Editor’s Note: Nebraska celebrates its 150th birthday as a state March 1. As the state observes its sesquicentennial during 2017, we wanted to take a look at Cornhusker state attractions leading up to the celebrations. Today, we take a look back at Red Cloud, home to Willa Cather and more…
Among the quiet flow of the Republican River and the wind blowing across the tall prairie grass sits a sleeping giant. Red Cloud, Nebraska, is itching for you to visit, so the locals can show you that the community is more than a small town in rural America.
Red Cloud – a community of 1,020 named after the great Lakota chief – is the hometown of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Willa Cather. But, it’s more, too. The south-central town is home to baseball lore, eclectic shops and some agritourism.
Red Cloud is an attractive town. You have to make it your destination, as it sits about three hours southwest of Omaha and about 60 miles south of Interstate 80. It’s about a 45-minute drive from Hastings.
It should be a destination stop. We met a couple from Illinois, who was traveling to Wichita on a butterfly photography project. They included Red Cloud on their trip, because they had read Willa Cather’s books, and wanted to see her hometown. Pressed for time, they planned to take a short three-building tour of Cather’s history. However, they opted for the seven-building tour.
We also took the seven-building tour offered by the Willa Cather Foundation. It provides a look into Cather’s real and fictional lives. The tour gives you a look at the home she lived in for seven years as a youngster and young woman.
The seven-building tour takes you around town to buildings used in her books, as well. The Miner House on Seward Street served as the fictional “Harling House” in the novel, “My Antonia.”
We started with a stop at Cather’s childhood home. The house, built in the late 1800s, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house still has the Bittersweet vine that was included in a family portrait of the Cathers.
Cather lived here for about seven years. The family moved to town, after living at the Divide, outside of Red Cloud. Her father farmed for a couple of years after moving to Nebraska from Virginia. He started a farm loan business when they moved to town.
The family rented the house for about 20 years, before buying the second house they lived in. it was a nice-looking house.
Some of the items in the house actually belonged to the Cathers. Other pieces in the house are from the era they lived. The kitchen includes some of the actual canned goods from the family’s life.
Cather’s maternal grandmother had a bedroom on the first floor of the house, just off the dining room.
Willa had her own room in the attic. She was a vociferous reader, so it was common to see piles of books on her night table. She would look out the window to see the world. She decorated her room with wallpaper from the money she earned helping Dr. Cook, the local pharmacist. The wallpaper design remains today.
Her bedroom was the model for Thea Kronborg’s room in “Song of the Lark.” Her grandma’s room was included in “Old Mrs. Harris.”
Her brothers shared a larger room in the attic. They slept “dormitory-style,” with the beds lined up in a row.
The family had a working water pump with a fresh water well just outside. Cather loved Hollyhocks. The flowers still grow along the side of the house.
The Red Cloud Depot welcomed visitors and new residents to the prairie community. Depots often played a role in Cather’s books.
The tour concludes with a stop at the Opera House. Built in 1885, the theater served as the location for several shows presented by Cather and friends. It still hosts performances, as well as serving as the Cather Foundation’s headquarters.
Plans call for a National Willa Cather Center to open in 2016. The center will be located next door to the Opera House. It will include shops, a research and archive area, as well as apartment space for visiting scholars.
Red Cloud’s history includes two Major League baseball players in the baseball Hall of Fame. Cy Young – yes, that Cy Young – worked and played for local teams back in the day. Dazzy Vance, who was a member of the famed Gashouse Gang for the St. Louis Cardinals, played several years in Red Cloud.
The history of Webster County is interesting to learn. The largest jaw bone fossil of a mastodon was found here. It’s on display at the museum.
The Webster County Museum is located in an old mansion. The original owners built it with 23 rooms. Additional rooms were added later by other owners.
The museum has a collection of some fascinating items – all of them donated by county residents. A dance hall is located in the attic area, where people would gather for social events, including dances.
The museum’s collection ranges from musical instruments – including a working phonograph player from the 1800s – to household items, such as washing machines and irons.
Red Cloud is home to two bed and breakfast inns – the Cather Second Home and the Red Cloud Bed and Breakfast at the Kaley House.
We stayed at the Cather Second Home. This was the first house owned by the family. They had rented the original house. The house was in the family from 1903 until the mid-1940s. The bedrooms are named after towns in Cather novels. We stayed at the Haverford room.
We loved the two porches that ran the length of the front of the house. We enjoyed spending a nice evening on the main level front porch watching the fireflies light up the night. That brought back a ton of childhood memories of living in Kennard and Oakland (Nebraska).
The Kaley House B&B rescued one of the town’s beautiful mansions. Jay Yost bought the home several years ago, when the previous owner needed to sell it. Jay and his sister, Sally, stayed in the home when they were kids when their parents had to work late. The mansion is located on the street that Cather coined “Quality Street,” because the town’s wealthiest citizens lived along the street.
Jay loved the house and told the owner (Mrs. Bohrer) that he wanted to own the house one day. Sally, who manages the B&B, said the house always scared her as a kid. His wish came true when Mrs. Bohrer needed to sell the house.
Since then, the Yost family has made major improvements to the home and turned it into one of the most beautiful B&Bs we’ve seen.
I was excited to see one of the world’s largest round barns, which is about five miles east of town in an area once known as the town of Amboy.
The Starke Round Barn may be the tallest round barn in the world. It has three levels to it. The barn was built in 1902-03, and has been in the family (or an offshoot of the original builders) since then. Conrad Starke built it. In 1929, the Rasser family (nephews of Starke) bought the property at auction. It has been in the Rasser side since.
The barn is an amazing view. It is 130 feet in diameter. The center silo, made from brick, is 65 feet tall. The main level was used for storing equipment. The top-level was for storing hay. The bottom level was eventually used as part of a dairy operation.
Today, the barn is home to visitors and tours. The owners host events, such as company and social picnics. A side building is used to prepare food and can hold more than 50 people for dinners.
We visited a little red schoolhouse since we were in the area. The District 37 one-room school-educated farm children 1872-1959.
We capped our day in Red Cloud with a drive in the country. We stopped at the Republican River, just south of town. The beauty of the river is difficult to describe. When you see the trees lining the shallow streams, and the sand bars popping up out of the water, it’s just nature. It’s amazing.
Sunset at the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie was breathtaking. The tall prairie grass blowing in the wind resembled a green ocean. Prairie grass for as far as your eye could see. This is what the pioneers and Native Americans had to see to in the region.
It was a beautiful way to top off a great weekend visit to Red Cloud. The prairie grass looked golden in the glow of the sunset.
We had a wonderful time visiting Red Cloud. It may be the hometown of Willa Cather, but it has much to offer visitors. We recommend putting it on your list of places to visit.
For more information on Red Cloud and its attractions, please visit the following sites: