When Willa Cather arrived in Nebraska from Virginia in 1886, settlement of the Great Plains was in its heyday. Prairie schooners had given way to the railroads, and, encouraged by the Homestead Acts, immigrants created cosmopolitan farming communities that would inspire Cather and other great authors like O. E. Rölvaag, Oscar Micheaux, and Laura Ingalls Wilder to exalt the allure and the peril of the prairie. Cather referred to it as “that shaggy grass country” which “gripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake.”
Cather lived in the town of Red Cloud where today the Willa Cather Foundation maintains her childhood home and six other historic buildings, as well as the Willa Cather Memorial Praire, a 612-acre tract of vast, unbroken grassland. Trails wind through a beautiful mix of native grasses, wildflowers, and birds of all kinds. The foundation acquired the land, which was overgrazed and overrun with invasive species, and restored it to the natural landscape that so inspired Cather in the 19th century.
A walking tour of the town reveals much about the details of her prairie novels (O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, My Antonia) including some of the lingering resentments of a few residents whose relatives served as models for Cather’s characters. Apparently, her wry portrayals of the agricultural community hit a little too close to home.
The collections of the foundation are extensive, providing prairie researchers with plenty of fodder. Along with Cather’s personal papers and effects is an engaging art collection. It includes the painting “Peter and Pavel,” which likely inspired the famous story in My Antonia of two Russian groomsmen who saved themselves from a pack of wolves by throwing the bridal party off their sleds. Like many characters in Cather’s novels, they attempt to start life anew on the fruited plains, but the past finds them even in the vastness of the prairie.
In 2017, the foundation completed the new National Willa Cather Center with the help from campaign chairman Ken Burns, the renowned documentarian. The new center, housed in the historic “Moon Block” building, includes a museum, archives, art gallery, and performing art center. Former First Lady Laura Bush helped dedicate the center, after which she took a stroll through Cather’s iconic prairie.
Cather only lived in Red Cloud for 13 years and spent most of her life in Manhattan, where she died in 1947. Her spirit, however, is forever fused with the Nebraska landscape. As she said in My Antonia, “that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great,” which is plainly magnificent.