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Willa Cather Foundation History

Willa Cather Foundation History

The Willa Cather Foundation (WCF) was founded as the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial in 1955 through the efforts of a small group of volunteers led by Mildred R. Bennett, Cather’s first biographer. Upon moving to Red Cloud shortly after Cather’s death, Bennett became fascinated by people, events, and historic sites in and around Red Cloud and Webster County that had been intertwined with Cather’s fictional worlds. Bennett’s 1951 biography The World of Willa Cather is still widely used by scholars as a valuable source work for Cather’s early years. In the early 1950s, Bennett gathered a small group of Red Cloud citizens, interested individuals, and scholars from throughout Nebraska to form the WCF’s Board of Governors. The group recognized Cather’s importance to American literature and Red Cloud’s unique potential to become a living museum, reflecting the settings for six of Cather’s twelve novels and many of her short stories.

The organization has grown consistently and today owns or manages the largest number of buildings and sites on the National Register of Historic Places devoted to an author in the United States. It also holds one of the nation’s largest collections of materials related to the life and works of Willa Cather. The collection contains original artifacts, historic photographs, rare books, art, and personal possessions that belonged to Cather and her family.

In early years, the Willa Cather Foundation's primary focus was preservation and restoration of historic sites related to Cather’s life and work. By the mid-1970s, it had acquired and restored six sites, including Cather’s childhood home, a National Historic Landmark; the Farmers and Merchants Bank, erected by Silas Garber, prototype for Captain Forrester in A Lost Lady the Burlington Depot, which appears throughout Cather’s work; the St. Juliana Catholic Church, of the novel My Ántonia the Grace Episcopal Church, which houses a pair of stained-glass windows donated by Cather in memory of her parents; and the Pavelka Farmstead, the rural setting for the final scenes in My Ántonia In 1978, these properties and the collections within them amassed up to that date were deeded to the Nebraska State Historical Society (NSHS) while the Willa Cather Foundation began to focus on scholarly publications, educational conferences and seminars. A long partnership with NSHS has allowed WCF to oversee daily management and maintenance of the historic Red Cloud properties.

Preservation work continued when WCF took ownership of the J.L Miner House, a primary setting in My Ántonia the First Baptist Church, which Cather attended as a child; the Red Cloud Opera House, where Cather was a regular patron in her youth; the 612-acre Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, an unbroken tract of relic grassland; and the Cather Second Home, the final residence of Cather’s parents. In 2003, WCF conducted a $1.7 million campaign to restore the 1885 Red Cloud Opera House, where Cather attended productions and gave her graduation oration in 1890. A $1.2 million endowment campaign followed to successfully match a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in order to significantly expand operations and programs.

In 2000, the WCF acquired the historic Moon Block Building in downtown Red Cloud, adjacent to the Red Cloud Opera House. The Moon Block, on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1887, just four years after Willa Cather and her family moved to the area. It quickly became a prominent Red Cloud landmark and a symbol for the town's promise. Willa Cather was a teenager when the structure was completed and it made an impression on the young writer, who would eventually weave it into her novels and short stories.

In 2016, a $7 million capital campaign established The National Willa Cather Center in the restored Moon Block Building. The Center is a state-of-the-art archive and museum that preserves and displays the extensive collection. Rooted in creative placemaking, adaptive reuse of this building meets all three aspects of the WCF’s mission: preservation of a historic building with a direct connection to Cather’s life and her writing with space to properly house and preserve original Cather family archival papers, photographs, textiles, artifacts, and our ever-expanding art collection; education through a permanent exhibit, American Bittersweet: The Life & Writing of Willa Cather, a central component of the new National Willa Cather Center, which plays a large role in expanding the learning opportunities available to students, teachers, and visitors; and nurturing regular art exhibits and arts programs with expanded backstage facilities for our Red Cloud Opera House, making it possible to host larger and more professional productions.

With completion of the National Willa Cather Center, the WCF has closed a period of unprecedented achievement focused on this most ambitious building project in our history. On average, more than 10,000 scholars, tourists, teachers and students from all 50 states and eight countries visit annually for a glimpse into Cather’s world.