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Friday, 1 July 2011

We are in Lincoln, the capital city, staying downtown in the Cornhusker Hotel. Unfortunately this isn’t the same Cornhusker where Mari Sandoz used to sit for hours on end over a single coffee, eating the free crackers. That has been demolished and replaced by a shiny new place.
Our stay in the renovated ‘little house on the prairie’ was a delight. Our host, Ardis Yost, has made the place very comfortable and gave us a very warm welcome. She even baked us some banana bread for us.


As well as fixing up the house, the Yosts have restored a one-room tin school house, which stands on the same grassy plot.


Ardis was a teacher for many years. She taught her first class in 1949, and the way she has re-furbished this place seems to reflect her experience. The room is well stocked, not just with the usual desks and chairs, but with encyclopaedias, atlases, text books and readers.




At the far end, on the right of the room, you can see a large poster, a photograph of Willa Cather. The Yosts are devotees, and the first question I was asked when I called to book the house was, ‘Are you here for Cather?’ I had to admit that while I used to be very interested in her work I have since become more involved with Mari Sandoz. It turns out that the Yosts’ son, John, is a leading light in the Cather Foundation. I would say director, but I’m not sure of the title. Anyway, he lives and works in New York City, in banking or finance, and doubles up as the head honcho.

We spent much of the day in Red Cloud. We took a guided tour of the Cather childhood home, and one or two of the many buildings that feature in her work and have been beautifully restored.




We later spent some time in the Foundation, re-sited since I was last here. They’ve taken over the old opera-house and have a super office space, a beautiful reception area and shop, a spacious downstairs gallery, and on the second floor the restored auditorium with about 100 seats facing a stage. There are tables too where you can eat – or in my case make use of the free wi-fi. Make no mistake, this is a quality enterprise, and it got me thinking. Red Cloud has always had the childhood home, but this whole Cather industry started from quite lowly beginnings. When I came in 1993 to deliver a paper at the Hastings conference I was impressed by the numbers attending (140-odd) the scope of the event (we put on a short play of Cather’s that had never been performed before) and the huge enthusiasm and comradeships amongst not just academics but fans of Willa Cather. The advances this outfit has made in the fifteen years or so since I was last in Red Cloud are absolutely staggering. The scholarship around this writer was already expanding in the mid-90s; I’d say it is exploding now. The range of activities the Foundation embraces has also grown to include educational programmes, lectures, tours, scholarships and a book club. It struck me that there was a truly phenomenal energy here, a drive, an enterprise, which takes your breath away. I wonder therefore, is there something that Chadron as a town and the Sandoz set-up might draw on? Red Cloud has some advantages in a handful of historic buildings, but it remains a town of 1313 people in a rather drab landscape.  If you look at Chadron as a possible base for a Sandoz industry – something I am sure Caroline was trying to work towards as long ago as the 1950s – you’ll see a college town with 5800 inhabitants, surrounded by some magnificent scenery, close enough to the Black Hills and the Crazy Horse monument, surely, to benefit from their ‘pull’. If the focus of the Sandoz set-up were shifted towards an area I actually know little about – namely, Mari’s work on and about the Native peoples – who knows what might be achieved?

These are fresh thoughts based on the shock of discovering a highly sophisticated  enterprise where once there wasn’t much more than a childhood home and a dilapidated opera-house, so I’ll leave it there for now, after saying one more thing. As I walked around Red Cloud it occurred to me that some student, someone in business or tourism perhaps, or someone who’s looking for a project – even a PhD dissertation – might do well to consider just  how Red Cloud and the Cather adherents have managed to generate so much support and create an international class memorial in the last twenty years or so.

I dare say I’ll come back to this at a later stage. But right now I need breakfast. Then we’re off to ‘do’ the capitol, a superb and inspiring building that I will be visiting for about the sixth time. Can’t wait.