New Facilities for the Cather and Wilder Sites
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s and Willa Cather’s works draw heavily from their experiences in the Midwest. Wilder’s family moved from Wisconsin to numerous places in the region while Laura was a child. Cather’s family moved from Virginia to the area of Red Cloud when Willa was nine. Both realized, later in life, that their experiences in the Midwest were valuable not only for personal reasons, but also for their stories, which continue to appeal to a broad range of readers throughout the world. As the NHL designations of their homes and the name of the National Willa Cather Center indicate, the significance of these writers extends well beyond the Midwest region.
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Wilder’s Newbery Award-winning Little House books, which she wrote while living on Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, have become a childhood staple for learning about pioneer life. They describe Wilder’s experiences from the 1870s to the 1890s before she settled on the farm with her husband, Almanzo, and daughter, Rose. This farm was her home from 1894 until her death in 1957. It is now owned by the Wilder Home Association (WHA) and includes two houses—the farmhouse, built by Laura and Almanzo after they moved to the farm, and the Rock House, later built by Rose as a gift to her parents. The farmhouse, where Laura and Almanzo lived the longest, is a designated NHL.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum
The building for the Wilder museum is brand new. The previous, smaller museum building was constructed in 1971 and remains onsite. The new building includes offices, a staff library and archives room, a video room, and a book store and gift shop. The museum itself is organized by book and by Wilder family member, with associated artifacts grouped together. Here, too, a timeline along the wall places the author’s life in a larger context. One of the most popular and well-recognized pieces on display is Pa’s fiddle, which belonged to Laura’s father. Some of the display cases and furniture in the new museum were reused from the old one, but others are new, higher quality additions.
Willa CatherWilla Cather’s childhood home, the most popular site in Red Cloud, is also an NHL. Other Cather sites in the area include the Red Cloud Opera House and a 612-acre stretch of native prairie. Four historic districts and twenty-six historic sites make up the Willa Cather Thematic Group on the National Register of Historic Places. Several of these are managed by the Willa Cather Foundation (WCF) and owned by the Nebraska State Historical Society (NSHS). Like Wilder, Cather explored Midwestern life in many of her works, which include the Pulitzer Prize-winning One of Ours and the highly-esteemed My Antonia. Cather provided perspectives on pioneer life by drawing from the people and places she encountered in Red Cloud. One location she wrote about, the Moon Block, is now home to the National Willa Cather Center.
National Willa Cather CenterThe Moon Block, listed as part of the Willa Cather Thematic Group, dates back to 1887—three years after Cather’s arrival in Red Cloud—when it was built by Senator John Moon to hold businesses and offices. One of these offices was the workplace of Dr. G.E. McKeeby, Cather’s friend who inspired the character Dr. Archie in The Song of the Lark. The Moon Block is one of several sites that illustrate the impact of real people and places on Cather’s writing.
Over a century after its construction, the building had fallen into disrepair. Beginning in October 2014, extensive restoration work was done on both the interior and exterior of the Moon Block. The WCF had the building taken down to its framework, salvaging, whenever possible, features like historic doors and the original wood floor in what is now the Center’s bookstore. Rehabilitation was complete in December 2016, and the newly restored Moon Block, a two-story, five-bay building, was ready for visitors the following spring.
Much of the building is dedicated to the WCF’s mission, including an archive and study room, a green room, a classroom where an informational video is played, a dressing room for the Opera House next door, a bookstore and art gallery, and a permanent museum exhibit called American Bittersweet: The Life and Writing of Willa Cather, named after the vine that grows outside Cather’s childhood home. The museum opens off the bookstore and explores Cather’s life with pictures, a timeline providing historic context, artifacts, and more. Cather’s writing desk is a focal point of the exhibit. Other features of the building include retail space in three of the building’s bays and three lofts on the second floor for visiting researchers.
Perhaps most importantly, the new Wilder and Cather facilities have improved storage conditions for their archives. These collections include original manuscripts, photographs, letters, personal items, and other materials that offer valuable insight into the authors’ lives. They are now housed in designated areas with state-of-the-art climate control. Previously, the WCF collections were kept in archival boxes in the basement and closets of the Opera House and accessing materials was inconvenient because of confined spaces. Researchers had no designated work area, instead having to share the Foundation’s inner office. The archives are now stored in a single dedicated space with shelves and an adjacent research room. The Wilder archives were formerly stored on the upper level of the farmhouse, but are now more safely kept in a climate-controlled, fire retardant, and stormproof room, which also features a safe for particularly important artifacts, such as Pa’s Fiddle when it is not on display.
Like all preservation work, management of the archives is ongoing. The WCF is still settling into their new archival facility and developing finding aids, prioritizing conservation tasks, and addressing other related policies. As with many archives, digitization is part of the future of both the Wilder and Cather collections. The WCF, the NSHS, and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln all own Cather materials, and many resources such as scholarly articles, historic photos, images of Cather artifacts, and summaries of letters are searchable online. The WHA, too, has been working with the University of Missouri on digitizing their entire archives. While the WHA’s collections are not yet available to scholars, they hope to make them accessible after digitization is complete.
While their new facilities are significant accomplishments, both sites have further goals for their properties. With 2018 as the 100th anniversary of My Ántonia’s publication, the WCF would like to make plans and begin fundraising to restore the former home of Annie Pavelka, the real life counterpart of the novel’s title character. Now part of the WCF’s country tour of sites outside Red Cloud, the Pavelka home has never been restored but may someday be used in an innovative and income-producing way, such as a retreat for writers and artists.
The WHA’s goals include repurposing their old museum, which is currently used for storage, but may become a meeting place for visiting groups. They would also like to build a replica of the log cabin the Wilders used before the completion of the farmhouse. This addition would help reconstruct the Rocky Ridge Farm setting as it was during the Wilders’ occupation. Another project that will contribute to the authentic feel of the farm is to restore the walking path from the farmhouse to the Rock House. Currently, visitors are recommended to drive to the Rock House, but restoring the path would give them the option of walking from house to house as the Wilders once did.
The key resource of the sites, of course, remains the NHLs themselves. A future project for the WCF is to update Cather’s childhood home. The wallpaper in Cather’s bedroom, which Cather herself selected as payment for working at the local drugstore, has deteriorated over the years. Because it is hung on pine, an acidic surface, conserving or repapering the room directly on the historic structural material would only be a temporary solution. An extensive restoration of the house, including an upgraded HVAC system, is necessary to improve climate control and better accommodate the long term preservation of the NHL’s interior. The Wilder NHL is also due for an update. In response to a leak in the roof, the WHA plans to restore the farmhouse’s wood shingles and repair the damage inside.
The new additions to Red Cloud and Rocky Ridge Farm complement the historic sites important to the writers and their work. Both contribute to preserving and sharing the archives, homes, and legacies of two writers with national and international significance. While there are many ways to tell an NHL’s story, a commitment to sharing and preserving the site ensures that the story will be heard by future generations.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 12, 2017, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Randi Proescholdt.
 “Travels of a Pioneer Girl,” Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum, accessed July 24, 2017, http://lauraingallswilderhome.com/?page_id=17.
 “Willa Cather Thematic Group: Sites and Districts in Webster County, Nebraska,” National Register of Historic Places Nomination, listed 08/11/1982. Accessed July 24, 2017, http://www.nebraskahistory.org/histpres/nebraska/webster/WT-Willa_Cather_ThemeGrp.pdf.
 “Initial Construction on National Willa Cather Center Begins,” The Willa Cather Foundation, accessed July 24, 2017, https://www.willacather.org/initial-construction-national-willa-cather-center-begins.
 The Willa Cather Archive, University of Nebraska—Lincoln, http://cather.unl.edu/ and The Willa Cather Foundation, The Willa Cather Foundation, http://willacatherfdn.omeka.net/.
Last updated: July 20, 2018