Adventures in Red Cloud, Catherland

When she chose to set the scene of her books in her own humble Nebraskan prairie town, famed author Willa Cather may not have realized she would immortalizing it forever in American literature. Now, Red Cloud remains as an endless font of inspiration, and natural Nebraskan beauty.



In Red Cloud today, the historic opera house Willa Cather visited as a child is Grand Central Station for Cather enthusiasts intent on experiencing her Nebraska home.

Nebraska Tourism Commission

(This story originally appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)


BECAUSE WILLA CATHER immortalized the community in her writing, Red Cloud has been called one of the most famous villages in American literature.

The little girl first known as Wilella was born in Back Creek Valley, Va., in 1873, and arrived in Red Cloud via train in 1883, not yet having reached 10 years of age. With her immediate family, she lived with grandparents in rural Webster County where she attended a one-room schoolhouse.

The following year the family moved to Red Cloud, and a new and adventure-filled world was revealed.

Red Cloud’s many buildings, including the story-and-a-half home the family rented at Third and Cedar streets, became important in her life during her formative years. Another example is the Red Cloud Opera House, where Cather attended performances and delivered her high school graduation oration in 1890. She wrote about the magnificent place in her novel Lucy Gayheart.

Today, Cather aficionados can visit the Red Cloud Opera House. Once the center of cultural life in Red Cloud, it was built in 1885 with Morhart and Fulton Hardware occupying the ground floor and the opera house on the second. It closed in 1916, sitting silent until the Willa Cather Foundation refurbished the building and reopened it in 2003 as a venue for shows, musicals and exhibits. The foundation’s office and bookstore are in the historic structure, and other Red Cloud buildings that as a young girl were important to the future writer, editor and teacher are also available as part of the Cather tour.

The Willa Cather Historic Site comprises the largest number of national historic-designated buildings devoted to a single author in the United States, including Grace Episcopal Church and Burlington Railroad depot. The Cather Foundation owns four historic sites related to Cather’s life, a 608-acre native prairie, and manages six historic sites owned by the Nebraska State Historical Society.

In addition to year-round tours, special events are taking place in 2013 to commemorate the centennial of Cather’s O Pioneers!, a recent One Book One Nebraska selection. Book clubs and school classes statewide will read the book, and it’s the focus of the 58th annual Willa Cather Spring Conference. Students in grades 3 through 6 will tour the prairie, and older students are taking part in the O Pioneers! essay contest.

“For those of us in Nebraska and those of us who love the Great Plains, Willa Cather’s descriptions of the prairie and the people here are very real,” said Tracy Tucker, education director for the Willa Cather Foundation. “A hundred years later, Alexandra Bergson still feels as though she is one of our neighbors, or could be.”

The book poses some big questions, including, “What’s a woman’s role in business?” “How do we value land?” and “How do we find love and avoid loss?”

These questions, Tucker said, are universal and timeless.

Cather once remarked, “I had searched for books telling about the beauty of the country I loved, its romance, and heroism and strength and courage of its people that had been plowed into the very furrows of its soil, and I did not find them. And so I wrote O Pioneers!”

O boy! A century later, we’re sure glad she did.

For more information about the O Pioneers! 100th anniversary celebration, go to opioneers100.org.

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