Historic Sites

Since our organization's founding as the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial, we have been at the forefront of of the preservation movement, restoring and caring for the sites that were important to Willa Cather's life and writing. “Every time I talked about Cather in Webster County,” Mildred Bennett said in an interview. “I would tell the audience how important it was to restore and preserve these places. . . . and nothing happened.” 

Mildred Bennett and a small group of like-minded individuals incorporated in 1955, initiating the preservation of the places associated with Cather's life. Today, our organization owns and operates the nation's largest collection of nationally-designated historic sites dedicated to an American author.

Willa Cather Childhood Home exterior and fence

Willa Cather Childhood Home

Built in 1879, this house was five years old when the Cather family moved in. Willa Cather’s father rented the house for twenty years, and Willa Cather lived in the house from the ages of ten to sixteen. The house is described in detail in the short stories “Old Mrs. Harris,” and “The Best Years,” and Cather's attic bedroom is described in detail in her 1915 novel The Song of the Lark.

The home was acquired by the Willa Cather Foundation in 1960 and opened to visitors in 1967. Many of the furnishings came from the estate of Willa Cather’s sister, Elsie, and other extended family. Cather’s lifelong friend, Carrie Miner Sherwood, lent a helping hand and a good memory to the reconstruction of the house, which had at one time been made over into two apartments.

Cather’s attic bedroom retains the wallpaper she selected while she worked in Dr. Henry Cook's drugstore. In 2022, the National Willa Cather Center undertook the first major restoration effort of the Childhood Home since the 1960s. When complete, the National Historic Landmark will not only feature modernized systems and restored exterior finishes, but will also offer accessible tours for those with mobility limitations.

“When she went away from it for good, she would leave something that she could never recover; memories of pleasant excitement, of happy adventures in her mind; of warm sleep on howling winter nights, and joyous awakenings on summer mornings.” —The Song of the Lark

Burlington Depot exterior

Burlington Depot

Red Cloud’s Burlington Depot was donated to the Willa Cather Foundation in 1965. Efforts to save the depot were extensive, requiring relocation and a full restoration—the result of the railroad's policies of removing redundant facilities from major lines. To save the building from destruction, it was moved from its original location south of the railroad tracks to its present site.

Depots played a significant role in Cather’s writings, symbolizing both escape to the world and the way back to Red Cloud. Red Cloud was on the main line of the Burlington & Missouri Railroad, and eight passenger trains and several grain and livestock trains passed through daily, making the Red Cloud Burlington Depot a busy and exciting place. The original two-story section of the depot, constructed in 1897, is the building Cather returned to when visiting friends and family in Red Cloud.

In 2021-2022, the National Willa Cather Center restored the depot, rebuilding aging windows and clapboards, repairing the semaphore, and upgrading heating and electrical systems. The brick walkways were lifted and reset, and a concrete pad and barrier-free entryway were added to the west to allow guests of all abilities to tour the Burlington Depot.

Exterior of Grace Episcopal Church

Grace Episcopal Church

Willa Cather joined Grace Episcopal Church with her parents in 1922. Two of the beautiful painted glass windows were purchased by Willa Cather and her siblings in memory of their parents, and the communion rail was given in memory of herCather's brother, Douglass.

Grace Episcopal was built in 1884 and was originally a wooden structure and was moved to its present location in 1891. The brick façade was added sometime after the Cathers joined the church in 1922.

Today, Grace Episcopal Church is used for private services. A homily is delivered here annually in conjunction with the Willa Cather Spring Conference, and the church is a regular stop on guided Cather tours.

Exterior of St. Juliana Falconieri Church

St. Juliana Falconieri Church

St. Juliana Falconieri was the first Catholic church in Red Cloud. The church was built in 1883 and used until 1903. The design is modest and simple, with “poor man’s stained-glass” applied to the windows made from a simple white paint featuring swirl designs. A surprise to many visitors is that the St. Juliana Church has no bell in the belfry.

The priest who served this church came by train from a nearby town. A special train whistle alerted parishioners that Mass was about to begin. Anna Sadilek and John Pavelka, the couple who inspired characters in both My Ántonia and "Neighbour Rosicky," were married in this church.

After Red Cloud's Sacred Heart Catholic Church was dedicated in 1907, St. Juliana became a private residence until it was donated to the National Willa Cather Center in 1968. 

Exterior of the J. L. Miner House

J. L. Miner House

Built in 1878 for the James L. and Julia Miner family, this was the home of Willa Cather’s childhood companions and lifelong friends Carrie, Mary, and Irene Miner. The Miners inspired the Harling family of My Ántonia. Cather dedicated My Ántonia “to Carrie and Irene Miner, in memory of affections old and true.” The Miner family employed a young Anna Sadilek, and during her employment there, she became with the neighborhood children, including the Cather children. Anna Sadilek was the prototype for Ántonia, and the Miner house was an important setting in the novel. 

The Miner House remained in the family until 1990, when it was purchased and restored by a Willa Cather Foundation board member, who graciously donated the property to the Foundation. It has become one of our most popular tour destinations. The Miner House is a beautiful example of the vernacular Italianate style, an uncommon building style in Red Cloud.

“Except when the father was at home, the Harling house was never quiet. Mrs. Harling and Nina and Ántonia made as much noise as a houseful of children, and there was usually somebody at the piano.”
My Ántonia

Red Cloud Opera House stage with historic backdrop and dramatic lighting

Red Cloud Opera House

Built in 1885 and fully restored in 2003, the Red Cloud Opera House figured prominently in the life of young Willa Cather. Today, a visit to the Opera House transports patrons back in time to the 1880s, when Willa Cather and her friends eagerly anticipated the arrival of traveling productions such as The Bohemian Girl and The Mikado

The Red Cloud Opera House hosts numerous performances each year, with a diverse schedule that includes theater, music, lectures, gallery exhibits, and much more. The Opera House was donated by the Morhart family who had operated the first floor hardware store for decades.

“When I go about among little Nebraska towns . . . the thing I miss most is the opera house.” —Willa Cather, 1929

Front facade of Red Cloud Opera House and the Moon Block

Moon Block

Adjoining the Opera House is the Moon Block, named for its original investor, Michigan Senator John Moon. The Moon Block is home to the National Willa Cather Center and its museum and archives dedicated to preserving the legacy of Willa Cather. The Moon Block was constructed in 1887 and was entangled in the failure of the Farmers and Merchants Bank in 1893. The disposition of the property was finally decided years later by the Nebraska Supreme Court. The award-winning restoration of the Moon Block was completed in 2017, when former First Lady Laura Bush presided over the grand opening of the National Willa Cather Center.

Exterior of Pavelka Farmstead

Pavelka Farmstead

The Pavelka Farmstead and the fruit cave described in My Ántonia, from which the children emerged in a burst of light and life, is located near Bladen in rural Webster County. Restored by the National Willa Cather Center in 2020, the Pavelka Farmstead is on the National Register of Historic Places.

This farm was home to Anna Sadilek Pavelka, her husband John Pavelka, and their ten children. Anna Pavelka life was the inspiration for Cather’s most famous character and the namesake for her 1918 novel, My Ántonia. Pavelka worked as hired domestic help, supporting her family after her father’s tragic death by suicide. Cather's short story "Neighbour Rosicky" was also inspired by the family.

In 2020, the site underwent significant structural restoration which returned the farmhouse to its original footprint. The property will be interpreted as an early twentieth century farmstead of an immigrant farm family in Nebraska.

“We turned to leave the cave; Antonia and I went up the stairs first, and the children waited. We were standing outside talking, when they all came running up the steps together, big and little, tow heads and gold heads and brown, and flashing little naked legs; a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight.” — My Ántonia

Exterior of Farmers and Merchants Bank

Farmers and Merchants Bank

In 1889, the Farmers and Merchants Bank was erected by Silas Garber, a former Union Army officer who helped to found Red Cloud in 1871 and served as the third elected governor of Nebraska from 1875–1879. Governor Garber and his wife, Lyra Wheeler Garber, lived in Red Cloud while Willa Cather was growing up. They became the prototypes for Captain and Marian Forrester in Cather’s 1923 novel, A Lost Lady.

Within a few short years of opening, the Farmers and Merchants Bank closed its doors due to the Panic of 1893. After housing numerous Red Cloud businesses and City Offices, it was acquired and painstakingly restored by the Willa Cather Foundation in late 1950s and officially dedicated as the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial in 1962 to serve as the first museum to honor Willa Cather.

The façade of the Farmers and Merchants Bank features large red sandstones from Colorado with distinctive Red Cloud brick comprising the rest. The interior’s marble steps and tile floors are original features. The intricate teller cages were manufactured in Chicago and shipped by rail to Red Cloud. In 2021-2022, restoration was completed on the original carved sandstone tourelles, the metal rooftop ornament, windows, and interior spaces. In 2024, the National Willa Cather Center opened a new permanent exhibit in the bank's lower level, Making a Place: A Long History of Red Cloud.

White church on a corner with blue sky and clouds

Baptist Church

The First Baptist Church was built in 1884 with the help of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. Willa Cather and her family attended this church after they moved into Red Cloud from their farm. Later, she included the church in her 1915 novel The Song of the Lark, when she described the "not very Christian rivalry" between the Baptists and the Methodists in fictional Moonstone. She also featured the Baptist church in "The Joy of Nelly Deane":

"The baptistry was a cemented pit directly under the pulpit rostrum, over which we had our stage when we sang Queen Esther. I sat through the sermon somewhat nervously. After the minister, in his long, black gown, had gone down into the water and the choir had finished singing, the door from the dressing room opened, and, led by one of the deacons, Nelly came down the steps into the pool. . . . She went down until the water was well above her waist, and stood white and small, with her hands crossed on her breast, while the minister said the words about being buried with Christ in baptism. Then, lying in his arm, she disappeared under the dark water."