Reporting from Red Cloud, Neb.—We entered Red Cloud from the east, just as novelist Willa Cather and her family did in 1884, when she was just 11 years old. The Cathers arrived by train at the Burlington & Missouri Railroad depot, in those days the usual portal into the small but growing prairie settlement. My wife, Laurel, and I, on the other hand, had no choice but to travel by car along Nebraska Highway 1, a pleasant two-lane road that was as straight as the railroad tracks, though it rose and dipped in places over pleasantly undulating hills.
Passenger trains were long gone from Red Cloud by the time we visited last year, the once-bustling main line now just a spur serving a cluster of grain elevators. But the town's red clapboard depot — built in 1897, a successor to the one here when Cather first arrived — looked trim and freshly painted, as if it were ready to receive passengers.
"Write about what you know" is the classic advice given to aspiring novelists, and Cather took this axiom to heart. All her "prairie novels," plus some short stories, are set in Red Cloud and environs — though she never used the town's real name or the same fictional name twice. In "My Antonia," perhaps her best-loved book (and required reading before a visit to Red Cloud), it's Black Hawk, a famous Indian chief like Red Cloud. In "O Pioneers!" it's Hanover; in "The Song of the Lark," Moonstone; in "A Lost Lady," Sweet Water; in "One of Ours," Frankfort; and in "Lucy Gayheart," Haverford.
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When we entered Red Cloud in mid-afternoon in early July, this now-sleepy farming community of fewer than 1,000 was at its sleepiest. Hardly a car or pickup rolled along North Webster Street, the town's main drag, a broad thoroughfare lined with brick commercial buildings of classic Victorian mien — ones Cather would have known — interrupted by some much newer, under-designed boxes. In the heart of downtown was the State Bank Block, built in 1883 of local brick. A jarring note within it was the familiar yellow Subway awning — for which, as it turned out, we were grateful. There are only two places to have a sit-down meal in Red Cloud, and the other one was closed that evening.
On our first morning in town we began our Cather quest with the Country Tour, which we'd booked in advance (as required) with the Willa Cather Foundation. The tour left from the Opera House, adjacent to the State Bank Block. This fine brick building, built in 1885 and restored by the foundation in 2003, serves as its offices, shop and tour headquarters. In the performance space upstairs, Cather gave her class' valedictory address, acted and was often in the audience for cultural events.
Our docent — Katie Minnick, a college student working in the foundation's offices for the summer — hopped into the backseat of our rented car to guide us on a tour of about 21 sites of significance to Cather's life and work. We began by stopping at the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, a few miles outside Red Cloud. This 608-acre tract of native mixed-grass prairie has never been plowed — a rarity in this region where most of the land has long been planted in corn, soybeans or alfalfa — and so gave us some sense of the sea of grass that greeted the Cathers and other pioneers who arrived to homestead in the late 19th century. Ongoing restoration, including the removal of non-native trees, will only improve it.
From there, with Minnick navigating easily on the grid of indistinguishable (to us) gravel roads, we were off into the countryside. Minnick didn't try to hide the fact that she was something of a Cather novice, having read only a few of the novels, but she was well-scripted. More important, her grandparents had homesteaded the area and her grandfather was still farming it at age 83, as were her father and several of his siblings. She was a member of the Future Farmers of America. Our many questions about the culture and crops of the area were no problem for her.
We found the bit of prairie homesteaded by Cather's grandparents; a pump handle protruding from the grass is the only evidence of their passage. We crossed over "The Divide," the high land in a flat country where streams flow north to the Little Blue River and south to the Republican River. Alexandra Bergson, the heroine of "O Pioneers!" loved that country, and so did Cather. "It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious," Cather wrote of Alexandra's feelings for the prairies, which — as this and her other novels make crystal clear — broke far more homesteaders than they blessed.
In nearby Bladen we passed the house where Willa's cousin, G.P. Cather, lived. He was the model for Claude Wheeler, the soldier killed in World War I in "One of Ours." We saw his grave at the Bladen Cemetery. The foursquare, brick Bladen Opera House, far less elegant than the one in Red Cloud, had been frequented by Anna, or Annie, Sadilek Pavelka, the Bohemian girl who was Cather's lifelong friend and the model for Antonia Shimerda.
The most evocative sites on the Country Tour related to Annie. We visited the crossroads where her father, who had killed himself, was buried when the Lutheran cemetery wouldn't have him. We visited Cloverton Cemetery, where Annie, her husband and several of her 13 children are buried. Best of all, at the end of the tour, we stopped at the Pavelka farmhouse, a modest but trim white clapboard dwelling that figures in "My Antonia" as well as the short story "Neighbour Rosicky," for which Annie's husband was the inspiration.
In Red Cloud, the sense of place is strong. As it was in the days of the homesteaders, farming is a dicey business here on the northern edge of the infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s. It's a frail little town, but that it contains such a treasure-trove of literary sites seems miraculous.
"My Antonia" and Annie Pavelka are central to the Town Tour, which we took in the afternoon. Dorothy Mattison,a guide for 50 years, led us into the Farmers' & Merchants' Bank, a pencil-thin, ornate Victorian built in 1889 by Silas Garber, the model for Capt. Forrester, a central character in "A Lost Lady." We stopped by the Harling House (then under restoration), where Annie had worked, and the modest St. Juliana Falconieri Church, where she was married and her first child baptized.
Centerpiece of the tour is the Cather childhood home, where the family lived from 1884 to 1904; it's described in detail in "The Song of the Lark." Particularly evocative are the dark, cramped attic where Willa stayed, in a curtained-off section, with her brothers, and the tiny back room, familiar from the short story "Old Mrs. Harris," where her grandmother lived.
We ended the tour at the train station. "Willa loved the trains, the bustle, the comings and goings," Mattison said. "She also liked that she could get out of town" — exactly what she had to do before she could write so brilliantly about a place that, though she could find it stultifying, remained close to her heart."