Nebraska Town Is Hoping for a Willa Cather Literary Tourism Boom – Skift
Gathered with friends around a kitchen table six decades ago, Mildred Bennett started the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation with eight others in Red Cloud, the town that serves as an important backdrop to the authorâ€™s work.
The museum dedicated to Nebraskaâ€™s most famous author has undergone several transformations in the 62 years since, moving into bigger spaces in the town of 1,000 and acquiring 10 properties tied to Catherâ€™s time in Nebraska.
The Lincoln Journal Star reports that the foundation will celebrate its latest iteration next month with the opening of the National Willa Cather Center, the culmination of a five-year effort that saw the restoration and renovation of a two-story building overlooking the brick-laid street in downtown Red Cloud.
Once opened, the new center will connect with an opera house converted into offices, an art gallery and performing arts center the Willa Cather Foundation has occupied since 2003.
â€œThis was a vision that started with our founder, Mildred Bennett, and the volunteers on the first Board of Governors of the foundation,â€ said Ashley Olson, a Red Cloud native who now serves as the executive director of the Willa Cather Foundation.
The Moon Block, the two-story building finished in 1886, will now feature a new exhibit detailing the life and writing of Cather on the first floor, as well as an expanded archive of the authorâ€™s works and belongings on the second floor.
Laura Bush, who brought Catherâ€™s works to the White House as part of her â€œSalute to American Authorsâ€ series, will be on hand for the centerâ€™s June 3 grand opening as a guest speaker.
The former first lady, who has been a friend of the Cather Foundation for several years, said Cather â€œgives voice to the values that define Americaâ€™s frontier heritage.â€
â€œBy reading her words and promoting her contributions to western culture, we commemorate the pioneering spirit that distinguishes us as a nation,â€ she said.
The dedication of the National Willa Cather Center coincides with the 62nd annual Willa Cather Spring Conference, a celebration of the author, as well as the arts and humanities inspired by her works.
This yearâ€™s conference, â€œPicturing the American West: The Railroad and Popular Imagination,â€ will feature Brent Glass, director emeritus of the Smithsonianâ€™s National Museum of American History, and Ann Satterthwaite, a Washington-based city planner who has written extensively about preserving the environment and culture of small communities.
The event has been designated a signature event of Nebraska Statehood 150, according to Regan Anson, executive director of the sesquicentennial celebration.
Catherâ€™s legacy as a novelist, journalist and short story writer has continued to grow around the globe, according to Guy Reynolds, director of the Cather Archive at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
For many years, critics labeled Cather as a regional writer, Reynolds said, but over time her place in American literature has expanded.
â€œCather was a Nebraska writer, but sheâ€™s also a national writer,â€ Reynolds said. â€œIf she was just a Nebraska author, she wouldnâ€™t have the status that she has.â€
Each of Catherâ€™s 12 novels remain in print and Red Cloudâ€™s most famous daughter still graces college reading lists while continuing to sell 5,000 copies a year in the United Kingdom.
â€œThatâ€™s really not bad for a non-British author who has been dead for 70 years,â€ Reynolds said. â€œA lot of living writers would be happy to do that.â€
Red Cloud has benefited from the boon of literary tourism sparked by growing interest in Cather and her work.
Visitors from all 50 states and 10 different countries have taken a pilgrimage to Red Cloud, which calls itself â€œAmericaâ€™s Most Famous Small Town.â€
Olson said visitors from France, Japan, China, Taiwan and Mexico have booked tours of the Red Cloud sites that inspired works such as â€œO Pioneers!,â€ â€The Song of the Lark,â€ and â€œMy Antonia.â€
The renovations to the Moon Block building have created three new storefronts in downtown Red Cloud for entrepreneurs and local businesses. One of those has already been occupied by On the Brix, a wine and craft beer tasting room.
â€œItâ€™s a really unique project,â€ Olson said. â€œWeâ€™re honoring Catherâ€™s legacy and building an industry around it to help spur economic development and downtown revitalization.â€
Red Cloud Mayor Gary Ratzlaff said the Cather Foundation and the national center draw as many as 10,000 people annually, explaining the community is also exploring plans for a new downtown motel within walking distance of the Cather Center to accommodate future visitors.
Olson said the Cather Foundationâ€™s goal is to keep promoting the person the Journal Star selected as the most-notable Nebraskan in the stateâ€™s 150-year history.
â€œItâ€™s my hope that the Center will become a living memorial to Cather through arts and educational opportunities that bring more attention to her life and legacy and, ultimately, her work,â€ Olson said. â€œIt took 62 years to get here, but weâ€™ve finally created the archive and museum that Cather deserves.â€
Copyright (2017) Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Write a Reply or Comment:
You must be logged in to post a comment.