Driving into tiny Red Cloud, Neb., I pulled into the first open diagonal parking slot I saw, thinking I’d look up the address of the National Willa Cather Center.
But as I turned the car off and looked up, I realized I had parked right in front of it.
In truth, it’s almost impossible to miss this place. The center, opened last year after a five-year, $7 million renovation, takes up almost an entire block on Red Cloud’s historic main street.
As a fan of the American novelist Willa Cather (“My Antonia” is one of my all-time favorite books), I first visited Red Cloud some 30-plus years ago on a trip Out West with my family, when the museum was housed in an old bank building. Today the center bears little resemblance. Almost 20,000 square feet of the town’s 1887 Moon Block building includes the museum, a state-of-the-art archive, a research center, a bookstore and a performing arts center.
Willa Cather put Red Cloud on the map in the early 1900s when she wrote about it in several of her most famous novels about prairie life, changing the name. The town was called Hanover in “O Pioneers!”, Frankfort in “One of Ours” and Black Hawk in her beloved “My Antonia,” which was published 100 years ago this month — and was the main reason I was paying a return visit.
But in the 21st century, it seems Red Cloud is keeping Willa Cather on the map, reigniting interest in the Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Former First Lady Laura Bush was the ribbon cutter and keynote speaker at the center’s dedication last year, while documentary filmmaker Ken Burns was the honorary national chair for the public fundraising effort.
The permanent exhibit, “American Bittersweet: The Life & Writing of Willa Cather,” is a fitting tribute to Red Cloud’s hometown treasure, showcasing artifacts like her desk and sentimental memorabilia like her passport and hatbox — but at the same time exploring her complex nature and how she connected real people and places with her fiction.
In the bookstore, a huge collection of Cather publications included many I’d never seen, along with free brochures offering self-guided tours to historic sites scattered around town and the surrounding countryside. (Little-known fact: Red Cloud has the largest collection of nationally designated historic sites dedicated to an American author in the country.) For the best overview, buying a Town Tour ticket means a local guide takes you to and inside some of the most popular sites.
I joined several others on a seven-building tour. The first stop we made was at the restored childhood home of Cather. Our guide pointed to the American bittersweet plant growing by the corner of the house, which they believe is the same one that was growing there when the Cathers resided in the home.
As we tramped up narrow stairs in the stifling summer heat to peek into Willa’s bedroom, we not only marveled at the original wallpaper Cather had picked out in exchange for her work at Dr. Cook’s Drugstore while she was a teen, but also realized how much we appreciated modern air conditioning.
Night on the town
By the time we finished the tour, I was ready for sustenance and a blast of AC. The Palace, a family-owned steakhouse around the corner from the center, appeared a good choice. Inside, cool air circulated and the beer, burger and heap of hot fried onion rings hit the spot.
The place was busy, too, maybe because it was a Friday night or perhaps because there was a play that evening at Red Cloud’s Opera House. Built in 1885, the Opera House was restored in 2003. It was here that Cather not only fell in love with the arts, acting in plays and attending traveling productions, but it’s where she gave her high school graduation speech in 1890.
“My Anton/ia,” a theater adaptation by Nebraska-born, Los Angeles-based playwright and actor A.P. Andrews with four New York-based performers, was being staged this night in honor of the book’s anniversary, and I had a ticket. The play, with four New York-based performers, was both thought-provoking and delightful.
Afterward, a half-moon shone bright through the tree branches at the Cather Second Home, now a guesthouse where I was staying. Cather’s family moved here in 1904 after she had grown and left, but she always stayed in the house on return visits from back East. The night had cooled, so I left my window open and fell asleep to the loud hum of crickets. No traffic, no voices, not even a distant train whistle.
In the morning, having slept in the Frankfort room — the one that Cather always stayed in — I had my coffee on the porch. I watched the orange ball of sun rise beyond the trees and shine down over the Courthouse Square across the street — a view that Cather no doubt witnessed many times.
Later, a man who seemed to know his way around had made another pot of coffee and was standing at the stove. “How would you like your eggs?” he asked me with a smile. “There’s toast and elderberry jelly over there,” he added.
When I sat down with the other guests, I asked if he and his wife were the hosts. “Oh, no,” one of the women laughed. “That’s Gary, my husband. This is his hometown. We try to visit and stay a few times a year. He just enjoys making people feel at home here. I think he hopes that they’ll like Red Cloud as much as he does,” she said.
For more about the National Willa Cather Center, contact the Willa Cather Foundation at 1-866-731-7304 or go to willacather.org. For more on Red Cloud, go to visitredcloud.com.
Where to stay
The Cather Second Home is a host-free guesthouse with six rooms and 2½ baths. There is a fully furnished kitchen, dining room, front parlor and wraparound porch. Each of the six rooms is named after one of the fictional towns in Cather’s novels (1-402-746-2653; willacather.org).
Willa Cather festivities around Nebraska
My Antonia Birthday Feast: For the 100th anniversary, the Willa Cather Archive at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is hosting a feast on Sept. 21 at Peter Pan Park in Lincoln, with dishes from local restaurants and live music (5-7 p.m. Fri., $5, myantonia100.org).
My Antonia Marathon Reading: The Cather Foundation is staging an all-day reading of the novel on Sept. 22 at Gallery 1516 in Omaha, followed by a talkback session and reception. The event will be livestreamed online (10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sat., free, willacather.org).
Willa Cather Conference: The annual conference is set for May 31-June 1, 2019, in Red Cloud, with readings, panel discussions, music and more.
Also on willacather.org, a special series was created to honor “My Antonia.” It features interviews of descendants of Anna Pavelka, the prototype for Cather’s character Antonia.
Donna Tabbert Long (@tabbertlong) writes about food and travel.