Writing Willa Cather’s (and Red Cloud’s) next chapter
It’s the people, the prairie and the places of Red Cloud, Neb., that were the inspiration for many of famous Nebraska author Willa Cather’s books.
Now those places and prairies are being restored and preserved through the work of the Willa Cather Foundation, keeping Red Cloud on the map by providing jobs and attracting more than 10,000 visitors every year to this town with a population of just 992. And the foundation is hoping an exciting new project will attract even more visitors to this tiny Nebraska town.
Already, a downtown opera house where Cather once performed has been transformed into a multi-use space housing an art gallery, a performance center, a gift shop carrying everything Willa Cather and the offices for the Willa Cather Foundation.
The foundation’s seven full-time and seven part-time employees work with a volunteer board of 30 Cather enthusiasts from around the country to preserve and promote understanding and appreciation for the work of Willa Cather, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “One of Ours” in 1922.
The town and people of Red Cloud influenced the characters and settings in many of Cather’s books, such as “My Antonia,” and “O Pioneers!”
Bringing Cather’s stories to life
Started in 1955 by Red Cloud resident Mildred Bennett, the Willa Cather Foundation, in cooperation with the Nebraska State Historical Society, offers tours to many of the places popular in Cather’s books, such as her childhood home, the Farmers’ and Merchant’s Bank Building featured in the book “A Lost Lady,” the Grace Episcopal Church, the St. Juliana Catholic Church, the Burlington Depot and even a stretch of 612 acres of original prairie.
The Cather Foundation historic site has the largest number of national historically designated buildings devoted to one author in the United States.
“There’s nothing quite like Red Cloud,” said Tracy Tucker, education director for the Willa Cather Foundation. “Red Cloud really has something special here.”
Renewing interest through restoration
In late March, the foundation announced it had raised 95 percent of the funds for its next project, restoring the historic 1886 Moon Block building in downtown Red Cloud. Eventually, this building will become the National Willa Cather Center, adding 20,000 square feet to the Cather Foundation’s space. This will allow display space for more Cather treasures currently in storage, a research center, classrooms and expanded bookstore and art gallery. Ashley Olson, Willa Cather Foundation Executive Director, said the renovation of the Moon Block building into the National Willa Cather Center could be complete by early 2016.
“We are just really excited about what the future holds,” she said. “It’s definitely a new chapter.”
There’s excitement about new types of programs that can be offered, distance learning opportunities, expanded Cather curriculums in schools and much more.
Ashley said the restoration project’s main goal is to continue the mission of bringing attention to Cather’s status as one of the leading women authors and to continue to boost the center’s status as a destination for scholars, teachers, students and tourists.
Ten years ago, when the Opera House renovation was completed, Ashley said the number of visits increased by 2,500 annually. The foundation is hoping for an increase again with the National Cather Center renovation, a project that might also encourage repeat visitors.
“It isn’t like you’ve seen Red Cloud once and you never come again,” said Ashley, who is a Red Cloud native. “It will be things people haven’t seen before.”
Showcasing even more Cather treasures
Tracy said she is most excited about having a space to showcase the 5,000 Willa Cather treasures now in storage.
“We currently have several archival closets, and they are stuffed,” she said. They are filled with items such as clothing once worn by Willa Cather, her jewelry and manuscripts.
Scholars from around the country make trips to Red Cloud to study Cather treasures. Having those treasures displayed instead of hiding in closets will make their work more efficient and convenient.
Tracy, who has a degree in Great Plains studies and creative writing, coordinates an annual Willa Cather Spring Conference, which draws approximately 150 Cather enthusiasts to Red Cloud. This year’s conference will be June 5-7 and will feature Clay Jenkinson, a popular cultural commentator and host of NPR’s “The Thomas Jefferson Hour.” She also organizes a Prairie Writer’s Workshop, which brings 10-20 writers to the Nebraska prairie for learning and inspiration. This year’s workshop is May 14-18.
To schedule a tour of the Willa Cather sites in Red Cloud, visit the web site at www.willacather.org.
For more information…
Willa Cather Foundation
413 North Webster
Red Cloud NE 68970