Foundation acquires home that influenced famous author's writing

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August 8, 2011 - 7:00pm

She was the famous daughter of a small town-Nebraska family. That's one way to describe the novelist Willa Cather, author of "O Pioneers" and "My Antonia." That small town would be Red Cloud, located in the south central part of the state. Red Cloud already receives thousands of literary tourists every year, but thanks to a recent acquisition by the Willa Cather Memorial Foundation, they have one more reason to make the trek.

Photo by Jerry Johnston, NET News

The Willa Cather family home in Red Cloud, Neb.

Photo by Jerry Johnston, NET News

Willa Cather's bedroom at her family home in Red Cloud, Neb., where she did much of her writing when visiting.


This old house has seen a lot of comings and goings - and still looks pretty good for its age. It's a white, two-story frame house with some fancy trim, and the most notable feature - a double-decker wraparound porch. But it's not just a nice old house - it's a nice, historically significant old house.

"This was the house Willa Cather would come back to any time she came back to Red Cloud after she had gone to college," said Jay Yost, a Red Cloud native and former president of the board of governors of the Willa Cather Foundation. The Foundation purchased the property this summer.

Leslie Levy is the Foundation's executive director, and she said the acquisition continues to build on Red Cloud's status as a destination for literary tourism.

"What's important about it, and what we're so grateful for," she said, "is it has enabled us ... by bringing back this home, we have brought back the house that Willa Cather spent most of her time in as an adult.

"It also helps to complete the number of homes that the foundation has," Levy added. "Currently, the foundation has the most number of homes and properties dedicated to a single author in the United States."

Cather had graduated from the University of Nebraska and moved out of the state by the time her parents bought this house in 1903. But as her literary career grew, she continued to return to Red Cloud. Yost, sitting in the Cather family dining room, talked about the relationship between the daughter who had moved to the East Coast and her family back in Red Cloud.

"She was very close to her mother and father," he said. "They corresponded all the time. Cather visited frequently while her parents were alive, (and) spent a few summers here."

Yost said Cather, like many children who move away, would come back for holidays, and accounts are that the family was close. She last visited this house 80 years ago, in 1931, when her mother died. Yost said another sign of Cather's attachment to her family and this house came after her mother's death.

"I think there was a certain nostalgia for the house," he said. "The last parent died in 1931, and the Cathers actually held on to the house for 13 more years, even though no Cathers were living in town."

We head up the wide stairway to the second floor and into Willa Cather's bedroom. It's a small room, nothing fancy. Yost said Cather was a morning writer, and sometimes wrote on the roof of a porch.

"There would not have been the screen door here," he said. "It's about 7 feet wide, and wraps around the other side of the house."

And to make things a little more comfortable, she innovated.

Jay Yost
Former president of the Willa Cather Foundation board of governors

"Lore has it that she would attach a canvas over the door that came out to poles so she could be in complete shade," Yost said. "This is where she would be writing."

One way to know just how influential Red Cloud was on Cather: the people in town, Yost said, would always buy her books to make sure they and their friends weren't portrayed in a bad light. As we walked back through the house, Yost pointed out a personal connection to the largest upstairs bedroom.

"From 1947 to 1957, this functioned as the county hospital," he said. "My four older siblings and I were all born in this room."

In addition to a hospital, the house served as a nursing home, was divided into a duplex, then was renovated and reopened as a Bed and Breakfast. Now that the Willa Cather Foundation owns the building, there will be further renovations, and a new future as a guesthouse for families and some of the eight to ten thousand people who come to Red Cloud each year to visit Willa Cather sites.

"An editor once said Willa Cather became great because she left Nebraska," Yost said. "Willa Cather wrote back saying, 'I became great because I was from Nebraska.'"



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