GORE — Dozens of scholars dedicated to understanding the societal and environmental factors that influenced the writings of Willa Cather are in Winchester this week for the 17th International Willa Cather Seminar at Shenandoah University.
Cather was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who was born in Frederick County on Dec. 7, 1873, and lived here until her family moved to Nebraska when she was 9. She is best known for her trilogy of books about frontier life on the prairie — “O Pioneers!” (1913), “The Song of the Lark” (1915) and “My Antonia” (1918) — but her final novel, 1940’s “Sapphira and the Slave Girl,” was set in the Back Creek Valley of Frederick County, where she grew up.
On Monday, the approximately 150 seminar attendees were invited to tour Cather’s childhood home, Willow Shade, a private residence along Northwestern Pike (U.S. 50) near Gore that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“To appreciate some of the detail that Willa Cather included about the plants and the mountains and the valleys, it really helps to walk the property,” said Woody Bousquet, a professor emeritus at Shenandoah University who was at Willow Shade on Monday to provide guided tours.
Willow Shade owners Bobby and Sandy Pumphrey, along with their now-adult daughters Melanie Pumphrey and Jennifer Pumphrey, moved from Baltimore to the 166-year-old Greek Revival mansion in August 2006. They had been looking for a well-maintained older home but didn’t know much about Cather at the time.
“I was just intrigued with the house,” Sandy Pumphrey said. “I grew up in Maryland, and Willa Cather wasn’t required reading in my high school.”
When Cather fans started knocking on the door, though, Sandy Pumphrey decided to learn about her home’s previous resident. She started reading Cather’s novels and short stories, beginning with “Sapphira and the Slave Girl.”
“The very last chapter is the only time Willa put herself as a character in a book,” Sandy Pumphrey said. “She was 5 years old and in the upper bedroom.”
Willow Shade underwent extensive upgrades and renovations in the 1980s and ’90s.
“We’re the beneficiaries of that,” Bobby Pumphrey said. “Basically, all we’ve done is keep up the grounds and painted some rooms. We’re in the process of redoing the porches.”
During renovations, an odd discovery was made. In a third-floor room at the back of the house, workers found a hidden chamber beneath the floor that was large enough to accommodate two adults. Sandy Pumphrey said the compartment may have been used to hide runaway slaves who were making their way north on the Underground Railroad.
Another surprise waited at the bottom of the chamber: A perfectly preserved wooden leg.
Sandy Pumphrey said a Cather family member, Alfreda, lost a limb in the 1860s due to what doctors called “tuberculosis of the leg.”
“We suspect the [wooden] leg found in this hidden compartment was probably hers, but we don’t know,” Sandy Pumphrey said.
The room with the hidden chamber may also be home to an otherworldly resident.
“There’s an adolescent female who occupies this area,” Sandy Pumphrey said. “I don’t know who it is or what her connection is to the house.”
She said a workman was washing windows at Willow Shade about eight months ago and said he had been in the presence of the girl all day. He described her as wearing a long, light gray or blue dress with puffy sleeves.
The ghost girl is never a bother, but she has been known to open doors and roll marbles across the floor.
The Pumphreys said they’re honored to have the responsibility of maintaining the birthplace of one of America’s most noted authors.
“We’re not really owners of the home,” Bobby Pumphrey said. “We’re just the stewards.”
For more information about the 17th International Willa Cather Seminar, visit the website of The National Willa Cather Center at willacather.org.