Below: three photos of the Willa Cather Prairie, newly planted (soon to be gorgeous)
Here is an almost literal description of Willa’s grandmother’s room in the short story, “Old Mrs. Harris”:
"It was a queer place to be having coffee, when Mrs. Rosen liked order and comeliness so much: a hideous, cluttered room, furnished with a rocking-horse, a sewing-machine, an empty baby-buggy. A walnut table stood against a blind window, piled high with old magazines and tattered books, and children’s caps and coats. There was a wash-stand (two wash-stands, if you counted to oilcloth-covered box as one). A corner of the room was curtained off with some black-and-red-striped cotton goods, for a clothes closet. In another corner was the wooden lounge with a thin mattress and a red calico spread which was Grandma’s bed. Beside it was her wooden rocking-chair, and the little splint-bottom chair with the legs sawed short on which her darning-basket usually stood, but which Mrs. Rosen was now using for a tea-table.”