grand island, nebraska to topeka, kansas: wilber, beatrice & red cloud

When I left Grand Island, Nebraska at 7:22 a.m. it was dark, rainy, foggy and 62°F. I could see lightning strikes on a horizon thick with cornstalks. Giant water sprinklers hovered over the crops and more lightning zigzagged the sky. By the time I got on 80E, the sky released a downpour.


on the road in Nebraska

I had to drive a long way out of the way today, backtracking a good distance, to get to my destinations. I wanted to see the Willa Cather Childhood Home in Red Cloud, Nebraska, but as it was a Sunday, it didn’t open until 1:00.  I had read two of the author’s books, O Pioneers! and My Àntonia, both set in Nebraska, and visiting Red Cloud was a priority for me. I had also read The Professor’s House; I had loved all her books. But I also wanted to see the Homestead National Monument of America, which was open from 9:00-5:00.  You can see the route I had to take on the map below.  This amounted to a lot of driving.

On top of that, once I left Red Cloud, I had to drive 3 1/2 more hours east and south to get to Topeka, where I planned to stay the night.


my route through Nebraska today

Past the town of Beaver Crossing (457 population) were cornfields, silos, trees and farms. I had to stop for a train. At a town called Friend, I found Friend Fertilizer and Friend Christian Assembly.  I stopped at a nice little market for a snack. The town of Crete looked nothing like the Crete of Greece, but it was a substantial town with a population of 6,960.

I hit the town of Wilber and was surprised to find it is the “Czech Capital of the USA.” I saw the Wilber Czech Museum, Czech Cellar, and Czech’erd Flag Bar. Huge silos hunkered down on the edge of town.

The Czechs left a land rich in history and culture. The first university in Central Europe was established in Prague over 100 years before Columbus discovered America. Throughout generations of wars and oppression, the Czech people kept alive their language, music, arts and customs, and they brought them to the New World.

Charles Culek, who came to  Nebraska in 1856, was the first permanent Czech settler.  The first Czechs came to Saline County in 1865. In all, some 50,000 Czechs settled in Nebraska, most of them from the province of Bohemia.

Like other pioneers, Czechs survived the hardships of frontier life and thrived in the new land. They found freedom from oppression and opportunity for their children.

According to a pamphlet crated by the Wilber Chamber of Commerce, “Pride of heritage runs deep through this community that was written about in Willa Cather’s book, My Àntonia. The Wilber Czech Festival was a meeting place for homesick Czechs, eager to wear their traditional festival costumes, play their music, dance, drink and feast together with friends and relatives.”

A ribbon of birds unfurled above me as I headed to the town of Beatrice (pronounced Bee-aáa-trice).  At Turkey Creek, a dead deer lay along the roadside. The corn everywhere was tan, gold, and dry. I wondered when it was harvested.  Sunflowers and browning corn were all around.  A sign defined “‘FETUS’: Latin for Little One.”

By 10:00 a.m., I arrived at Homestead National Monument of America in Beatrice. The building is shaped like a plow. The monument preserves the T-shaped, 160-acre claim that Daniel Freeman filed on January 1, 1863. It includes the school that some of Freeman’s children attended, a typical eastern Nebraska cabin, and 100 acres of restored tallgrass prairie.


Homestead National Monument of America


Homestead National Monument of America


Homesteading image


Do you live near a Homestead?

I watched a 10-minute film about the Homestead Act, pioneers and the Native Americans who were displaced. I wandered through the museum.

The Homestead Act, which offered 160 acres of public land free to homesteaders, was passed by Congress with little opposition, and President Lincoln signed it on May 20, 1862.

Surveyors relied on the 1875 Land Ordinance Act. They laid out 36-square-mile townships, which were then split into 640-acre (one square mile) sections. These sections were then subdivided into four 160-acre homesteads. Initially, 160 acres was thought to be the ideal size for a family farm.

The government had to decide who got land.  If you were over 21 or head of a household, you qualified for 160 free acres. That included women, as well as immigrants eligible to become citizens. African Americans became eligible after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865 and the 14th Amendment guaranteed equal treatment (1868).

Before receiving title to the land, homesteaders had to live on it for five years, build a home, and cultivate crops.

Settlers had to build a home first, and they used whatever material was available, whether logs, stones, tarpaper, canvas or sod.  Most homes were basic, often crude structures, frequently just a single all-purpose room.


houses built by homesteaders

The Homestead Act gave people land, not farms. Many were unprepared for the sweat and toil needed to break the sod.  Plows cracked, muscles ached. Homesteaders had to build fences, dig wells, and buy or make tools.


Farming on the homestead

Daily life revolved around planting, harvesting, raising livestock, cooking meals, and canning preserves. Every member of the family worked the fields or tended vegetable gardens. People kept hogs, chickens, and milk cows for their own use, or to sell eggs and butter when harvests were poor.

After a bountiful harvest, a Montana farmer showed off abundant corn, wheat, potatoes, vegetables.. and even a watermelon in 1914.


fruits of the land

Disaster at the hands of nature was an ever-present threat. The wintry blizzards, summer hailstorms, droughts, and tornadoes that greeted settlers often came as a shock. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a prolonged Midwest drought created a “dustbowl” as arid topsoil simply blew away.

In addition to the daily struggle for survival, nearly all homesteaders had to cope with isolation.  They responded by forging friendships, building communities, and coming together to pray, dance, mourn their losses or find a mate.

As the Homestead Act was being debated, American Indians were not part of the conversation.

Nineteenth century Americans believed in Manifest Destiny, the idea that the U.S. had a God-given duty to expand westward and tame the continent. Manifest Destiny viewed the West as empty, unused land – although it was in fact home to thousands of American Indian communities.  Manifest Destiny obviously had a negative impact on native populations.


Manifest Destiny

The American Indian Removal Act of 1830 had already set a precedent for taking native lands. Under that law, Congress pushed more than a dozen eastern tribes westward. On the Trail of Tears, thousands of members of the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole tribes died during a forced removal to American Indian Territory (Oklahoma) from their ancestral homes in the southeastern United States.


In the museum, I learned a lot about the Homestead Act and the pioneers who took up a homestead.

Factories back east had to supply the new western farms with agricultural equipment.  In 1831, Cyrus McCormick demonstrated the first successful horse-drawn reaper, which cut as much grain per day as 10 workers. In 1837, blacksmith John Deere developed a steel plow tough enough to break hard prairie sod. Technology eased the back-breaking work and made farms more efficient.

Settlers needed water for gardens and livestock, for drinking, cooking, and, occasionally, for bathing. Daniel Haladay patented the first American windmill in 1854. Dozens of companies soon competed. Windmills were sturdy, long-lasting, and best of all, exploited a free source of power.



A hay stacker, like other agricultural machines, let farmers work the land more efficiently – but also required a cash investment that was beyond many new homesteaders.

In the half-century from 1860-1910, steam power and gasoline engines rapidly took over the burden of working the land. Mass-produced equipment replaced handcrafted tools.

Homesteading meant many things to many people. For factory workers it offered escape from crowded cities. For those who had been enslaved, it represented freedom. For single women it was a way to gain independence and for immigrants it promised a new life.

Railroads and other promoters nurtured these hopes, painting the West as a place to realize the American Dream. Their advertisements often promised perfect soil, abundant rain… and guaranteed success. But reality was not always so rosy.  Homesteading was hard.  Weather could be harsh. Locusts and grasshoppers were regular scourges.  Survival was particularly difficult for those new to farming.

Schoolhouses were often the first buildings built by homesteaders. Early schools were simple. The Freeman School nearby taught kids the three Rs from 1872 to 1967. It was the longest continuously operating one-room school in Nebraska and is now part of Homestead National Monument of America.

In 1863, Daniel Freeman and other homesteaders began to file claims, mostly in the Great Plains states and Nebraska and Dakota territories.

Daniel Freeman needed to file his homestead claim quickly.  The Civil War was raging and Freeman apparently had to return to his Union Army regiment. He supposedly convinced the local land agent to open his office just past midnight on January 1, 1863, the day the Homestead Act took effect.

The Freeman family prospered, becoming prominent citizens. Daniel Freeman is buried on his homestead.


the first homesteader, Daniel Freeman

In 1866, Congress extended homesteading to the five public land states in the South: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas.

The 1887 Dawes Act carved Indian reservations into 160-acre allotments, similar to homesteads. Though the intentions may have been good, the consequences were devastating. American Indians were assigned the worst land on the reservations. Land left over could be given to non-Indians, and large tracts were leased to non-Indian farmers and ranchers.  American Indian tribes lost 60% of their reservations before the Dawes Act was repealed in 1934.

In 1889, the Oklahoma Territory opened to homesteaders with a “land run.” Thousands joined the frenzied sprint to stake claims.

From 1901-1920, homesteading peaked.  The Land Office issued over 800,000 patents.

In 1913, Willa Cather published Prairie Trilogy.

From 1930-1940, the Land Office issued 40,000 homestead patents, many in the Southwest.

In 1936, Homestead National Monument was established.

From 1960-1986, public lands in Alaska were opened to homesteaders.

Ken Deardorff, a 29-year-old Californian and Vietnam Veteran, wanted a fresh start.  He filed a claim alongside a salmon-filled river in southwest Alaska.  His 1974 homestead was the last patented under the Homestead Act, which expired two years later in the lower 48 states, and in 1986 in Alaska.

Like homesteaders a century before, Deardorff’s family fended for itself.  They lived far from town. Deardorff fished, hunted, and trapped before selling the land in 1993.


the last homesteader

In 1976, Congress repealed the Homestead Act in the lower 48 states.  In 1986, Congress repealed the Act in Alaska.

In 1988, the last homestead patent was issued.

People took pride in the communities they had built.  They felt the achievement of having land to pass on to their children.  And for the 40% who ultimately gained ownership of their homesteads, there was the personal reward of knowing they had beaten the odds.


A life well lived

For over 123 years, homesteading offered immigrants a roadmap from serfdom to citizenship and property ownership. It offered the same to the nation’s own disenfranchised – former slaves, veterans of the Civil and World Wars, emigrants from northeast factory towns, and southern sharecroppers – men and women.

After visiting the museum, I walked outdoors on the grounds. The cabin was built by George W. Palmer in 1867 in Logan Township, some 14 miles from Beatrice. He used oak, ash, and other hardwoods cut from the banks of Bear Creek for his cabin walls.

Palmer proved up his homestead claim in 1875.  Along with his wife and five children, he had built a home, planted crops, and lived on the land for five years as required by the Homestead Act.

I left Homestead National Monument at 11:40, driving on 136W for 72 miles.  By noon, blue skies were peeking out but it remained very humid. The land became pretty with gently rolling farmland, corn and green trees. By noon, it was a sultry 80°F.

Finally, Gilead brought blue skies. Cornstalks turned bright green to the south, but were brown to the north.  I loved how the wind rushed over the grasses and cornstalks. A herd of Black Angus grazed in red grasses that were whipped about by the wind. Corsages of clouds were pinned on the blue sky.  Red, gold and green grasses were giving in to the wind.  Black and brown cows swished their long tails.


I reached Red Cloud (population 1,020) by 1:24, just in time for the 1:30 tour of Willa Cather’s Childhood Home. Cather achieved recognition for her novels of frontier life on the Great Plains.

Author Willa Cather was born in Virginia in 1873 and moved with her family to live in Webster County, Nebraska at the age of nine.  After graduating from Red Cloud High School in 1890, she attended university in Lincoln, Nebraska for five years, then moved to the east coast for the remainder of her life.  She died in 1947 and was buried in New Hampshire.

The years in Red Cloud were important and formative years in the writer’s life.  Six of her twelve novels are set in the Red Cloud and Webster County of her youth, including One of Ours, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922.

Red Cloud was given many names in Cather’s fiction: Black Hawk, Moonstone, Haverford, Sweetwater, Hanover, and Frankfort. But the town itself as Cather knew it, with its small-town politics and deep cultural currents, deeply informed her writing. Cather put Red Cloud on the map of famous literary destinations, along with William Faulkner’s Oxford, Mississippi and Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri.


Knowing Nebraska

The milestones of the author’s career include: her first publications in Nebraska; her first professional journalism work in Pittsburgh; her farewell to journalism in 1912; and the publication in 1913 of O Pioneers!, which she came to see as her first successful novel.


Willa Cather

Built around 1879, this is the house in which Willa Cather lived from 1884 to 1890.


Willa Cather’s Childhood Home in Red Cloud, Nebraska

Willa used to use her father’s office as a laboratory to dissect animals. She shared the attic room with her siblings, then she got her own room, which she wallpapered. The wallpaper is in bad disrepair now.


the attic room Willa shared with her sisters

The Miners were Willa’s inspiration for the Harlings in My Ántonia. The Miner girls were all artists. We went into the Miners’ home, which is also known as the Harling home.


Miners’ home

I took a short walk around the neighborhood of Red Cloud.


a home in Red Cloud, Nebraska

Willa Cather went to the University of Nebraska and spent time all over the world and in New York.  Though The Song of the Lark is set in Colorado, the guide said she recognized Red Cloud in the book, so she thinks it is really Red Cloud. In The Professor’s House, Willa was similar to the professor in that she had a sewing room she didn’t want to leave.  There are many questions about her sexuality as the closest people to her were women and she had a long-time woman partner, but her letters were not revealing in that respect.

The town of Red Cloud includes the Farmer’s and Merchant’s Bank Building, built in 1888-1889. The bank’s founding president was Silas Garber. Cather took inspiration from the Garber family to write about Captain and Mrs Forrester in her 1923 novel, A Lost Lady.  She also used the building as inspiration in her 1935 novel, Lucy Gayheart.

Designed in the Renaissance Revival style, it has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1981.

Willa Cather’s life and works are showcased in the museum. Cather is known as a famous Nebraskan, yet she lived in Nebraska just over a decade. Later, Cather made her home in New York City, though the Nebraska prairie often called to her.

Cather’s travels took her far and wide, from great cities to remote and beautiful landscapes, and in turn her books included the various locales she lived in and visited. She traveled all around the United States, and visited Italy, France, England and Canada. For more than 20 years, she tried to spend part of each year in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Jaffrey Center’s Old Burying Ground was chosen as her final resting place.

Cather was inspired to write her third novel, The Song of the Lark (1915) by Olive Fremstad’s improbable rise from Midwestern obscurity to stardom at the Metropolitan Opera.  In the novel, Thea Kronborg, like Fremstad, was a Swedish-American who became a celebrated singer throughout the world, despite humble beginnings in Moonstone, Colorado.

Cather’s fifth novel, One of Ours, tells the story of Claude Wheeler, an aimless Nebraska boy who finds both purpose and place as an officer in France during the First World War. It was a best seller at the time of its release, winning praise from many soldiers of the Great War, and in 1923 received the Pulitzer Prize for the novel.

In her 11th novel, Lucy Gayheart, Willa Cather returned to a familiar setting — rural Nebraska — to tell the story of a pianist who makes her way from Haverford, a Red Cloud-esque town on the Platte River, to Chicago, to pursue her musical studies. Long overlooked, Cather’s penultimate novel is now considered by many to be one of her best.

Cather felt a great affinity for the Southwest and loved New Mexico in particular. After becoming intrigued by Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the first bishop of Santa Fe (and all of New Mexico), a Frenchman, whose bronze stands before the Romanesque St. Francis Cathedral he built, she researched his life and began writing Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).

Sapphira and the Slave Girl, published in 1940, is set in 1856 and explores the contentious relationships between Sapphira Colbert, an embittered white slave owner; Rachel, Sapphira’s daughter, an abolitionist; and Nancy, a young slave on the Colbert farm. Cather focuses on the divide between the worlds of the white slave-owning class and the people they have subjected, exploring the shameful history of her family and country.

Among the Cather family’s books and magazines were dozens of ledgers, accounts and correspondence related to farming and finance.

On April 24, 1947, Cather died of a cerebral hemorrhage, at the age of 73, in her home in Manhattan.


Cather’s words from 1941


By 3:00, I’d left Red Cloud and by 3:10, Kansas welcomed me. I drove over White Rock Creek and past Lebanon and Waconda Lake. Brown and white painted cows grazed the land. I wondered about the reddish brown (coppery) tassels on a crop.  I later looked it up and found it was sorghum, used in the manufacture of syrup.  The stalks are harvested and crushed.  Kansas is ranked 1st in the nation for grain sorghum production, growing more than 46% of the country’s crop.  The state also ranks 2nd in sorghum for silage production in the U.S.

The land flattened out as I headed east through Kansas on 81S. White cows gathered around a pond.  I passed the Ottowa County History Museum, huge water sprinklers, and the Solomon River.

Finally, I was on I-70E to Topeka, Kansas.  Signs along the road read: PET ME! Greyhound Hall of Fame. Joe Snuffy’s Old Fashioned Grill.  Russell Stover Candies. Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum and Boyhood Home.  Abilene, Kansas was the home of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Muddy Creek promised White Tail and Wild Game Hunting. Chapman was home of Joe Engle, Astronaut. Sunlight stretched out over stubby harvested fields. Another sign admonished: Smile: Your Mom Chose Life. Near the Smoky Hill River, a sign advertised Taylor-Made Guns.  Fort Riley: Home of the Big Red One.

“U.S. Cavalry Museum: First Territorial Capital” was near Manhattan. There was the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  ALMA: City of Native Stone (I saw this stone used in buildings in Manhattan, Kansas in a future visit). I bypassed the Historical and Native Stone Scenic Byway.

More signs dotted the highway: Yak n’ Yarn. Prairie Fire Winery. Prairie Point: KC’s Must See Quilt Shop.  The sky at this time in the evening, as the sun was setting, was stunning. Flat bottomed clouds exuberantly blossomed above.  Finally: “Life Has Many Choices.  Eternity Has Two. What Is Yours?”

I arrived in Topeka, Kansas at 7:00 after a long day of driving. I went to dinner at Olive Garden: a Bud Light and a huge salad with warm garlic breadsticks.  I also had Pasta e Fagioli Soup – white and red beans, ground beef, fresh tomatoes, and tubetti pasta in a savory broth.


My salad at Olive Garden

The 22-year-old waiter was friendly and talkative.  He said he grew up in Topeka but wanted to get out of there. He planned to join the military and go to California. I showed him my Polarsteps app and he said, “Wow!  Are you traveling all over the country?”  I said, “No, just Nebraska and the two Dakotas.  I’m on my way home now.”  He said he hoped he could do that one day.  I told him I was 63 and I didn’t start traveling in earnest until I was 55.  “It’s better to do it while you’re young if you can!” I told him. I wished him luck.

He kept saying he would bring me a whole new salad, as I planned to take half of mine along to have for lunch the following day. I said I’d just take the leftovers as I don’t like to waste food. He asked if I’d like him to bring a whole new soup for lunch tomorrow!  I told him no, and thanked him.  When I left, I forgot my credit card and he came running out to bring it to me.  I was so grateful he’d caught me, otherwise it would have been such a hassle.

*Steps: 6,122, or 2.59 miles.  Drove 459.6 miles*

*Sunday, September 29, 2019*