We drove a couple of hundred miles due south from Mitchell, South Dakota to Red Cloud, Nebraska near the Kansas state line on the last day of May to make a pilgrimage to Willa Cather's (1873-1947) childhood home. Peter and I both love her writing and had visited her grave in Jaffrey, New Hampshire (near Mt. Monadnock) when Peter was at the MacDowell Colony in 2007. The world of of early settlers on the high plains in Cather's novels is both distant in time and, for two Easterners, far away geographically. If you ever find yourself within a state or two of Willa Cather's hometown and source of artistic inspiration, Red Cloud is worth a detour.
Willa was born in Virginia and moved to Nebraska with her family when she was nine years old.
Having made up her mind to become a surgeon (an occupation open only to men at the time) at the age of 15 in 1888, Cather cropped her hair short, dressesd like a boy, and referred to herself as “William Cather, M.D.”
Willa Cather lived in Red Cloud during the boom years of settling the prairie. The population of the town peaked at about 2,000 in the 1890's. Today there are just over 1,000 residents.
Willa carved her initials "W.C." into a brick on the side wall of the building where here father had his office:
The Farmers' and Merchants' Bank Building:
Which figures in the 1923 novel, A Lost Lady.
The edge of town is never far from view:
In The Song of the Lark Cather describes a house similar to her childhood home:
"They turned into another street and saw before them lighted windows; a low story-and-a-half house, with a wing built on at the right and a kitchen addition at the back, everything a little on the slant--roofs, windows, and doors."
The children's bedroom was in the attic where they slept dormitory style:
"Upstairs was a story in itself, a secret romance. No caller or neighbour had ever been allowed to go up there. All the children loved it-it was their very own world. In this spacious, undivided loft were two brick chimneys, going up in neat little stairsteps from the plank floor to the shingle roof-and out of it to the stars!" The Best Years
When Cather grew too old to share the dormitory with her brothers, an ell-shaped gable wing of the main attic was partitioned off to give her a private room. Willa Cather's adolescent bedroom retains the original wallpaper she meticulously hung herself, and bartered from her time spent working at the local pharmacy.
Willa Cather's adolescent bedroom was a refuge that nurtured her creative identity. It's just a modest space under the rafters, but an inspiring one - where an artistic imagination grew and thrived. Being able to peer at the outside world through the curtains of Willa's window was a special pleasure - as if her childhood spirit were still there in the room.
"From the time she moved up into the wing, Thea began to live a double life. During the day, when the hours were full of tasks, she was one of the Kronborg children, but at night she was a different person." The Song of the Lark
"Life rushed upon her through that window-or so it seemed. In reality of course, life rushes from within, not from without." The Song of the Lark
Willa Cather circa 1910:
Willa Cather's last visit back to Red Cloud in 1931:
Willa Cather used many of her childhood acquaintences and experiences as sources for her fiction. Annie Sadilek, seen below with her husband and many children, was an immigrant from Bohemia who had moved to Nebraska with her family They had initially lived in a dugout house before moving into town; her father had committed suicide. That suicide would become the basis for Cather's first published story, "Peter," and Annie herself later served as the model for Ántonia Shimerda in My Antonia, published in 1918.
Annie Sadilek late in life:
The neighbor's home where Annie, "Antonia," was the "hired girl."
The Cather family's second Red Cloud home after Willa had left Nebraska for the East:
The railroad depot:
A grain elevator by the railroad tracks:
We drove across the Republican River towards the nearby Kansas state line to visit the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie:
Driving up out of the river lowlands onto the prairie is thrilling:
"This country was mostly wild pasture and as naked as the back of your hand. . . . so the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn, that shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and the curse of my life." Willa Cather
"I had never before looked up at the sky where there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it." "Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out." My Antonia
Cather's first impressions of the prairie filled her with awe and fear, as she once told a newspaper interviewer in 1913:
"We drove out from Red Cloud to my grandfather's homestead one day in April. I was sitting on the hay in the bottom of a Studebaker wagon, holding on to the side of the wagon to steady myself-the roads were most 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-it was a kind of erasure of personality."
"I would not know how much a child's life is bound up in the woods and hills and meadows around it, if I had not been jerked away from all these and thrown out into a country as bare as a piece of sheet iron. I had heard my father say you had to show grit in a new country, and I would have got on pretty well during that ride if it had not been for the larks. Every now and then one flew up and sang a few splendid notes and dropped down into the grass again. That reminded me of something-I don't know what, but my one purpose in life just then was not to cry, and every time they did it, I thought I should go under."
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running. - My Antonia
The open grassland seems limitless.
The wind really does come sweeping down the plain.
It is literally breathtaking.
A prairie wildflower of thanks for Willa: