Today, I did some sightseeing around Red Cloud, NE. Red Cloud is the childhood home of Willa Cather, one of my favorite authors. She really tells a great story. Many of her books are set on the plains in the late 19th century. As someone who grew up on the plains, I always felt a connection to the characters, like they were a part of my own history.
One thing that struck me is how much of a focus there is in Red Cloud on Willa Cather. Red Cloud is a small town of just over 1000 people, so the focus is understandable. But it was a stark contrast to Concord, MA. In Concord, Emerson was an afterthought. In Red Cloud, the Willa Cather Foundation not only own her childhood home, but several other buildings, including the Opera House, one of the first banks in the town, and the church she and her family attended. The foundation has purchased nearly a block of the downtown’s storefronts and is in the process of expanding.
Rather than just wonder around town seeing only the outside of buildings, I decided to take a tour that included the Opera House, bank and her home. It was supposed to start at 11:00 and only last an hour. It ended up starting at 11:30 and lasting about and hour and a half. The bank, build by the founder of Red Cloud who was also the fourth governor of Nebraska, was the first building purchased by the foundation and the original museum.
Willa was the oldest of seven children. They lived in a small house. It basically had two rows of rooms. On the right side, there was the living room, the parent’s bedroom and the nursery. On the left side was and entry hall, a very small dining room, Willa’s maternal grandmother’s room and the kitchen. The grandmother lived with the family after her husband died and helped raise the children. Her room was the only way from the kitchen to the dining room and she had very little possessions and no privacy. In Virginia, where the family was from originally, this arrangement was pretty normal. In Nebraska, the neighbors thought the Cathers treated the grandmother very poorly and it caused some friction with the neighbors.
Once the children were too old for the nursery, they were moved to the attic. The attic basically had three rooms, one for a hired girl, one for Willa and one for the other children. Willa used to write plays, which the children would perform in the attic. They had even put up a blanket to act as a curtain. Willa, and some of her siblings, also participated in community plays which were performed in the Opera House.
After finishing the tour, and eating lunch, I finally left Red Cloud just before 2:00. Today was much hotter than it has been, with a heat index near 100. The heat caught me off guard, much like it did when I crossed the Mississippi. Like that day, I only made it a little over 20 miles before I felt like I was overheating and decided to stop. Leaving at 2:00 didn’t help, since most of he riding day had passed, and I may not have been able to put in a full day’s ride anyway.