Last Friday, Dan and I left early in the morning for a three-day trip to Red Cloud, Nebraska. It seemed a bit counter intuitive to most people, when the color in the Rocky Mountains is at its peak, to head east to Nebraska! But, it was a trip that I've been wanting to make for a long time, to see the country where Willa Cather, one of America's famous novelists, grew up.
Willa Cather is the author of a dozen books and many short stories, much of them based on the little prairie town of Red Cloud and the people who lived there. She lived in the town from the age of nine until she left for college. Even though she never returned to Red Cloud to live permanently, she was forever moved by the land and the story of its people and settlement.
On our six-hour drive, Dan and I listened to one of her books, O Pioneers!, to set the mood for our trip. Among the highlights of the trip was staying at the Cather's Second Home, a Victorian house that was purchased by the family in 1903 and is now a bed and breakfast. Our room was next to the room that was reserved for Willa when she came to visit for holidays and in the summertime, and it was on the balcony just off of her bedroom that she was often seen writing.
The house is charming and we enjoyed our evenings on the porch, reading and sipping wine, listening to the music of the crickets, and imagining what the town must have been like back in the day, when a horse drawn street car ran up and down in front of the house, stopping at the courthouse across the street. I imagined the porch filled with friends and family, Willa upstairs doing her writing and, in the afternoons, taking tea. She loved having tea, and her nieces often had the pleasure of making up the tray and serving it to her.
The main street in Red Cloud is crowded with buildings that became the settings for her stories. One of them contained the offices for the local doctor, who Willa came to know and would sometimes accompany on house calls. He eventually became the prototype for Dr. Archie in The Song of the Lark.
On Saturday, we took a tour with a young woman from the Willa Cather Foundation, which is housed in the Red Cloud Opera House. It has a bookstore, art gallery, archives and Foundation offices. Upstairs, the Opera House is still used for programs and seminars. The Foundation is a mainstay for the town, and its recent purchase of a block of buildings will allow for its growth and the establishment of the National Willa Cather Center.
The summertime is busy with visitors, but that morning we were the only ones on the tour. We saw houses and churches and the train depot -- all significant in Willa's writings.
My favorite building was the original Cather house, described in detail in The Song of the Lark. The upstairs attic is where all the children in the Cather family slept, and off to one side is Willa's room, papered with the original wallpaper that she earned by working at the local drugstore. Just like Thea, the character in the book, it meant so much for Willa to have her own room, in that tiny house with all those people, where she could read and write and stay up as late as she wanted!
Another highlight was seeing the house that belonged to Anna Pavelka, the inspiration for My Antonia. That afternoon, we bought some sandwiches and drinks and had lunch in the park, then headed out to the prairie reserve outside of town. The 600 acres of native prairie have been returned to its pre-1900 conditions and are much like the way the prairie looked when the first settlers came to Nebraska. We walked through the grasses that were six-foot high in places, trying to imagine what it was like to tame that land and start a farm.
"My grandfather's homestead was 18 miles from Red Cloud. . . I shall never forget my introduction to it. We drove out...one day in April. I was sitting in the hay in the bottom of a Studebaker wagon, holding on to the side of the wagon box to steady myself. . . the roads were mostly faint trails over the bunch grass in those days. The land was open range and there was almost no fencing. As we drove further and further out into the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything. . . ' (Interview with Willa Cather).
It was all so peaceful and beautiful and serene. I tried to imagine what the country must have been like when it was first settled, then in the years that followed as horses were replaced with automobiles, when the town was so full of life and bustling with activity.
Red Cloud and the little farming communities that surround it have become but shadows of themselves in recent years. But the town still draws scholars from around the world who are interested in the life and work of its most famous resident. Being there was like going back in time, and it was hard to leave. It was a wonderful weekend, a glimpse of a time and place that will live on through the books of Willa Cather.
"When the road began to climb the first long swells of the Divide, Alexandra hummed an old Swedish hymn, and Emil wondered why his sister looked so happy. Her face was so radiant that he felt shy about asking her. For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong, and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. The Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman."