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Mildred Bennett, the charismatic founder and long-time President of the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation, could have literally stepped out of a Willa Cather novel. Like some of Cather's heroines, Mildred was a strong, fiercely independent, intelligent woman, who loved the land and planted her roots deeply in the soil of Webster County, Nebraska.
Her passionate interest in Willa Cather began in 1932 when she arrived in the hamlet of Inavale, Nebraska, located in the heart of the farming country of Cather's novels. She was the "new teacher in town" and many of her pupils were literally the children and grandchildren of the people Willa Cather immortalized in her Nebraska stories.
In 1946 Mildred moved with her husband, Dr. W.K. Bennett, to Red Cloud, Nebraska after his stint of 4½ years as a Navy doctor.
Red Cloud, the environment of Claude Wheeler (One of Ours), Antonia (My Antonia), and Lucy Gayheart (Lucy Gayheart), was also Willa Cather's home town and Mildred was quick to make it her own. This place gave Mildred Bennett resources and materials that were available nowhere else in the world. Her research and interviews with people who had contact with Cather, including several close and life-long friends, led to the publication of The World of Willa Cather, by Dodd, Mead, and Co. in 1951.
Recognizing that Red Cloud was the setting for some of America's most important and best loved stories and novels, Mildred Bennett with amazing foresight decided to save these landmarks, such as the Cather home and Antonia's farmhouse. To do this she needed help. She gathered together A "kitchen cabinet," as she referred to her handful of like-minded supporters, and they, in 1955, signed the papers of incorporation for the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation.
During the ensuing 50 years, her "kitchen cabinet" has grown to a 30-member Board of Governors comprising scholars, historians, teachers, and lay people who have carried Mildred's dream forward with significant success. Red Cloud is now an educational learning and research center for people who come from myriad places in the world. The 1885 Red Cloud Opera House, where Cather herself enjoyed performances, has been painstakingly and beautifully renovated for performances, lectures, and meetings. The first floor serves as the Foundation offices, an art gallery, and a welcoming community center for all who are drawn to the work of Willa Cather and the life and history of the people who settled the Great Plains.
Mildred Bennett, during her lifetime, was recognized as a foremost authority on Willa Cather by literary organizations and universities across the land.
Securing these archives in perpetuity, one of Mildred's priority dreams, is a current major focus of the Board of Directors. The buildings adjacent to the Opera House are collectively referred to as "The Moon Block." The full restoration of this section of Webster Avenue will afford state-of-the-art archival space to protect and hold the invaluable treasures of this unique educational center.
Restoring the "Moon Block" is an undertaking of major proportions, and we invite you to support us with this project. Please see our "Collections tab."
Mildred's husband, Dr. W.K. Bennett, described her as "a Messianic person striving to establish the memory of the birth of a nation through the contributions of the pioneers who built that nation...". She did this by perpetuating the literary heritage of Willa Cather.
That "Messianic" spirit thrives in Mildred Bennett's and Willa Cather's hometown - Red Cloud, Nebraska.