In an effort to save the birthplace of Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Frederick County native Willa Cather, members of the Cather family in Virginia and the National Willa Cather Center in Nebraska are seeking donations to purchase and restore it.
The house, which has fallen into major disrepair, is located on Northwestern Pike (U.S. 50) in Gore. It is being listed for sale this week, following the passing of its longtime owner.
Cather — a fifth-generation Virginian — was born in the home, owned by her maternal grandmother, on Dec. 7, 1873. Her family later moved to a nearby house called “Willow Shade,” then relocated to Nebraska when she was 9 years old. She went on to become one of America’s most acclaimed writers. She is perhaps best known for her Great Plains trilogy of “O Pioneers!,” “The Song of the Lark,” and “My Antonia.” Her last novel, “Sapphira and the Slave Girl,” is set in Frederick County’s Back Creek Valley, where her birthplace is located, and based on her grandmother helping a slave escape to freedom in 1856. She visited the site in the 1930s while doing research for the novel, published in 1940.
An attempt by local Cather relatives to purchase her birthplace a number of years ago failed when the owner changed his mind.
“We’ve had a lot of calls and emails over the years from concerned citizens who want to see the home preserved,” said Ashley Olson, executive director of the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud, Nebraska.
In response to Cather’s birthplace being available for purchase, a grassroots effort was launched to come up with a plan to help preserve it.
The birthplace, which includes about 5 acres and a second house on the property, is being listed for sale for $200,000.
To raise money to purchase the site, a GoFundMe has been set up by a Cather family member at https://gofund.me/024adc76. And the National Willa Cather Center has established the “Willa Cather Birthplace Fund” at willacather.org/birthplace for supporters who wish to give a charitable donation. One donor has already pledged $20,000.
Donors can also mail a contribution marked “Cather Birthplace Fund” to the National Willa Cather Center, 413 N. Webster St., Red Cloud, NE 68970.
Olsen said the National Willa Cather Center fully supports the effort to save the Virginia property and noted they are working with Cather family members and other stakeholders.
“We will do all we can to share the word,” Olson said. “It pains me because historic preservation is a huge part of our mission, and we already own and maintain 12 sites related to the author in and near Red Cloud. Without significant charitable gifts to support the acquisition, preservation, and ongoing maintenance, we don’t as an organization have the capacity to purchase the birthplace.”
Cather’s birthplace is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. The designations are honorary and do not protect the home from demolition.
“Cather was in many ways as much a Virginian writer as she was a Nebraskan one,” according to John A. “Jay” Yost, who serves on the Willa Cather Foundation’s Board of Governors. “Her first nine years were spent in Frederick County, and her last completed novel ‘Sapphira and the Slave Girl’ was set there.”
Cather’s ancestors were among the first European American settlers in the area, “which makes saving the house doubly important on so many other levels,” Yost said.
The 17th International Willa Cather Seminar in June 2019 was held in and around Winchester, and was co-sponsored by the Willa Cather Foundation and Shenandoah University.
Save your money folks. She has a very tenuous connection to Virginia. According to Wikipedia the family left Virginia for Nebraska when she was 10 years old. Her writings are well known for being about life on the prairie in Nebraska. She is indeed a great author, I have read many of her books. But she has so slight a connection to Virginia that I can not see any reason to waste a lot of money to save this home.
Again, I share with you her last novel from 1940, SAPPHIRA & THE SLAVE GIRL. You should really do your research. Virginia permeated Cather’s writings and whole life. Even though she wrote about Nebraska she lived in New York City for over 40 years and yet Virginia, and Nebraska, were in her soul—and her writings.
I do not dispute your facts CatherFan, I just do not think they are of sufficient weight to warrant spending so much money on this project. But to each his/her own, spend your $$ as you will. But I hope no public money is provided. We will see how it works out in the end.
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