Cather official hopes deteriorating birthplace of famed author can be saved

One Cather fan has already pledged $20,000 toward buying the home in Virginia; previous attempt was rebuffed by the owner

By: - April 7, 2023 9:15 pm

The Virginia birthplace of Willa Cather is in sad shape, but a realtor has stepped up to purchase the property so it can be restored (Ashley Olson for the National Willa Cather Center)

Editor’s note: story has been updated to include establishment of GoFundMe account.

LINCOLN — As a preservationist who has been involved in restoring structures related to famed author Willa Cather, Ashley Olson’s heart aches when she considers the sad state of the writer’s birthplace in Virginia.

The clapboard home, along a turnpike near Gore, Virginia, has broken windows, peeling paint, rusty metal roofing and a sagging front porch.

The house has been deemed unsafe for visitors by a real estate agent and may have been vacant since the late 1970s.

Weeds, brush block passage

High weeds and brush block passage to the front door of a home where the Pulitzer Prize-winning author was born on Dec. 7, 1873, and baptized as “Wilella,” a name she later shortened to Willa.

A Virginia state historical marker stands just outside the home where Willa Cather was born. (Ashley Olson for the National Willa Cather Center)

A faded state historical marker along the turnpike denotes the significance of the dilapidated structure.

“We’ve had a lot of calls and emails over the years from concerned citizens,” said Olson, the executive director of the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud, Nebraska. “It just pains me.”

But now the home — which the owner refused to sell a few years back to some preservationists and some Cather descendants —  is going up for sale. Olson hopes some individuals or organization can be found to save the birthplace.

At least one donor had stepped up already as of Friday evening, pledging $20,000 toward the $200,000 purchase price of the property. Some Cather family members, she said, are also contacting elected officials in Virginia.

And, by Tuesday, a GoFundMe account had been established in Virginia to collect donations.

Olson also encouraged Cather fans interested in making a gift or getting involved to contact the National Willa Cather Center in Nebraska.

Too much to take on

She said that the Cather Foundation, which already owns and has preserved 12 structures related to the author in and near Red Cloud, doesn’t have the capacity right now itself to purchase the birthplace, a five-acre plot that includes a second house.

The new owner of the property, who took over after the death of the previous occupant in December, is putting it up for sale next week, according to The Winchester (Virginia) Star. Olson estimated it would take $2 million to restore the sagging literary landmark, half a continent away.

“This one would be a lot for us to bite off,” she said.

Hoping others step up

Olson has reached out to organizations and individuals in Virginia in hopes something can be worked out.

“Historic preservation is a huge part of our mission,” she said. 

The Willa Cather Childhood Home
The restoration of the Willa Cather Childhood Home in Red Cloud, Nebraska, a National Historic Landmark, is expected to be completed this year. The cost was in excess of $1 million. (Courtesy of the National Willa Cather Center)

The Cather organization has not only restored an opera house in Red Cloud that was a favorite of Cather’s, but also her childhood home, the farmhouse where her family lived after first moving to Nebraska when Willa was 9 years old, as well as other structures mentioned in her novels.

The birthplace has been on the Register of Historic Places since 1978. Olson said the owner lived in a second house on the premises and indicated that he used the Cather birthplace as an office and writing studio.

Several years ago, Olson said a group that included some Cather descendants attempted to buy the property from the owner, Charles T. Brill Jr. But after they met the asking price, he backed away from the deal, Olson said.

The birthplace, meanwhile, continued to deteriorate.

Brill died in December at age 80, according to The Winchester Star, and the person who inherited the property is putting it up for sale.

Cather lived in the home as a baby. A year later, her family moved to a nearby house, called “Willow Shade.”

Olson said, Cather’s life in Virginia influenced her writings, especially her final novel, “Sapphira and the Slave Girl,” published in 1940. It  takes places in that region.

Cather, she said, had family members who supported the Union cause in the Civil War, as well as family who held slaves and fought for the Confederacy.

“Her family stories and memories of the region are really entangled in the book,” Olson said. “She really struggled with her family’s role in the slaveholding culture.” 

Cather visited her birthplace in the 1930s while doing research for “Sapphira and the Slave Girl,” which she described as the most difficult book she ever wrote. It took a decade to write.

“Her family stories and members of the region are really entangled in the book,” Olson said.

She added that conversations are ongoing with others interested in saving the birthplace.

Willa or Wilella? 1873 or 1876?

Willa Cather was born Dec. 7, 1873, and her given name was Wilella.

But both points changed over the years, according to Ashley Olson of the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud:

Her birthdate is listed incorrectly on her tombstone. Cather is said to have cut two years off her age when she was working at McClure’s Magazine. 

After 1920, she dropped another year. Who’s Who lists her birthdate as 1876. 

When writing columns for the Pittsburgh Leader, she adopted “Sibert” as her middle name.

It wasn’t until 1920, when “Youth and the Bright Medusa” was published, that her name appeared simply as Willa Cather.

“Sibert” comes from her maternal grandmother, Rachel Elizabeth Seibert Boak, who moved with the Cather family to Nebraska and lived with them in Red Cloud.


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.