National Willa Cather Center Nebraska

Former first lady Laura Bush speaks during the dedication ceremony for the National Willa Cather Center on Saturday.

Laura Beahm, Hastings Tribune

RED CLOUD — The first letter was sent in September.

Then the next month, another followed.

Red Cloud native Jay Yost had promised former first lady Laura Bush that he would write her a letter each month, asking her to visit the town to help officially open the National Willa Cather Center devoted to the state's most-revered author.

The correspondence worked.

Surrounded Saturday by board members of the Willa Cather Foundation, including Yost, the former first lady cut the ceremonial ribbon at the new center, marking the end of a five-year restoration effort.

The center, which includes a revamped museum, new archival storage and study space, operates in the historic Moon Block building, which stands over the town's brick main street. 

Connected to the building is an opera house that's been reborn as office space, an art gallery and performing arts center. The Cather Foundation acquired it in 2001.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Bush praised the novelist and short-story writer as the quintessential prose writer of the American West.

"America has produced many beautiful writers, but Willa Cather is among our most beautiful," Bush said, noting that she "captured the essence of life in the West with her brilliant and witty writing."

Yost, who has lived in New York City for 36 years, knew the former first lady was a Cather fan when Bush honored the writer in her Salute to American Authors series.

Years later, Yost started to write her letters, which brought in donations from the Bush family. 

It was money that was sorely needed. The opera house's 2003 renovations cost nearly $1.7 million, and more would be needed for the museum.

With the help of other donors, work started five years ago on the two-story building that now houses first-floor exhibits, and an expanded archive of Cather's writings and personal effects on the second floor.

Yost expects the center to drive up heritage tourism in the town of 1,000 people. Annually, 8,000 to 10,000 people come to visit.

"We want to draw more people into the town and once we get them here we want them to stay longer," Yost said. "That can all play around what is happening with the Cather museum."

A Red Cloud museum dedicated to Cather isn't new.

A bank building down the street served as the first Cather museum, officially opened in 1962, nearly seven years after Cather Foundation founder Mildred Bennett established the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial. 

"She (Bennett) said ... 'If we don't do it, who will?'" board president Lynette Krieger said.

Saturday's grand opening, attended by donors and board members, corresponded with the 62nd annual Willa Cather Spring Conference that drew both fans and scholars alike in appreciation of Cather's work.

The author, recognized as one of the state's most important figures, was born in Virginia in 1883 but moved with her family to Webster County when she was 9 years old. 

After Cather graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1895, she went on to publish 12 novels, including classics such as "My Antonia," and "O! Pioneers." 

In 1923, she captured the Pulitzer Prize for the novel "One of Ours."

Yost said Cather's work reflects a minimalist, simplified writing style that focused as much on the wild, Nebraska plains as it did on Cather's many characters.

"The land becomes one of the characters in her stories," he said. "It really takes on a life of its own." 

The museum's opening comes at a time when Cather's popularity among scholars has never been higher.

This is seen in the center's shift toward more interpretive, in-depth exhibits. The new archives are climate-controlled — a big improvement from storage space in Red Cloud's historical society and bank.

"We did not believe these treasures were ever insecure or in danger," said Krieger. "But these facilities were far from state-of-the-art."

But these treasures are something people can only experience if they make the drive to the town south of Hastings.

"You can't study or appreciate Cather if you stay in Lincoln," Yost said. "You have to come to Red Cloud and see it for yourself." 

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