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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.

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 by the WCF to the Nebraska State Historical Society while the Willa Cather Foundation began to focus more strongly on its scholarly publications and educational conferences and seminars.

Over time and through the generosity of friends and supporters, preservation work continued when WCF took ownership of the Harling 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.

Since the 1990s, a partnership with the Nebraska State Historical Society has enabled the WCF to oversee daily management and maintenance of the six historic Red Cloud properties that were initially amassed and restored by its founders. Taken in total, the WCF 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. The “Willa Cather Thematic Group” is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and includes four historic districts and twenty-six individually designated buildings and sites.

Today, the Willa Cather Foundation's headquarters are located within the fully restored 1885 Red Cloud Opera House, where Willa Cather found a window to a wider world of art and music in the late 1800s. A $1.7 million restoration of the Opera House in 2003 followed by a $1.2 million endowment campaign significantly expanded the Willa Cather Foundation's base of operations and programs. The organization's offices, art gallery, and a bookstore are located on the main level of the Opera House and regular arts and cultural performances are now held in the restored auditorium on the second level.

In addition to overseeing the largest collection of nationally designated historic sites dedicated to any American author, the Willa Cather Foundation holds one of the nation’s largest collections of materials related to the life and works of Willa Cather. The collection contains a plethora of orginal artifacts, historic photographs, rare books, art, and personal possessions that belonged to Cather and her family.

The Willa Cather Foundation's current endeavor is a multi-million dollar capital campaign to restore the historic Moon Block building that is adjacent to the Red Cloud Opera House to become the National Willa Cather Center, a state-of-the-art archive and museum to preserve and display the collection. The Moon Block—a site on the National Register of Historic Places—was developed and built in 1886, just three 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 about thirteen when the structure was completed; and since the Moon Block occupies a good portion of on block of Red Cloud's main commericial thoroughfare, its construction would have caused much excitement in the burgeoning town. The building was home to numerous offices and retail businesses, and Cather would eventually weave it into her novels and short stories.

The historic Moon Block was acquired by the Willa Cather Foundation in 2000 to fulfill two mission-driven goals. First, preservation of historic properties that were relevant to Cather’s life and work; and second, to fulfill a long-range plan for much-needed facility expansions. Most critically, renovation of the Moon Block to become the National Willa Cather Center was planned to create an environmentally secure home to preserve the invaluable objects in the Willa Cather Foundation's collection. In addition to providing much-needed space for a sustainable archive to house its growing collection, the renovation will create a dedicated study room for visiting researchers, archival and collection processing space, an exhibition room for visitor interpretation, a classroom for education activities, and expanded backstage facilities for the adjacent Opera House. Once complete in 2016, the National Willa Cather Center will become a world-class venue to celebrate Cather's life and legacy.