Although it is now more than thirty years ago, I remember very clearly the day when I was a graduate student at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University and Dr. Michael Rothacker gave his students the assignment of reading a novel of our choosing and writing a report on said novel. My friend, Pamela Jean, and I went right over to the Main Library on the Vanderbilt campus where I gravitated to the American literature section. Likely Pamela recommended to me the novel My Antonia, by the inimitable Willa Cather. I devoured it, with its sumptuous details of pioneer life -- and I aced that assignment. If you've not read this book and are interested in learning more about the prairie, I urge you to do so pronto. Since that time in Nashville, I've read more of her books as well as her Selected Letters and have enjoyed many conversations with friends about Cather, including one just this very afternoon with North Dakota's Poet Laureate, Larry Woiwode, in the Menards parking lot.
As I've described in another blog, Two English majors take a mostly blue highways trip, one of our travel guides is the book Novel Destinations. Our recent travels also found us in Red Cloud, Nebraska, Willa Cather's childhood home. Fortuitously, as we were finalizing our plans for our trip to Des Moines, the New Yorker magazine published a story by a writer who had visited Red Cloud, entitled A Walk in Willa Cather's Prairie. I put it on Jim's reading pile and made my plea for adding a day onto our trip to go there ourselves. He was skeptical that we'd be able to find a room for the night given the timing of this article, but I called and booked one, in what is called "Willa Cather's Second Home", a lovingly preserved home in an enchanting prairie town.
We arrived on a Sunday night, after dark, and followed the detailed instructions for letting ourselves into the home, beginning our full immersion into Cather's world. To our great delight, we discovered that we were, in fact, the only guests that night and had the entire house to ourselves! We settled in and made ourselves quite comfortable, and then explored every square inch. It was ever so quiet. Like little kids, we texted photos to our close friends who we knew would most appreciate this news. Jim mixed up Manhattans and we settled in to read some of the literature that the Willa Cather Foundation, which operates this house, has left here and there for guests. Here is the link with lodging information if you are interested in staying there.
When I was a child growing up in Slope County, we had a bureau like this in the kitchen, next to the round oak table.
This book on a table in the home caught my eye because just the day before as we drove through Nebraska we were talking about the poet and Nebraskan Ted Kooser, who wrote the foreword. I was so excited about being in this place that I couldn't sleep, but the pages of this book lulled me into a calm and I finally crawled into the comfy bed and drifted off.
The next morning, we ate the breakfast that had been left for us and set off for the Visitor's Center, which occupies a full block in the downtown, in the historic Opera House. But, first, we walked around the exterior of Willa Cather's Second Home. When she would come home to visit her parents, she would often be seen on the balcony that is just off her second-floor bedroom, scribbling away in her notebook.
|"The country was mostly wild pasture and as naked as the back of your hand...."|
There we took in the excellent exhibits and recounted to each other our personal Cather memories, asked questions of the committed staff members, and made plans for further explorations. Next we walked around the downtown area which is chockablock full of interesting old buildings, getting a feel for Cather's time, followed by a drive around Red Cloud, where many of the historic homes have markers out front describing their significance to Cather's time.
Below is the house her parents were living in when she was born, where she lived from 1884 to 1890.
This is the train depot, her embarkation point for the wide world east of Red Cloud. It is very well preserved and there are exhibits within.
Our final Cather destination was south of Red Cloud, the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, purchased by The Nature Conservancy, with the help of the Woods Charitable Fund in August 1974, 612 acres of native prairie. The Willa Cather Foundation acquired the area from the Conservancy in 2006. Here one truly gets the sense of what the prairie was like in Cather's time, complete with a cold, stiff wind the day we visited. With good reason, Visit Nebraska calls this place "a botanical treasure."
Today I donned my souvenir sweatshirt and realized that this was a sign that it was time for me to write this post. I need only look at it to know there are some of her books I still need to read. Meanwhile, we hope to visit Red Cloud again and meet some friends there who share our love of literature. Do go.