RED CLOUD -Pulitzer Prize winning author Willa Cather may have passed away 72 years ago in New York, but her influence still brings people from across the country to Red Cloud, where she spent her teenage years.
For some time after Cather's death, many letters, pictures and items relating to Cather stayed in Webster County, either in the Cather family or in the Willa Cather Pioneer Museum, founded in 1955.
“Many of the collection pieces belonged to the Cather family and were donated to our museum when we first got started,” said Ashley Olson, executive director.
But in 1978, those items in the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Collection were gifted to the Nebraska State Historical Society, now known as History Nebraska.
In February of this year, History Nebraska officially gave back the collection to the now named Willa Cather Foundation. The Willa Cather Foundation is celebrating the collection's “homecoming” during their 64th Annual Spring Conference May 30 to July 1. The collection, which consists of about 8,000 archival pieces and museum artifact, is now housed at the Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud.
“Some of these items haven't been seen for 40 years,” said Tracy Tucker, archivist at the National Willa Cather Center.
In addition to the collection, the foundation also got back ownership of six properties in Red Cloud. This includes Cather's childhood home, the Burlington Depot and the Antonia Farmhouse that the foundation's website says inspired “My Antonia.”
In order for the collection to move from History Nebraska to the Willa Cather Foundation, the buildings had to be renovated, with special attention to a climate-controlled space for the archival pieces. The Opera House and Moon Block buildings that shared a wall were restructured into one building, finishing in December 2016. The archival room is now in former Moon Block building.
“To me, this is the heart of the Moon Block project,” Tucker said, referring to the archival room.
The homecoming of the collection also marked the homecoming for Cather fans. John “Jay” Yost, Willa Cather Foundation board member, returned to his hometown of Red Cloud but lives in New York.
“It's amazing to have an author (like Cather) from a small town like Red Cloud,” said Jay Yost Willa Cather Foundation board member.
The Willa Cather Center's location would have been familiar to Cather prior to renovations. In the Opera House, she was exposed to traveling companies that would perform plays and operas.
“Opera was a window to the world for Cather,” Yost said.
The Moon Block building also left an impact on the young writer. Three years after Cather's family moved to Red Cloud in 1883, construction for the building began. The Moon Block and other buildings were alluded to in her novels.
The spring conference brought foundation members and guests to share their interest of Cather, Red Cloud and Webster County. On Thursday, they shared pieces of history like mastodon bones found in Webster County, post cards from one of Red Cloud's bank and an original land deed in Webster from 1871.
Friday will include guest speakers. Saturday will include handbell music and panels, among other events.
The foundation also celebrated statues of Willa Cather and Ponca Chief Standing Bear being installed in the National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington D.C. The statues will replace Nebraska's statues of Julius Sterling Morton and William Jennings Bryan.
The foundation also announced a capital campaign of $6.5 million to restore the gifted properties, expand their programs and grow their endowment. They have already raised $3.6 million.
The collection itself includes items relating to Cather and to Webster County. Among it is Cather's high school diploma, about 200 personal letters from Cather and the Cather family's furnishings and china.
The historical site donations Red Cloud the location for the largest collection of nationally designated sites dedicated to an American author.