History of Red Cloud

History of Red Cloud

Red Cloud (pop. 1020) was founded early in 1871 on homestead land filed upon by a group that included Silas Garber, who would later serve as Nebraska’s Governor from 1875-79. When Webster County was organized, Red Cloud was voted the county seat. The election was held in Garber’s dugout. The mainline of the Burlington and Missouri River Railway reached the town in 1879, accelerating immigration from the east coast of the United States and abroad, bringing together a colorful variety of cultural heritages, which are depicted wonderfully in the works of Willa Cather, Red Cloud’s most famous former resident.

Willard Thorp, in "American Writing in the Twentieth Century" says, "From the literary standpoint, Red Cloud ranks as one of the most famous villages in American Literature."

Red Cloud is home to the largest living memorial to an author in the country. Willa Cather spent her childhood in this small railroad town, and it is the mission of the Willa Cather Foundation to promote and assist in the development and preservation of the art, literary, and historical collection relating to the life, times, and work of one of America's—and the world's—most beloved and respected authors. As a result of its efforts, the Foundation brings 8,000 to 10,000 visitors to Red Cloud each year.

Red Cloud was a booming, growing pioneer community that saw eight passenger trains a day come through its Burlington Depot. Garber and a group of local business men named the town Red Cloud in honor of the chief of the Oglala tribe of the Teton-Lakota Sioux. Though named for the Sioux leader, Red Cloud is located in what is known traditionally as Pawnee/Otoe territory; there is no evidence of Sioux having been in this area.

For many years, Red Cloud boasted a horse-drawn streetcar railway system with tracks running from downtown to the depot. Lorenzo Oatman, who survived an infamous attack by the Yavapais tribe in Arizona as a small child, ran the Royal Hotel for many years. The Starke Round Barn, built in 1902, is the largest of its type in the state. 

During the 1880's Red Cloud served as a division center for the railroad. The architectural design of downtown was established during the prosperous time when many of the first frame and log structures were replaced by more elaborate two-story buildings of brick and stone. The historic brick streets remain in downtown Red Cloud as well as many of the original buildings, including the majestic and refurbished Opera House and the Moon Block which together comprise The National Willa Cather Center. You can learn more about the history of Red Cloud’s historic downtown by visiting www.walkredcloud.com.

PAWNEE                                                                                                                                                        
Though the city of Red Cloud was named for the Oglala chief of the same name, this region was home for centuries to the Kitkehahki band of the Pawnee tribe. Decimated by smallpox and other diseases, the Kitkehahki left their local village to join with another Pawnee band, even before the Homestead Act of 1862 opened millions of acres to American settlement. South-central Nebraska remained a favorite location for Pawnee and Otoe buffalo-hunting parties, but by the late 1870s, both tribes had departed for reservations in the Indian Territory. Today, remnants of lodge sites, cemeteries, and hoop courts can be found in the “Pike-Pawnee Village,” the site of the largest settlement of Kitkehahki Pawnee who lived there from the 1770s to the 1820s can still be found near the village of Guide Rock, southeast of town. Rifle pits dug by a group led by Brigadier General Zebulon Pike, who made contact with the Kitkehahki in 1806, are also still visible.
 
Both the “Pike-Pawnee Village” and the Willa Cather Childhood Home are National Historic Landmarks, 2 of 20 in the entire state of Nebraska.
 
CATHER
Willa Cather, the acclaimed American author, arrived in Red Cloud with her extended family in 1883. Originally settling on a homestead northwest of Red Cloud, within eighteen months, the Cathers were living in the iconic Childhood Home on 3rd and Cedar Streets. Cather's memories of the town and its people inspired six of her twelve novels and many of her most beloved short stories. Many of the sites associated with Cather’s literature have been preserved and the Willa Cather Foundation conducts tours of the 7 buildings owned by the Nebraska State Historical Society and various sites throughout Webster County associated with the Cather Family’s homestead sites. In all, nearly 50 sites associated with Cather and her writings are available for you to visit. 
 
PRESENT DAY
Red Cloud has always been and always will be a hub of agribusiness in the region. From the early farms of homesteaders to the highly technical demands of modern agriculture, the fate and fortune of our community has always gone hand-in-hand with farming, ranching, and their related commodity markets. We are proud of our public schools, our unique downtown, and the tight-knit bonds between community members that you can only get in a small town. At present, we are attempting to diversify our economy and make the quality of life here even better by focusing our economic development efforts around Heritage Tourism, recreation and hunting, and by investing in our children through projects like The Valley Child Development Center. 
 
 
Visit www.walkredcloud.com for a detailed history of many of the buildings in town, compiled by resident historian Suzi Schulz. You can take this tour on your phone when you visit town by scanning QR codes located on street lamps along Webster Street. 
 
Want to dive even deeper? Then: 

Click here to search past issues of the Red Cloud Chief newspaper from 1873 to 1922.

Sports, Film, and Other Red Cloud Pioneers

Baseball Greats

Baseball Greats
Baseball Greats

The All American Pastime has a rich and storied history in Red Cloud and Guide Rock. The community is home to three outstanding major league baseball players who each pitched here in the earliest innings of baseball history.

Denton T. “Cy” Young had a 22 year career in baseball and is the inspiration behind the annual Cy Young Award, given to the most outstanding pitcher in each of the two leagues. Young was born in Ohio. As a young player in 1886, he pitched for a baseball team located in Cowles, Nebraska. In 1887, he left Cowles and joined the Red Cloud team. He was paid a small salary as pitcher and also worked for Red Cloud's Ormsby & Dickerson, which was in the egg and butter business. Young later returned to Cowles and played with them again for several games. Young's career took off in 1890 with the Cleveland Spiders. After an eight year stint with Cleveland, Young joined St. Louis in 1899. He joined the Boston franchise after two years with St. Louis. He rejoined the Cleveland team in 1909, where he played until two months prior to his retirement when he briefly returned to Boston. Young returned to his native Ohio upon retirement, living on a farm there until his death at age 88 in 1955. Young is the holder of many professional pitching records in the major leagues. Young retired from baseball with 511 career wins. He also holds the major league records for most career innings pitched (7,355), most career games started (815), and most complete games (749). Young was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937.

Clarence Arthur “Dazzy” Vance was born in Iowa and grew up in Nebraska, playing baseball for several local teams including Hastings, Cowles, Red Cloud, and Superior. Following graduation from Hastings High in 1911, he went to small communities playing anytime he could. He started his professional career with the Red Cloud Indians in 1912, and stayed mired mostly in the minor leagues for nine more years. However, in 1922, the Dodgers became interested in Vance after he won 21 games for New Orleans. Earlier in his career, Vance had shaved two years off his age, so the Dodgers – assuming he was 29 and not 31 – gave him an opportunity. Vance rewarded them handsomely winning 18 games and leading the National League in strikeouts for the first of seven consecutive seasons. The pinnacle of his career came two years later when he won 28 games for Brooklyn. After several years with the Dodgers, Vance went on to play for St. Louis and Cincinnati. He won the very first National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1924. Dazzy retired from baseball at age 44 with 197 career victories, all of them coming after his 30th birthday. In 1955, Vance was elected to the Hall of Fame. He died in Florida in 1961.

Clarence E. Mitchell was born in Franklin, Nebraska and played for Red Cloud in 1910, the same year as Dazzy Vance. He debuted with the major leagues in 1911, playing for the Detroit Tigers. He later played for the Cincinnati Reds, New York Giants, Brooklyn Robins, Philadelphia Phillies, and St. Louis Cardinals. Mitchell was elected to the Nebraska Sports Hall of Fame in 1953 and died ten years later in Grand Island, Nebraska.

Film Stars

Film Stars
Film Stars

Lea Penmen was born in Red Cloud on October 4, 1895. She grew up to be a film star and to play roles in many Broadway hits. On screen, she was in the 1926 silent film, "Romance of a Million Dollars." In 1950, Ms. Penmen played Effie Floud in the film "Fancy Pants," which starred Bob Hope and Lucille Ball and was also cast as Mrs. Calhoun in the comedy "Stella," with Victor Mature and Ann Sheridan. She later appeared in "We're No Angels" and "Portland Expose." Her last project was in the television series “Frontier Doctor” in which she played Nora Caldwell. In addition to her character roles on film, Ms. Penman enjoyed a prolific career on Broadway from 1917-49. She performed in the hits "Boy Meets Girl" (1935), "What a Life" (1939) and "Annie Get Your Gun" (1946). Ms. Penmen died in 1962 in Hollywood. Red Cloud and Guide Rock hold an annual Lea Penmen festival in October that celebrates their hometown’s famous leading lady.

Founders and Notable Figures

Founders and Notable Figures
Founders and Notable Figures

Computer pioneer William C. Norris also called Red Cloud home as did world famous opera singer Sarah Arneson. Nebraska’s 3rd Governor, Silas Garber, founded the town of Red Cloud and, along with his wife Lyra, provided inspiration for Cather’s novel A Lost Lady. Malick Park a presently underdeveloped site but former vacation hotspot located along the railroad tracks near the Village of Cowles, is a place where Cy Young, Willa Cather, and William Jennings Bryan may have crossed paths. Today, all that remains of the former baseball fields, park, is a pool and fountain installed by WPA workers in the 1930s. Efforts are underway to commemorate the baseball history of the region and the historic park.