Small Town, Saved—By Individuals

Red Cloud Farmer's and Merchant's Bank from NW

Red Cloud Farmer’s & Merchant’s Bank. By Ammodramus (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There’s a terrific and encouraging article over at the PreservationNation Blog about the preservation of author Willa Cather’s Nebraska hometown of Red Cloud. How was Red Cloud preserved? Why, by the actions of individuals, of course! That’s probably my favourite part of the story—it wasn’t eminent domain, it wasn’t anything overbearing, it was simply someone who learned about and became interested in Cather who decided to do what she could to save the writer’s home town.

The woman in question is Mildred Bennett, who found herself teaching the descendants of those written about by Cather—and then moved to Red Cloud itself, a perfect opportunity for Bennett to learn more about the Pulitzer Prize winner, to the point that she published The World of Willa Cather (afil) in 1951. But that was not enough for Mildred.

Willa Cather house from NE 1

Willa Cather’s childhood home, By Ammodramus (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Realizing the town’s potential, Bennett gathered a group of friends around her kitchen table — her “kitchen cabinet” — and the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation was born. When it incorporated in 1955, eight participants kicked in $20 each, most of which went to pay for the notice of incorporation in the newspaper. Bennett was named president, a post she held on and off until her death in 1989. And with donations, grants, and grit, the foundation began preserving the structures that inform Cather’s work. (via)

Willa Cather ca. 1912 wearing necklace from Sarah Orne Jewett
Individual citizens, doing grand things! I love it! You may read the entire story at the PreservationNation Blog (there are some good photos, too!), but in short, the group bought the town’s buildings one by one, bit by bit. Around 1962, Cather’s charming childhood home was donated to the Foundation, with restoration beginning a few years later. Early in the next decade, the Nature Conservancy purchased 600 acres of nearby prairie, thus doing much to preserve what Cather herself saw while growing up in Red Cloud.

Donations continued to fund the efforts to save Red Cloud for literature lovers and history buffs of the future; now, based upon my peeking at the Foundation’s website, Red Cloud is bound to be a daylong affair for any visitor!

Red Cloud Opera House 1

The Red Cloud Opera House, now headquarters for The Willa Cather Foundation.

In addition to the historic buildings and several Cather Tours (plus that prairie to check out), you’ll find accommodations that include the home Cather’s parents purchased after leaving their first home in town (it’s highly recommended with very reasonable rates, too; photo below), restaurants aplenty, shops to browse in (of course there’s a bookstore, darling), and quite a few historic and nature-related (the Chicken Dance Trail, anyone?) attractions nearby, too.

So to me, this sounds like more of a weekend thing, but I’m also sort of weird about seeing everything I possibly can in a place, especially with the number of Red Cloud buildings on the National Register of Historic Places (most of them, it seems, right down to individual houses).

Warner-Cather House from NE 2

The Warner-Cather House, now a B&B. I’m calling that upstairs balcony room! A slightly different view. By Ammodramus (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Red Cloud post office interior

Inside Red Cloud’s post office. By Ammodramus (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Another day, another place added to my “must get there” list. And another joy-giving story—certainly something we can all use during these trying days—that reminds us of the power of a group of citizens, of everyday people getting together to do a wonderful thing, both for their own happiness and that of those around them, without having to resort to threat of force of any kind. Don’t you love it?

Well, off to scrounge up my high-school Cather anthology and dream about a trip to Nebraska…!

Red Cloud 4th Ave and Webster NE 2

4th & Webster downtown. By Ammodramus (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

 For more information:

Mildred Bennett: The Unlikely Preserver of Willa Cather’s Hometown, Sophia Dembling for the PreservationNation Blog

The Willa Cather Foundation website, with plenty of tourism information about visiting the town, some marvellous photographs, and of course information about Willa Cather—as well as The Willa Cather Archive, a collection of her work online

Red Cloud, Nebraska official site

Willa Cather, PBS’ American Masters

Nebraska National Register Sites in Webster County, many (most!) of which are in or near Red Cloud

McKeeby House (Red Cloud, Nebraska) from NE

McKeeby House in a pretty pink & mauve. See a historic photo here. By Ammodramus (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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