Brent Glass

Brent Glass, author of 50 Great American Places, was the keynote speaker June 1 at the 62nd annual Willa Cather Spring Conference in Red Cloud. Glass is director emeritus of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. 

RED CLOUD — Visiting historical places like the Willa Cather Prairie and understanding the impact of those places in the context of today’s society is of vital importance.

That was the message Brent Glass shared as part of his keynote speech during the first day Thursday of the 62nd annual Willa Cather Spring Conference.

“Historic literacy is being a citizen in a democracy,” Glass told an audience of more than 80 people filling the Red Cloud Opera House. “We need to have people like yourselves and the next generation understand you cannot pick up a newspaper or a magazine or turn on the television and hear about the news without having some understanding of the historical connection, the historical context of every issue we have today. History is a resource for understanding our own times and our own lives.”

Glass, the director emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, included Red Cloud and the Cather Prairie in his 2016 book “50 Great American Places: Essential Historic Sites Across the U.S.”

Glass first visited the prairie about three years ago while doing research for his book and was excited to hear about the plans to restore the Moon Block Building, adjacent to the opera house, and build the National Willa Cather Center.

The dedication for that center, which opened in January, is set for Saturday.

“It was a little humbling to be signing my book in Willa Cather’s building,” Glass told the audience. “Somehow it was just a little disconcerting. Why am I signing my books in a building that commemorates one of the great writers in American history and maybe throughout the world.”

Glass’s book features 50 places throughout the country — though not in every state — that focus on one of five core themes of American history: Freedom, war, innovation, diversity and landscape.

Some of those locations include under freedom Seneca Falls, New York, and the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., the Gettysburg battlefield for war, Thomas Edison’s laboratory for innovation, the Statue of Liberty for diversity and the Cather Prairie for landscape.

The book’s forward is written by historian and author David McCullough, who specifically mentions the Cather Prairie.

“I was delighted to find included Red Cloud, Nebraska, the childhood home of the great American novelist Willa Cather. As Brent writes, no one explored the theme of the American pioneers and their impact on the land more eloquently than she. The town of Red Cloud, so much of which has been preserved, is, as he says, ‘a living monument,’ and beyond the town, out on the prairie, a white-frame farmhouse, the home of one Annie Pavelka, has also been preserved.”

McCullough goes on to speak of that pioneer woman Annie Pavelka who inspired Cather’s famous character of Antonia Shimerda in her masterpiece “My Antonia.”

“...to stand there beside the storm cellar into which she rushed her children when tornadoes struck is to feel ‘the power of place’ in no uncertain terms,” McCullough wrote.

Glass said that McCullough grew up in Pittsburgh and was familiar with Cather’s works there as a young writer.

“He encouraged me to write the book,” Glass said. “He said, ‘Write the book you would want to read.’”

And that’s what Glass did by focusing on the themes of historic literacy and historical preservation.

“(My goal was to) recognize the visionaries and pioneers who preserved these historic places. Mildred Bennett is obviously one of those pioneers,” Glass said of the founder of the Cather Foundation.

“With almost every place I write about, there was someone, usually a woman, not always but usually a woman or a great of women who recognized the need to preserve our history and the physical presence of the past. We have to thank someone who had the foresight or visit to save this place.”

In addition to speaking about his book, Glass also spoke on the theme of the Cather Conference, “Picturing the American West: The Railroad and Popular Imagination.”

He spoke of the early days of the American railroad and the importance and history of Grand Central Terminal in New York City.

“I hope if you come away with nothing else from this conference and railroads transformed America in profound ways,” he said. “A steel wheel on a steel rail is still the most efficient economic way to move goods and people.”

At the conclusion of his speech, Melissa Homestead, professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, shared a bit of the link between Cather and Grand Central Terminal.

In her later years, Cather and her friend Edith Lewis lived on Park Avenue, the street built because of construction of the underground rail lines and Grand Central Terminal. Cather was also a frequent user of the terminal.

“Something that is interesting about the Grand Central Post Office — I’m an associate editor of ‘The Selected Letters of Willa Cather’ — is you would not believe the speed of mail service when Cather was writing letters in the teens and the 20s, 30s and 40s,” Homestead said. “The letter is stamped at Grand Central Post Office one day and it’s at Boston at her publisher’s, a response is written and sent back and it’s like overnight mail.

By contract, Homestead, who lives in Lincoln, said sending a letter or package today to her family in Pennsylvania takes all week.

When asked if she had ever written about Grand Central Terminal, Homestead said there were several mentions.

“She had a faux interview with herself that she wrote where she was supposedly in Grand Central Terminal on her way someplace and someone was supposedly interviewing her,” Homestead said.

She also took the train west toward Chicago on many occasions and there are several letters on stationary indicating that she was writing from the ladies waiting room at the terminal.

The Cather Spring Conference runs through Saturday morning in Red Cloud with the official dedication of the new National Willa Cather Center set for 1:30 p.m.

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