Literary Societies—Annotations from the Archive

When we think about students returning to school, we always think of Frances Cather, Willa Cather's Mount Holyoke-educated aunt who came West to Nebraska in a wagon in 1873. Despite the many challenges of frontier life, Franc Cather, as she was called by the family, never stopped being a teacher. She had taught in Vermont and Illinois before college, and afterward taught in Virginia at the Winchester Female Institute. After arriving in Nebraska, she taught in a Webster County country school and encouraged many Catherton youngsters to attend Grand Island College. She participated in the Webster County Teachers' Institute and seems never to have stopped evaluating school text books, desks, and other items necessary to the proper running of a classroom.

Franc Cather was also the leader of the Catherton Literary Club, a group that met regularly on the Divide. "The Literary," as it was sometimes called in the newspapers, was part of a larger movement; several country communities had their own literary societies and in Red Cloud, the Ladies Clio Club also held educational meetings and events. The literary societies met to share recitations and reviews of classical and more modern literature, songs and musical interludes, speeches, and occasionally, they arranged debates between neighboring clubs. For a woman like Franc, the literary society must have been a welcome respite from long days of managing the children and the farm, a way of recalling her old life. In an 1893 letter to Mariel Gere, Willa Cather recalled the group's meetings as "the usual country 'Literary' on a somewhat better scale." 

In a recent donation to our archive, we were thrilled to see more evidence of the literary clubs' activities and, particularly, Franc's role in them. Two books belonging to Franc Cather and two belonging to her daughter Blanche were found on a western Nebraska "junk jaunt" and brought to the National Willa Cather Center; one of the texts, The French Reader, published in 1866, is a teacher's examination copy belonging to Franc S. Cather. Another gives us terrific insight into Franc Cather's intellectual life.

Roman and Medieval Art, also belonging to Franc Cather, enclosed several papers that illuminate her participation in local literary societies. Within its pages were several meeting plans with assignments listed for members of the Catherton Literary Club, including Franc Cather herself and her daughters Carrie and Blanche Cather, their nearest neighbors and relatives. Also included was an 1894 program of the Ladies Clio Club in Red Cloud and enrollment cards for the Nebraska Teachers Reading Circle. These pieces join our collection, which already included an embroidered blue and gold table runner belonging to the Catherton club, greatly expanding our understanding of the subjects and social workings of our local literary societies and reinforcing just how important education was to our earliest settlers.

We are grateful to our donor, Jerry Kneifel, for this most generous gift.

If you have materials related to the Cathers and their lives, we would love to talk with you! The National Willa Cather Center houses the earliest Cather collections, and our growing collection of letters, photographs, artwork, and personal items are available to scholars, students, and researchers, and helps us to tell Willa Cather's story more fully.

Please contact our archivist, Tracy Tucker, with inquiries at: