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Willa Cather Foundation - Red Cloud Nebraska (NE)

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Annotations from the Archive: Our Organizational History

Annotations from the Archive: Our Organizational History

Monday, March 6, 2023

In the summer of 1957, Mildred Bennett and the founding members of the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial felt that their work in Red Cloud was well underway, and they decided to begin a newsletter, “so that we could spread the word around that we were trying to preserve and restore Willa Cather’s country and artifacts.” The organizations aims were:

  1. To perpetuate an interest throughout the world in the work of Willa Cather
  2. To identify and restore to their original condition places made famous by the work of Willa Cather
  3. To provide for Willa Cather a living memorial in the form of art and literary scholarships
  4. To secure the bonding, insurance and housing of permanent art, literary, and historical collections relating to the life, times, and work of Willa Cather.

These aims were big enough in their own right, but the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Newsletter was a way to promote the work, recruit members, and expand the legacy of Willa Cather far beyond the borders of Nebraska.

And it worked.

The Mildred Bennett Collection contains a vast amount of organizational history, from the first idea of opening a museum, to the first architectural renderings of Bennett’s vision for an International Willa Cather Center in 1989. Her collection contains 125 linear feet of papers and books related to her early study of Cather, publication of The World of Willa Cather, and the preservation of the Farmers and Merchants Bank and Childhood Home. The letters and materials in the Don Connors Collection and the John March Collection, read in conjunction with Bennett’s papers, provide behind-the-scenes details of building acquisition, publishing frustrations, and the big personalities that surrounded Willa Cather and sometimes disagreed about how to preserve her legacy. The Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Newsletter was the public voice of the organization, but Bennett’s papers reveal how the sausage was made.

The collections also reveal the growing stature of the organization and its programs. The publication of original Cather research in our newsletter was an important feature for early Cather studies, particularly when coupled with an increasingly popular Spring Conference—at first a single day event that expanded to a multi-day "festival" featuring nationally-known speakers, like writer Maya Angelou, actor Julie Harris, and historian A.L. Rowse, as well as public presentations of research, art, and a major tourist attraction for literary pilgrims.

The tireless efforts of the board and volunteers made the work of the WCPM a state-wide phenomenon, with hundreds of column inches devoted to the important preservation work happening in Red Cloud. Countless people donated their time and expertise to developing educational resources, narrated tours on tape, developed topographic maps in the museum, and much more. A crucial partnership was forged when Bennett solicited LIFE Magazine to document the sites related to Willa Cather’s fiction—in fact, she proposed photographing the sites herself, for LIFE to publish, and asked for camera advice. The magazine politely declined, but LIFE photographer David E. Scherman was soon onboard to visit Nebraska and shoot the historic sites for what was to become an iconic piece of Catheriana, the March 19, 1951 issue of the magazine. Scherman, who was at that point perhaps best known for photographing colleague Lee Miller bathing in Adolph Hitler’s Munich bathtub, became an important ally and sounding board for Bennett’s publishing efforts, as well as photographic consultant and friend.

Though not technically a part of our Willa Cather collections, materials related to our organizational history sheds light on the important work of establishing Cather’s legacy in the crucial years immediately following her death. Conflicting notions of decorum surrounding Cather’s official biography, her sexuality, and her privacy are revealed, especially in Bennett’s early communications with Cather’s family and acquaintances. Cather’s partner, Edith Lewis, had strong ideas about the primacy of Dr. E.K. Brown’s biography, and potential sources for information were often caught between competing projects, as Dorothy Canfield Fisher was.

In the end, understanding Cather’s place in American literature is informed by this organizational history. As we come to know the personalities and motivations of those who established a memory institution dedicated to Cather’s work, we can better understand the ways that Cather’s reputation and character has been shaped by these early biographers. We invite researchers to our archives in Red Cloud to explore the fascinating world of Mildred Bennett and suggest you book an appointment with our archivist, Tracy Tucker, at Our archives are staffed Tuesday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.


Mildred Bennett’s recollections, as transcribed by Pat Phillips (manuscript)
Mildred Bennett Collection