116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A visit with Midwest’s pioneering women authors
Trips to Nebraska, South Dakota showcase literary history
Marion and Rich Patterson - correspondents
Oct. 6, 2021 9:07 am
Prairie grasses rustled in the light breeze as we pondered the life and struggles of an American writer.
We were in remote Nebraska on our quest to visit formative places in the lives of frontier era women writers. Many Iowans consider Nebraska a 400-mile obstacle to endure en route to Denver and Colorado’s mountains.
Not us. We love the diverse beauty and history of the Cornhusker State. The state’s sprawling wildness, rich history, dark night sky and captivating scenery keep luring us back.
On this trip we were seeking insights into the lives of Mari Sandoz and Willa Cather.
We found Sandoz’s grave in the heart of Sheridan County between Gordon and Ellsworth. Born in 1896 to Swiss immigrants in Hay Springs, Neb., Sandoz gained literary respect through her books “Old Jules” and “Love Song to the Plains.”
Although born after Nebraska gained statehood, her childhood was spent in one of the least populated parts of America. Even today, only 5,289 people live in the 2470 square mile county. Her childhood was one of hard work, limited schooling and perhaps abuse, yet memories of Nebraska permeated her writing.
After receiving many publishers’ rejection letters, “Old Jules” became a commercial and literary success, followed by more novels and biographies. By the time of her death in New York City, she was a respected author connecting readers with frontier Nebraska.
We started our Sandoz adventure at the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center on the campus of Chadron State College. The town of Chadron is nestled between the wild, rolling Sandhills and the Pine Ridge Country. From Cedar Rapids, it’s a 630-mile drive west on U.S. 20.
The museum gives a glimpse of Nebraska in its early days and Sandoz’s journey from the frontier to literary success. Although we’ve been to every state, we consider northern Nebraska among the most scenic places in the country. Camping, hiking and history abound in Chadron and Fort Robinson State Parks.
Chadron is a college town with many motels, stores and eateries. Just to the south is the Museum of the Fur Trade packed with frontier history.
From Chadron. we followed lonely Nebraska 250 about 40 miles south to a single lane paved road that took us 17 miles east to Highway 17 and then south a few miles to the Sandoz grave. It’s on private land still owned by her family. Visitors are welcome.
Reviewing some of her most poignant phrases from “Love Song” we absorbed the immensity of the high plains. Few places we have visited seem as wild and remote yet hauntingly beautiful.
From the grave site in this far western Nebraska corner, we stair stepped south and east to Red Cloud, Neb., tucked close to the Kansas border south of Grand Island. The small town and its surroundings framed Cather’s writing.
Born in Virginia in 1873, Cather’s family moved to Red Cloud when she was 9. After graduating from the University of Nebraska, she launched a prolific literary career. Among her best-known books are “Song of the Lark,” “My Antonia” and “Oh Pioneers.” She spent much of her life in New York City close to her publishers, but, like Sandoz, Nebraska permeated her words.
Unlike the rugged terrain near Chadron, Red Cloud is in rolling farm and grazing country. It’s more settled and cultivated than the Sand Hills or Pine Ridge yet still feels open and wild. We spent two days overnighting, visiting the Willa Cather Foundation. Our tours included places important to the young woman and driving the sandy lanes in the enchanting prairie landscape.
Red Cloud lacks motels, but has two Airbnb properties owned by the Willa Cather Foundation. We overnighted at Willa’s Villa and could have stayed at nearby Willa’s Second Home. Just south of town is the impressive Willa Cather Prairie. Because it is located far from lighting polluting cities, the night sky over Red Cloud and the Prairie is spectacularly vibrant.
Red Cloud is about 460 miles from Cedar Rapids. Completing a circle drive to Chadron, then on to Red Cloud, and back home to the Corridor is about 1,500 miles.
In between, the literary sites is the wide-open scenery of the Great Plains and an amazing array of historical sites and wildlife to enjoy.
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Ingalls Wilder was an approximate contemporary of Sandoz and Cather. Her life from 1867 to 1957 extended from the frontier to modern America.
We’d read Sandoz and Cather’s books as adults, but it was our then young children who introduced us to Laura Ingalls Wilder. Once, while driving to the Black Hills, they read “Little House on the Prairie” in the car’s back seat. A glance on the South Dakota map showed a Laura Ingalls Wilder site in DeSmet, so we veered off Interstate 90 and overnighted in the town where she once lived.
“I loved reading Laura Ingalls Wilder as a child,” said Ashley Olson, executive director of the Willa Cather Foundation. “This early appreciation for literature steered me toward a return to Cather's Red Cloud and to my role as Executive Director of the Willa Cather Foundation."
The imaginations of millions of children have been sparked by reading her historical fiction books, mostly about growing up in the Midwest.
“My favorite part of reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and visiting the prairie was learning how people lived with the land.” our son, Dan. recently told us. “There are many lessons to be learned from her writing.”
Nancy, our daughter, chimed in, “Her stories shared the power of resourcefulness, community, joy, and sorrow.”
Dan took up viola after his third-grade teacher read about Pa playing the fiddle, and continued through high school orchestra.
The Wilder Family moved many times to places scattered about the Midwest, including one in Iowa. Fortunately for Corridor residents, most can be visited on shorter drives than treks to Chadron or Red Cloud. We’ve been to several and will eventually enjoy the rest. Places include Pepin, Wis., De Smet, S.D., Walnut Grove and Spring Valley, Minn., Mansfield, Mo., and the Iowa site.
Most of her life was spent in Mansfield, and it’s a key place to visit to learn about this fascinating woman.
Another Iowa connection is Wilder’s older sister, Mary, attended what was then called the Vinton School for the Blind in Vinton. The Wilder Family didn’t live there, but once lived in Burr Oak, a tiny town between Decorah and the Minnesota state line. We recently enjoyed a visit to the modest museum there.
Visiting sites in the lives of the three pioneer-era women writers is an adventure in history spanning much of the western Midwest. Several of the museums are open for limited hours. Before making a long drive check their schedule..
Rich and Marion Patterson have backgrounds in environmental science and forestry. They co-own Winding Pathways, a consulting business that encourages people to “Create Wondrous Yards.”