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Willa Cather Foundation launches effort to boost Red Cloud as literary tourism destination

Willa Cather Foundation launches effort to boost Red Cloud as literary tourism destination

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LINCOLN — The Willa Cather Foundation is making a final push for donations to enhance Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud as a literary landmark and destination for “heritage” tourists.

The nonprofit foundation will announce Tuesday that it is seeking to raise $6.5 million to restore and upgrade eight historic buildings related to Cather’s novels in Red Cloud, develop a boutique hotel there and amass an endowment to maintain structures owned by the organization.

The Cather Campaign for the Future has already quietly raised 72% of its goal, and Tuesday’s announcement launches the public portion of its campaign, to gather the remaining $1.8 million by the annual spring Cather conference in June.

One of the projects will restore the Pavelka Farmstead, which played a central role in “My Ántonia,” one of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s most famous works. The farmhouse will be returned to its original 1916 floor plan and be opened for public tours, giving visitors the opportunity to experience the homestead as Ántonia Shimerda herself would have.

Pavelka Farmstead

The Pavelka Farmstead, featured in "My Ántonia," will be restored to its original floor plan so visitors can walk through it as the title character would have.

“Coming to Red Cloud is a bit like stepping into a Cather novel,” said Ashley Olson, the executive director of the Cather Foundation. “It’s just critical that we are able to preserve these cultural sites for future generations.”

Former first lady Laura Bush, who spoke at the dedication of the National Willa Cather Center in 2017, is serving as the honorary chair of the fund drive. Historian and writer David McCullough also is lending his support to the campaign, calling Red Cloud “one of my favorite places in all of America.”

“The marvelous thing is you can walk right into Willa Cather’s world. There’s the house she lived in, the bank, the opera house, the railroad depot and the landscape,” McCullough said.

Annually, about 10,000 fans of Cather visit Red Cloud, a south-central Nebraska farm town of 1,000 immortalized in her writings.

The community already has the largest number of nationally designated buildings devoted to an American author, and the Cather Foundation has played a central role in restoring several historic structures in Red Cloud, including the Opera House. The new renovation work, as well as developing a boutique hotel, Olson said, are all part of Red Cloud’s overall goal to grow the local economy as a heritage tourism destination.

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“This has the potential to attract even more visitors than we do now,” she said.

The wheels started turning for this project when History Nebraska, the state historical society, transferred ownership of six historic buildings and about 8,000 Cather artifacts to the Cather Foundation a year ago. While the foundation had already been managing the structures, the transfer meant that major improvements were now the responsibility of the nonprofit group.

The six buildings transferred — Cather’s childhood home, the Burlington Railroad Depot, the Pavelka Farmstead, the Farmers and Merchants Bank, Grace Episcopal Church and St. Julianna Falconieri Church — will see work ranging from new roofs and heating and air conditioning systems, to new siding and electrical wiring.

“There is a lot of work to be done that was needed for a lot of years,” Olson said. “We’re happy to be able to do it.”

Two other structures already owned by the foundation, the Minor General Store and Baptist Church, also will be rehabilitated. In addition, all eight historic structures will be enhanced for educational purposes, with new exhibits and interpretive displays.

The foundation, Olson said, is adding two new employees — one for programs and another for maintenance. About $1.5 million of the money raised will be used for an endowment, she said, to ensure the foundation’s buildings are well maintained.

Farmers and Merchants Bank

Farmers and Merchants Bank is one of the historic building in Red Cloud that will be restored. A 30-room boutique hotel will be developed next to it.

The development of a 30-room boutique hotel in Red Cloud is a joint project of the foundation, the Red Cloud Chamber of Commerce, the Red Cloud Community Foundation and other private investors. The structure that will become the hotel, the Potter Block, sits at the intersection of U.S. Highways 136 and 218, right next to the Farmers and Merchants Bank.

The hotel, which might take two years to develop, will allow more visitors to stay in Red Cloud for Cather events, Olson said.

Donations to the Cather Campaign for the Future can be mailed to the Willa Cather Foundation, 413 N. Webster, Red Cloud, NE 68970. Gifts can also be made online at WillaCather.org.