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RED CLOUD, NEBRASKA - A Willa Cather pilgrimage

Many readers here will have at least read "My Antonia" or "Death Comes to the Archbishop." Though a large number of authors acknowledge Willa Cather as one of America's very best writers, the general public certainly knows her less than F. Scott Fitzgerald or Hemingway. A few things may soon change that - Jessica Lange's appeared in one of two versions of "Oh Pioneers" and Endre Hules, a Hungarian actor I know here in L.A., has appeared now in TWO on-screen versions of her novels: "My Antonia" and Masterpiece Theater's "Song of the Lark" (coming out soon.) [NOTE: if you see it, the town in it is NOT Red Cloud. They transformed an historical town to the north.

As it happens, Cather, who moved to Nebraska from Virginia when she was six but spent most of her adult life in New York, used her home town and the lives of its occupants in most of her writing. So, for Cather admirers, visiting Red Cloud goes beyond biographical curiosity - the town is intimately bound with her work. Especially since Silas Garber, whose young wife was somewhat scandalously immortalized in "A Lost Lady", founded not only the town's bank, but the town itself.

INTERESTING NOTE: While in New York, Cather, who loved music and children (she was her large family's eldest sibling), befriended a young prodigy: Yehudi Menuhin. In his autobiography, he describes her as a kind of 'maiden aunt'.

Just imagine that friendship....


Arriving in Kansas, I stayed in Colby, the only town where I actually found a local 'motel' that was really like an old rooming house (and happened to have the same name as my street in North Hollywood, as I pointed out to its amazed owner.) I'd thought to have a 'down home' breakfast, but was dismayed to find there was no place to do so - the locals went to one of the chains down the road, off the main highway. On the other hand, the tiny local library had internet access.

Signs of the times...

Though I never got to see it, Colby has a Prairie Museum. Fitting for a Cather trip - a lot of her work praises the beauty and describes the development of the prairie.

Driving north, I stopped just before Nebraska in a tiny town whose local antique store had been advertized further back. The town itself was invisible from the road, but following a sign, I suddenly found myself on one of the tiniest Main Streets I've ever seen (bearing in mind that some larger towns don't even HAVE Main Streets). About a block and a half of two restaurants, a car repair place, the large but incredibly disorganized (and closed) 'antique mall' and even (as I remember a tiny bank (which may not have been operative.) The locals, all headed to lunch, naturally enough noticed me and one woman even greeted me. I was SO tempted to stay for lunch.

Great location for a horror flick...

As I crossed into Nebraska, after some spectacular feathery plants around a small body of water, I noticed a bit of preserved prairie which I later learned was named the 'Cather Prairie'. I was getting closer...


As I drove into Red Cloud, I was delighted to see a fine old hotel and a restaurant right next to it, in a turn of the century red brick building. Then I saw that both were for sale...

The town, which had once been a major center for the area, is now far less active, despite a steady flow of Cather-related tourism. As I learned later, the loss of the railroad in particular was a big blow.

On the next cross street (the only one), I saw a tall narrow building with "The Willa Cather Society" marked on black in white, slightly antique letters. This it turned out had been Silas Garber's bank. Next door, the society sells materials and gives tours from a storefront. Stepping in, I met Priscilla, a grey-haired widow who was born in Red Cloud but spent 40 years in Pasadena and Glendale. Very cultured and very knowledgeable about both Cather and Red Cloud. She'd even known a number of the models for Cather's characters, which was iceing on the cake.

The store carries Cather's books, documents on the town and probably every critical treatise on her work. Including several in a gay and lesbian series, which prompted me to ask if they get any specifically gay tours coming through. Priscilla said no, and added mildly that there was some 'controversy' on that subject, certain members of the family denying that she ever was...

Amusing, when you consider that Cather walked around this very conventional town in men's clothing when she was sixteen and in general was remarkably open for her time.

At four, I got the Cather tour which starts with her family home. The biggest surprise was that this house, which plays a part in pages and pages of some of America's most important literature, is really quite small. It's basically a one-story house with an extended attic. Interesting though - the wall between the parents' bedroom and the living room is slanted, with French doors. The effect is to make both rooms seem larger. Behind these, the kitchen is taken up largely by a magnificent old mail-order stove, black with chrome fittings.

The attic, though, was most revealing. I'd seen pictures of the beds where Cather's younger siblings slept, all in a row. But I hadn't realized how small their shared space was. This made it all the more striking when I turned to the added room where the young Cather had lived - a true ROOM, with room for a bed, a small desk and still have space. Quite generous, given the family's limited resources.

I immediately thought of Virginia Woolf's idea of "A Room of Her Own", that many women had not become writers simply because they had no room of their own in which to write. Already as a girl, Cather HAD a room of her own - and the parental confidence this profligate gift implied.

Those who love her work can only be grateful. As Cather apparently was to her parents, who are lovingly portrayed in more than one of her works.

Other stops on the tour were as interesting for a general glimpse of the life of the time as they were for their insight into Cather's life. This was after all an ethically rich area, where immigrants from 'Bohemia' (Czechoslovakia), Scandinavia, Russia and France mixed. The train station (which was purchased from the railroad and moved across the road) includes an exhibit of some of these people arriving. It's also a well-preserved sample of its kind. For a city-dweller like myself, it was also useful to see the samples of prairie plants growing in labelled clumps out back.

Cather herself joined the Episcopal Church here long after she moved away, and paid for two stained glass windows in memory of her parents. Annie Pavelka, the model for "My Antonia", frequented the Catholic chapel which the immigrants financed between them. It had no resident priest, and they couldn't afford a bell. Instead, they listened for the train whistle, signaling the arrival of an itinerant priest.

The bank, which currently houses the actual Society, is small but a beauty. The square teller's section in particular is beautifully designed, with a skylight above it. All around, too, are photos of local people who figured in Cather's novels, including the very handsome Annie Pavelka and the glowering Silas Garber and his dark-eyed petite young wife.

One interesting tidbit was that a man who was the model for a truly EVIL character in "My Antonia" was actually quite proud of being in the novel. Shades of talk show fame....

I'd had fantasies of staying in a sweet B&B, but there was in fact no place at all (which apparently is a little embarassing when tour groups come through, as is the lack of a restaurant.) So, having had my Cather fix, I headed on to Lincoln.


continue to Cities of the Plains

LAST UPDATED: February 2001