Explore the World of Willa Cather in Her Nebraska Hometown

Explore the World of Willa Cather in Her Nebraska Hometown

June 22, 2023

by Jeff MacGregor/Smithsonian Magazine

Six miles outside Red Cloud, Nebraska, the blackness is absolute. Before sunrise the moonless stars sizzle and hum high above the prairie. Down here—stillness. Even the wind isn’t up yet. And it’s too dark to see your own boots.

Then the light sneaks in, a single gray-scale brushstroke low on the horizon. The next deeper and richer than the last. In town, dawn silhouettes the rooflines and the chimneys across the street an hour before it casts a shadow. Then all at once a new day tangles itself in the trees.

Folks work early here, and late, and when harvest comes to this part of Nebraska the big trucks rumble through town at every hour. Down at the depot and out at the co-op, mountains of grain wait to be shipped or siloed. The cattle stir in the lots, the hens bob and scratch in the yards, and ranchers and farmers, pulling on their jackets, finish their second cup of coffee on the way out the door.

You can still see this Nebraska, still know it, as it was first encountered by its most famous resident, the novelist Willa Cather, who came west with her family from Virginia in 1883, when she was 9 years old. They were sheep ranchers and lived on a small spread 12 or so miles outside Red Cloud. She fictionalized her nighttime arrival there in My Ántonia, her beloved novel from 1918.