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Famous Nebraska Authors: A Literary Tour of Nebraska
The beautiful scenery and fascinating culture and history of Nebraska have inspired many great authors.
Red Cloud, Nebraska
We'll start our tour of literary Nebraska in south-central Nebraska in the small town of Red Cloud, home of Willa Cather (1873-1947), Nebraska's most famous and beloved author.
Red Cloud was founded in 1871 by Silas Garber, a veteran of the Civil War. It was named for the famous Oglala Lakota leader Maȟpíya Lúta, or Red Cloud, who lived in the area sometimes.
Cather's family moved to Red Cloud in 1883, when she was 9 years old, and she lived there until 1890, when she left to attend the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. After graduating, she moved to Pittsburgh and later to New York City, but though she never lived in Red Cloud again, the influence of the town and her fellow pioneers and immigrants there on her writing was lifelong.
Today, Red Cloud is home of the Willa Cather Foundation, dedicated to preserving Cather's literary heritage and historic sites important in her life, including her childhood home, which is now a museum.
In addition to its Cather heritage sites, Red Cloud is also home to other historic attractions, including the Webster County history museum and the Starke Round Barn.
The Red Cloud area also offers outstanding natural beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities thanks to the lovely Republican River, which meanders peacefully through the area, and a number of native prairie sites. The best known of these is the never-plowed 609 acre Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, which is known for its great birding.
Red Cloud to Lincoln
Great Works of Loren Eiseley
Our next stop is the state capital, Lincoln, birthplace of Loren Eiseley (1907-1977), a noted anthropologist and scientist best known for his lyrical science writing and his poetry.
One of the most significant spots in Eiseley's young life was Morrill Hall, at the University of Nebraska State Museum. Also known as the Hall of Mammoths, Morrill Hall houses the largest mammoth skeleton ever discovered, and the young Eiseley visited the Hall frequently to marvel of the bones. In his later career as a scientist, Eiseley helped prepare and mount some of the skeletons on display, including a prehistoric bison and a saber toothed cat.
Other sites of interest in and around Lincoln include the towering state capitol building, voted one of the 10 most beautiful buildings in the world by a group of 100 architects, Fairview, the historic home of Nebraska statesman William Jennings Bryan, the Haymarket District, home of Nebraska's longest running farmer's market, and the 230 acre 9 Mile Prairie, a tallgrass prairie preserve that is home to the endangered prairie white fringed orchid, among many other species of native plant and animal life.
Excerpt From "Reflections of a Bone Hunter"
From Lincoln, it is just a short drive through the beautiful pastoral countryside of rural Nebraska to the small town of Elmwood, home of novelist Bess Streeter Aldrich (1881-1954). Aldrich was born and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but moved to Elmwood after her marriage in 1906 and lived there until 1945, when she moved to Lincoln to be closer to her daughter. Her home in Elmwood is now a museum dedicated to her life.
Quiet, peaceful little Elmwood is a classic American small town. Stroll around main street or enjoy a picnic in one of the town's small public parks before heading on to our next stop: Bancroft.
The 2010 Avoca Quack-Off
Elmwood to Bancroft
There are a number of detours and stops worth making on your way from Elmwood to Bancroft.
If you're willing to go a little out of your way, it is well worth the short hop over to Nebraska City. Nebraska City was the home of J. Sterling Morton, founder of Arbor Day, and his home is now an impressive museum and pleasant small state park. In autumn, be sure to pick up some fantastic local apple cider at any of the town's apple orchards, or enjoy the famous annual Applejack Festival. The rest of the year, enjoy strolling the tree-lined streets with their handsome Victorian homes, or check out the antique shops on Main Street.
Otherwise, head north towards I-80, possibly dropping by at any of the great attractions near Louisville, including the Wild Animal Safari, the Strategic Air & Space Museum, Mahoney Park (home of a great water park), Platte River State Park (home of some tasty bison burgers), or Schramm Park, home of an aquarium featuring a variety of rare and unusual native Nebraska fish. Chocoholics shouldn't miss a trip to Baker's Candies in Greenwood, and connoisseurs of the weird and wacky should plan to be in the area in time for Avoca's annual Quack Off in January.
From there, go on to Omaha, Nebraska's largest city. There is lots to see and do in Omaha but if you just want the highlights, I recommend a visit to the Henry Doorly Zoo, named the best zoo in the country by Reader's Digest in 2004, and a stroll around the historic Old Market district, which is full of cool shops and great restaurants. For more tips and suggestions, check out my Omaha City Guide.
From Omaha, head northeast towards Fremont, a great little town popular with antiquers and from there continue on to Bancroft.
Great Books by John Neihardt
Bancroft was home of John G. Neihardt (1881-1973), a Nebraska poet, writer, and amateur ethnographer. Born in Illinois, Bancroft moved to Wayne, Nebraska at the age of ten, and to Bancroft, on the edge of the Omaha Indian Reservation, when he was 20. His life in Bancroft instilled a lifelong interest and love of American Indian culture in him, which colored much of his work and eventually led to his most famous work: Black Elk Speaks, based on his interviews with a Lakota holy man and survivor of the Wounded Knee Massacre.
Bancroft was also home to Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first American Indian woman doctor. The Susan La Flesche Picotte Memorial Hospital in nearby Walthill is dedicated to her.
Bancroft to Gordon
To drive from Bancroft to Gordon is to watch the remnants of the green, pastoral Midwest disappear into the wild, harsh Great Plains.
Gordon is located in the heart of the Nebraska Sandhills, one of the most remote and beautiful areas in the United States. To learn more, please visit my hub on Nebraska Highway 2, the Sandhills Scenic Byway, which has been named one of the 10 most beautiful roads in America.
Gordon and Chadron, Nebraska
Nebraska author Mari Sandoz (1896-1966) grew up on a ranch near the tiny town of Gordon, Nebraska. Her domineering father, Jules Sandoz, treated his family like hired servants and she barely attended school, spending most of her childhood in hard labor on the ranch. However, the constant stream of fellow ranchers, pioneers, traders, Indians, and others through the homestead exposed her to a wide variety of experiences and perspectives that she "caught" and retold in later years, earning her the moniker "Storycatcher of the Plains."
After the disintegration of her unhappy marriage in 1919, she took a variety of low paying jobs to support her writing, but her big break, ironically, did not come until her father called her to his bedside as he lay dying and asked her to tell his life story. The resulting book, Old Jules, languished among various editors for several years before finally winning publication in a contest. Critically acclaimed, the book shocked readers with its strong language and realistic depictions of the harsh frontier life. She later gained equal acclaim with her biography of Tȟašúŋke Witkó, or Crazy Horse, the Lakota leader.
From Gordon and Chadron, it's just a hop and a skip to a number of other beautiful natural and historical landmarks, including Fort Robinson State Park, Agate Fossil Beds, and the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The Last Sandoz Tree
I hope you've enjoyed this journey through literary Nebraska!
For more Nebraska tourism information, visit Visit Nebraska, or check out the following articles: