October 1, 2014

Mildred Bennett: The Unlikely Preserver of Willa Cather's Hometown

As the daughter of strict religious parents, Mildred Bennett was forbidden to do many things, including read fiction. But as an adult, she discovered the author Willa Cather, became one of the foremost authorities on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and started a movement to preserve the town that inspired the author.

In 1932, Bennett took a job teaching in tiny Inavale, Nebraska, seven miles from Red Cloud. Many of her students were children and grandchildren of the people Cather fictionalized in her novels, spurring Bennett's interest.

In 1946 (a year before Cather's death), Bennett’s physician husband completed his stint in the Navy and the couple moved to Red Cloud, where Cather had lived only about six years as a child, but which provided the backdrop and characters for her most famous works, including My Antonia, O Pioneers, and The Song of the Lark.

Here Bennett continued researching the author's life and interviewing some of her lifelong friends. In 1951, she published The World of Willa Cather, which remains a resource for scholars -- and started attracting Cather fans to Red Cloud.

Left: Mildred Bennett established the Willa Cather Foundation and started the movement that has preserved structures in and around Red Cloud, Nebraska, that figure in the author's life and work. Right: Author Willa Cather lived just a short time in Red Cloud, Nebraska, but the prairie town and its citizens were the prototypes for her most famous works.

Realizing the town's potential, Bennett gathered a group of friends around her kitchen table—her "kitchen cabinet" —and the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation was born. When it incorporated in 1955, eight participants kicked in 20 dollars each, most of which went to pay for the notice of incorporation in the newspaper. Bennett was named president, a post she held on and off until her death in 1989. And with donations, grants, and grit, the foundation began preserving the structures that inform Cather's work.

The first structure the foundation acquired, in 1959, was the Silas Garber Bank Building (Silas Garber was the model for Captain Forrester in A Lost Lady). At that time, it was functioning as city hall, and the city offered it at its original purchase price of $1,000. Renovations were aided by a $5,000 grant from the J. M. McDonald Foundation, and in 1962, the building opened as the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Museum and Archives.

Willa Cather Historic Site. Public Domain.

Willa Cather lived in this house from age 10 to 16. Visitors may view the interior, which contains many original furnishings, on a guided tour of Red Cloud.

Around that time, Cather's childhood home was donated to the foundation, which already had acquired much of the original furnishings; restoration of that began in 1966, with a $10,000 grant from the Woods Charitable Fund of Lincoln. Bennett herself painstakingly removed multiple layers of wallpaper in Cather's little attic room (familiar to readers of The Song of the Lark) to reveal the wallpaper the author took as pay for working at the local drugstore.

And in 1972, the Nature Conservancy purchased more than 600 acres of virgin prairie near town, establishing the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie.

Over the years, donations large and small continued the work. Cather's niece and her husband donated money for central heat and air in the museum; a station wagon was donated for transporting items; and a mortuary donated a casket to use in a now-gone diorama representing "The Sculptor's Funeral" from one of Cather's short stories.

Left: The town of Red Cloud, Nebraska, has preserved numerous structures and sites related to author Willa Cather. Right: Mildred Bennett painstakingly removed layers or wallpaper in Willa Cather's attic room to reveal the paper Cather herself chose as payment for work in a local pharmacy.

Red Cloud local Leisa Zalman, a child when the museum was created, recalls being enlisted to help lift and carry; she was especially thrilled to help place a wax corpse in the casket. The local Girl Scouts even offered a Willa Cather Merit Badge.

Zalman remembers Bennett as wise, educated, and generous. "I was always learning from her. She was always teaching me stuff," she says.

Others describe Bennett as visionary, strong-willed, and "eccentric—in a good sense," according John Murphy of Brigham Young University in "Singing Cather's Song," a short documentary about Bennett sold at the foundation bookstore. (Eccentric indeed: In a plot point worthy of Cather, the Bennetts shared their home with a woman and her child who was fathered by Mildred's husband—common knowledge locally.)

The home of Anna Pavelka, who was the inspiration for the eponymous heroine of My Antonia, stands outside Red Cloud. It is owned by the Nebraska Historical Society and awaits restoration.

About five miles outside of Red Cloud, the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie is more than 600 acres of virgin prairie, just as Cather might have seen it.

In a 1970 interview for the University of Nebraska, Bennett suggested that visitors to Red Cloud set aside at least a half day for their visit. Today, that would scarcely be enough. Structures currently owned or managed by the Willa Cather Foundation (assisted by the Nebraska Historical Society) include:

  • the Red Cloud Opera House, currently the foundation’s headquarters;
  • the Harling House, named for the family in My Antonia and former home to the Miner family, on which the characters were based;
  • the Cather Second Home, where her family lived afte she moved away (though she visited often), now a comfortable guest house;
  • several churches;
  • and, about 13 miles outside of town, the home of Anna Pavelka, the prototype for Antonia.

The foundation also hosts an annual Cather conference, and is in late stages of a capital campaign for a National Willa Cather Center, with Ken Burns as honorary national chair.

In "Singing Cather’s Song," Bennett spoke candidly about breaking from her strict religious upbringing, but said she considered Cather to be a religious writer.

"She had some terrible problems with organized religion, but Cather's got some very profound truths in her writing," she said. These truths moved Bennett to dedicate her life to preserving Willa Cather's story and, with others past and present, the town of Red Cloud, where the author found her inspiration.

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Dallas, Texas-based writer Sophia Dembling is author of "100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go," "The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas," and other books. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Texas Journey, and many other newspapers, magazines, and websites.

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