The Red Cloud Opera House was built in 1885. Five years later, Willa Cather gave her graduation address from the stage. There were two other students in her graduating class. The building was fully restored in 2003 and serves as headquarters of the Willa Cather Foundation.
No Nebraska community is as inextricably entwined with one person as Red Cloud is with Willa Cather. The writer who memorialized her hometown in six novels is synonymous with Red Cloud’s identity seven decades after her death.
Any search for separation between Red Cloud and its famous author would be in vain. The literary tentacles of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist twist throughout the community. That’s not a bad thing. Cather’s enduring connection to her childhood home is an economic boon for Red Cloud. Perhaps just as importantly – she is part of its culture.
Single-bottom plows along highways 136 and 281 welcome travelers to the “Home of Willa Cather.” Farmland and undulating prairie surround the city of 950 residents living near the Republican River in Webster County. More than ten times that number flood Red Cloud each year to learn about Cather while exploring her hometown.
The Cathers arrived from Virginia in 1883, five years after Red Cloud was incorporated, with their fine china packed in crates cushioned with worthless Confederate paper money. Willa was 9, and the State Bank was completed at the corner of Webster Street and 4th Avenue that same year. The two-story brick structure noted for its ornate cornice remains a landmark today. Red Cloud tour guides proclaim it Nebraska’s most-photographed building. The Subway restaurant sandwiched into its ground floor adds a modern touch to a block otherwise dominated by 19th century architectural charm. The entire downtown might have been lost in a 1961 fire if not for the heroics of one Red Cloud man.
Towering flames erupted from the roof of the Potter-Pope Building housing the Chicago Store, New York Store and other shops. A gathering crowd, including resident Ardis Yost, kept what they thought was a safe distance. If not extinguished quickly, the 1888 Farmers and Merchants Bank, established by former Nebraska governor and Red Cloud founder Silas Garber, would be next to burn. Garber was Cather’s inspiration for character Capt. Forrester in A Lost Lady.
Yost grasped her 2-year-old daughter, Sallie, by the hand while holding son Jay in her arms. Three other Yost children rode their bikes downtown to watch the fire. What the young mother witnessed next left her fearing for her growing family’s future.
“John was such a loyal firefighter that he would have jumped on the truck even if I was in labor,” Yost said of her husband. “I was scared to death seeing his fellow firemen wrap him in asbestos and lower him into the blaze.”
The crowd’s sympathetic gaze shifted to Yost as her husband faded from view. Smoke began belching skyward. The Golden Gloves boxing champion emerged victorious from the ring of fire to his relieved spouse after what seemed like an eternity. “He never said how, but he put out that fire,” she said.
Water ruined murals painted on the Garber building’s domed ceiling, but the building was saved. The top floor of the Potter-Pope Building was lost. More than half a century later, there are plans to rebuild it as part of a 30-room boutique hotel for Cather enthusiasts, visiting hunters and other tourists.
For the rest of the story see the November/December 2018 issue of Nebraska Life.
You’re invited to a Party
The Willa Cather Foundation is hosting a Nebraska Life “Red Cloud issue” magazine release party and Willa Cather birthday party on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Reserve your spot by calling
(800) 777-6159 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
- $50 per person
- Limited to 50 attendees limited to 4 reservations per caller
- Snow date is Dec. 14, 2018
- Behind-the-scenes tour of new National Willa Cather Center
- Exclusive tour of the climate-controlled archive
- Tour of Willa Cather childhood home
- Birthday cake and refreshments
- Commemorative 100th anniversary edition of My Ántonia