Cather Country

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Red Cloud differs little from its neighbors. The businesses along its one commercial street occupy the first floors of buildings constructed a century ago by people gambling on growth and prosperity, wagering everything on the newly discovered generosity of prairie soil. Hardly surprising is the dark prominence of the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank. Catty-corner from the ruddier-faced State Bank, it was built in 1889 by one of Nebraska’s early governors and rises like a slightly awkward spire above the lesser two-story buildings that surround it. Now nestled somewhere between Brenda’s Shoppe and the South Bar and Grill, the old bank, red brick resting on red stone foundations and lintels, looks like a piece of the Smithsonian marooned far from the rest of monumental Washington. The building houses the Willa Cather Historical Center and was itself the first acquisition of Mildred Bennett and her small circle of allies as they began the restoration movement that has salvaged so much of Cather’s Red Cloud past. Purchased from the town for one thousand dollars, it is an impressive beginning for a tour of the area.

There are, inevitably, two—even three—Red Clouds in competition with one another. There is the contemporary town, putting up the best front it can afford in these times, when rural America struggles against forces different from those that tested pioneer settlers. This Red Cloud occupies the first floor of Webster, the main commercial street. But the white-faced Coast to Coast store with its bright yellow sign and the Best Yet Food Mart compete with a past that haunts the vacant windows and cornices one story above. The juxtaposition is everywhere apparent. Over the C&R Supply and at a jaunty angle, an aged script advertises farm loans in tarnished gilt. A building over from the Coast to Coast, the words Opera House 1885 speak of another era’s aspirations. And elsewhere stores, all of recent vintage, advertise collectibles, intermingling past and present.

But the restored Red Cloud, the one that is validated solely by the past, is to be found mostly away from the brick structures on Webster Street, in the houses and churches that figure prominently in Cather’s life and fiction, and at the Burlington depot, scene of so many Cather arrivals and departures. The restored structures include, in addition to the depot, St. Juliana Falconieri Catholic Church, a simple brick Bohemian church (model for the church in which the heroine of My Ántonia was married) with pleasant grounds on the southern edge of town; Grace Episcopal Church, to which Cather belonged as an adult and to which she contributed two memorial windows in honor of her parents; and, central to it all, the childhood home. All have been mapped and marked for the visitor, along with the prototypes for an array of fictive places: Wick Cutter’s house from My Ántonia, a cottonwood grove from A Lost Lady, Dr. Archie’s house from The Song of the Lark, Quality Street from Lucy Gayheart, and the courthouse setting for the trial scene in One of Ours.

Such is the mixed blessing of windows, to keep us in touch with that which we can never fully reach. Such, too, is the nature of memory.
 

It is, not surprisingly, the Cather home, a simple brown frame building with a full front porch and a picket fence, that is Red Cloud’s most poignant offering. There is nothing remarkable about the house that Cather describes in The Song of the Lark as “a low story-and-a-half house, with a wing built on at the right and a kitchen addition at the back, everything a little on the slant—roofs, windows, and doors,” but it is precisely the commonness of the place that makes it subtly moving. Perhaps because it is no longer a home but a memory of one, a museum in which no one any longer confronts the messiness and uncertainty of daily living, it seems enchanted, a place apart from time. The ground floor, with all the conventional Victorian flourishes, seems merely a period piece, a generic late-nineteenth-century home.

The unfinished attic is another matter altogether. The second floor, in its relative barrenness, belonged to the children and to the imagination. A wide plank floor runs the length of the house. Low pine walls, whitewashed, are topped by exposed rafters and roofing. The crossties that join the rafters provide convenient hangers, supporting, among other things, a swing. Three chimneys break through the floor, stretch into the room, and exit through the roof, one slanting whimsically as it makes its upward journey. The smell of wood, of rosin, pervades the entire space.

To the side, the dormer houses another room, Willa’s room, with finished ceiling and walls, all papered by the girl who once lived there until every surface was crowded with leaves and pink blossoms, bordered by a strip of even more flowers. And on the outside wall, virtually the whole of the wall, two floor-to-ceiling windows open.