What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Cather’s birth house . . . which I didn’t see.

On my summer vacation I went to see another house that Willa Cather lived in.

Regular readers of WildmooBooks know that Red Cloud, Nebraska is Mecca for Cather fans. It’s where Cather lived from the time she was nine until she left for college as a teenager. Friends and loved ones have heard, ad nauseum, about my visits to Red Cloud and the Cather family home there.

Cather is typically associated with Nebraska, but she was actually born in Virginia (and never lived in Nebraska after college, but that’s grist for another post). Oddly enough, even though I’ve driven through Virginia dozens and dozens of times and even lived next door in North Carolina, I’d never thought of visiting Cather’s Virginia homes. Until this summer.

There are two Willa Cather homes to see in Gore, VA. The first is her birth home, the home of her grandparents where she lived until she was about a year old. The second home is Willow Shade, where she lived from the age of one to nine when her family moved to Nebraska.

After spending a glorious week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina we headed to Gore, VA, known as Back Creek Valley when Cather lived there.

We left the Outer Banks in the morning at a humane hour and drove first to Staunton, VA to have lunch with an old friend. After that we headed north on I-81 where I became unreasonably excited upon seeing signs for Winchester and Romney, towns that are mentioned in Cather’s novel, Sapphira and The Slave Girl (1940), which I had just finished re-reading because it seemed the right thing to do in preparation for visiting Gore. Sapphira was the last novel that Cather published and the only one set in the Virginia of her childhood.
At Winchester we took Hwy 50 West toward Gore. The first sign that we were in Cather territory was spotting a gas station and convenience store called Cather’s Market. We stopped for gas and I tried to chat with the woman behind the counter, but she wasn’t a big talker. She was, to be fair, trying to work. Yes, years ago someone with the Cather name did own the market, but I’m told it is now owned by someone else.

When I said we were looking for Cather’s birth home and Willow Shade, she said to just keep going west on 50 and we’d see a bunch of signs. Perhaps she phoned ahead when we left and had someone to take the signs down, because we only saw one sign. I spotted Willow Shade which is shaded from the road by not just by a willow, but by a whole bunch of trees. The house is smack-dab next to the highway and situated a bit lower than the road, so if you’re driving the speed limit and never saw a picture of the house, you’d probably miss it.

This is Willow Shade, the house Cather lived in from ages 1-9 and described by her in Sapphira and The Slave Girl. The home is privately owned and we didn’t want to bother anyone, so this was as close as we got. Taken from the side-road at the driveway.
The historic marker for the house, which is not really near the house, but a ways west of the house. In fact, if you’re standing next to the sign there are two houses that you can see through the trees before you’d spot Willow Shade. However, I think the sign placement is more about safety–its situated on a clearing where you can pull over and park.

This historic marker for Willow Shade is B17. Historical marker B18 is for Cather’s birth home, but we were unable to find that marker. Wish I had a smart phone. We drove up and down 50 several times and around the town of Gore, but never saw the marker. The guy working at the general store in Gore didn’t know about the birth house (but he did know about Willow Shade). I had seen pictures of Willow Shade many times over the years in books about Cather, so I knew what to look for, but I didn’t recall seeing pictures of the birth home so I didn’t know what to look for. I think it might have been one of two houses on the north side of 50, west of Willow Shade, but I’m not sure.

I found a disturbing post by LL Golem on her Whole Wheat Rising blog about how Cather’s birth home is slowly being eaten away by termites and has fallen into disrepair. Even though the home has been on the National Register of Historic Places since November 16, 1978, the current owner is under no obligation to maintain the house. And there’s a comment on LL’s post from Ann Romines, a prominent Cather scholar, who says, “In recent years, local government, local scholars, Cather family members, and other concerned persons have made efforts to buy and restore the house, to no avail.”  How can this be? Cather’s reputation has grown in recent decades, so it seems doubly odd that the home of one of America’s most respected literary figures is being left to rot.

If you plan on going to check out Cather’s VA homes, it will help to know what the houses look like.

There isn’t any Cather fanfare in Gore at this time. However, across the street from Willow Shade, there is a new housing development in the works. The street is called Willa Cather Lane and lots are going for just under $100,000.

Did you have any literary adventures this summer?

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