National Willa Cather Center Will Continue Legacy of Prolific Nebraska Writer

June 2, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·

The new National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

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It’s been a decade-long process, but tomorrow, the National Willa Cather Center will officially open in Red Cloud in south central Nebraska. It's a testament to the enduring popularity of a writer who died 70 years ago and to the dedication of some of her biggest fans.

Downtown Red Cloud isn’t very big, so it’s hard to miss a stretch of two-story, red brick storefronts known by locals as “The Moon Block”. They’re front and center and a big part of the downtown area’s history. Now they’re also home to the new National Willa Cather Center.

Tom Gallagher is an officer of the Willa Cather Foundation and its past president. He’s also a self-described fanboy of the author who grew up in Red Cloud and became famous in the early 20th century for her novels about frontier life.

"The Moon Block" buildings in Red Cloud, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“The effect of reading Cather when you’ve got some mileage on you the way I do is entirely different from the effect that she had when you read that same work as a teenager,” Gallagher said. “There’s a depth to the work that was always in there waiting for you to discover, waiting for you to catch up to it.”

Gallagher lives in New York City, but has made the National Willa Cather Center a central part of his life for the past ten years. That’s how long it’s taken to formulate the plans, raise money and transform “The Moon Block” buildings in Red Cloud into a 20,000 square foot complex that’s all-things Cather.

“This will be the base of our operations and the place where people can get a grounding when they first come to town and then go out on tour to the various historic sites that we have,” Gallagher said.

Willa Cather's desk on display in Red Cloud, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

He sits about 20 feet from one of Cather’s old desks and not far from some of her jewelry and clothing on display in a brand new visitor’s center.

“A lot of even people who are serious readers of Cather don’t know that she was a bit of a clothes horse. She had a great sense of style and we have a lot of her clothing, her dresses and cloaks and that sort of thing,” said Gallagher. “The personal effects are amazing, because you know, there’s that feeling of being very near the beating heart of something. There’s something very real about the pocket watch and very real about the passport.”

The new center consolidates Cather’s extensive archive of photos, letters, documents and books and also adds an exhibit space, gallery, theater and even apartments that visitors can rent while they’re in town.

Tom Gallagher and Ashley Nolan Olson at the National Willa Cather Center. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“This building, the National Willa Cather Center, is really going to become a living memorial to Cather and I think an author of her caliber certainly deserves a place like this,” Ashley Nolan Olson, executive director of the Willa Cather Foundation, said. “I think everything has been so tastefully restored and all of the collections curated and displayed in a way that guests will find very meaningful. I think people will have very rich experiences here and they’ll discover a Cather maybe that they didn’t know before.”

One of the most important parts of the new center is an archive area that kind of looks like a library. It’s a place where scholars and researchers can come to access about 7000 documents, manuscripts and photos related to Cather.

Willa Cather archives in Red Cloud, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“We just have the opportunity now to sort of spread everything out and reorganize the way the collections are housed and stored and it just makes it a lot easier and quicker to get to things,” Tracy Tucker, education director and archivist, said. “People are able to stop in with a lot less notice then I used to need to get things ready for them, and of course we have a lot more space where people can be here at the same time working if we need to.”

The National Willa Cather Center cost about $7 million, a lot of that raised from donations. The hope is that it also becomes a regional arts and humanities center. For Tom Gallagher, it’s quite an accomplishment.

“It’s humbling, but I also have to admit to a sense of pride, that this is a tiny little speck of a town out in the middle of a prairie near nothing, and I love this town,” Gallagher said. “And for it and the foundation to have made this happen, that’s miraculous.”

Willa Cather died in 1947, but her impact on Nebraska and the literary world is still felt 70 years later.