I never lived in Kansas, but I grew up with a deep appreciation for the state my grandparents left in 1957 when their farm became part of Fort Riley. A regular correspondent, Grandma kept in frequent contact with neighbors and relatives who remained behind, and subscribed to the Riley Countian until her death thirty years later. As a busy Ohio farm wife, Mom treasured the few opportunities she had to return “home,” and like Grandma, she shared her love of Kansas with me. Perhaps that is why I felt at home almost as soon as we crossed the state line.
Somehow, I cannot be in Kansas without visiting places associated with my Mom’s youth, even though the ground of her childhood home is part of Big Red One’s tank training ground. As we drove north on US 77, I gazed wistfully at the rolling countryside south of Riley, recalling visits to my Grandparents’ two-story farmhouse with its large kitchen that once prepared meals for thrashing crews during the wheat harvest. I remembered Mom’s stories of the red dust penetrating the shingles on their house during the Dust Bowl years, and Grandma’s accounts of gaunt men who knocked on the kitchen door asking if they could do chores in exchange for food. I thought about the clothing she sewed from feedsacks, and of my Grandfather’s struggles to save the land.
We made a brief stop in Riley, where Mom went to high school, and at the Bala cemetery a short distance from town, where I visited with Grandma II (the great grandmother who crocheted the tablecloth used at Greg and Mattie’s wedding). She outlived her husband by forty years, and during those decades traveled Kansas and Nebraska caring for the ill and delivering babies. Fortunately, she also lived long enough to share her love of needlework and quilting in me.
In high school my English teacher, Stephen Umphress, introduced us to life on the prairie when he assigned the novel My Antonia, by Willa Cather. I cannot begin to express my gratitude to him for teaching us how to read literature and for introducing me to Cather’s work. The story of Antonia Shimerda resonated with this farmer’s daughter, fed her interest in history, and helped her understand her own relationship to the land. For many years I’ve wanted to visit Cather’s home in Red Cloud, Nebraska, but it was never convenient. This time was different. Of course, there were a few stops along the way!
Traveling north and west of Riley, we passed many rural cemeteries, their names commemorated on ornate gates. Think of the stories entombed in these graves, stories never memorialized in a work of literature.
Continuing down the highway, we discovered that Lebanon, Kansas, is the geographic center of the 48 states, and of course this warranted a stop on a very windy day! I’m sure my geocaching friends would have found one here, but instead of looking, I gazed at the clouds while trying to remain upright.
At last, we arrived in Red Cloud, population 948 in 2016. Charles Cather moved his family from Virginia to Nebraska in 1883, when Willa was just nine year’s old. He intended to homestead, but exchanged the homestead for life in Red Cloud after only eighteen months. As Willa later wrote, life on the land “gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake.” I understand her sentiment, and can say the same, even though I, like Cather, left home at seventeen to attend college and returned only for visits.
While doing research for this trip I discovered visitors could stay at the Cather Second Home, where Willa’s parents lived and she stayed during visits to Red Cloud. We were delighted to find ourselves the only guests in this charming home, and enjoyed dining at the table where she used to host tea.
The next morning we arrived bright and early at the Willa Cather Foundation for our tour of the Cather childhood home and the Foundation’s excellent museum exhibit. I love visiting author’s homes and imagining what their childhoods were like, and this one did not disappoint. As a child, Willa and her six siblings slept dormitory style in the unfinished upstairs of their home, but when Willa turned thirteen, her father decided she needed a room of her own, a place to think, write, read, and dream. What a remarkable gift.
A visit to the Foundation’s gift shop convinced me it is time to reacquaint myself with the work of this important author, a woman “as open an unpretentious as her western plains.” (quoted from a poster in the Cather Second Home).