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Nebraska...Our Towns

Nebraska...Our Towns

Red Cloud -- Webster County

Chief Red Cloud (Mahpiya-Luta), famous Ogalala warrior and later as a nationally renown as a negotiator in behalf of the Sioux nation.
Red Cloud Band on the boardwalk in front of Mizer's Grocery, n.d. [Nebraska State Historical Society]
Main intersection of Red Cloud from a postcard dated May 9, 1909. [Webster County Museum via Nebraska State Historical Society]
Celebration in Red Cloud. Here comes the parade down Webster Street. State bank block on the corner, next north is the opera house, then the Moon block.
Willa Cather, distinguished American author, winner of the 1923 Pulitzer Prize, spent her formative years in Red Cloud, and immortalized her Nebraska home in such novels as O Pioneers!, My Antonia, One of Ours, and A Lost Lady.
The Willa Cather Historic District, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, includes a number of buildings and homes in Red Cloud, and is the largest dedicated to an author.
"Streetcar Days" held in August included this float, decorated and staffed by Webster County Hospital nurses.

Named for a famous Indian chief and home to both a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and a baseball Hall of Fame pitcher, the town of "Red Cloud" got its official start in 1871. Located in the beautiful Republican River valley of southcentral Nebraska, it is also in southcentral Webster County. In an April election, with 45 votes cast, Webster County was established as a separate county from Jefferson, with Red Cloud as its county seat.

In its first year a school was started, the town's first baby was born, and along with other businesses, two lawyers set up office in the community. At the town's second Fourth of July celebration the following year, there was an unplanned buffalo stampede through the middle of the festivities.

Silas Garber, one of the town's founders, moved to Lincoln in 1874 to begin serving the first of his two terms as governor of Nebraska.

The Burlington & Missouri River Railroad arrived in 1881 and by 1882, it connected Red Cloud to both Kansas City and Denver. By 1885 six passenger trains a day stopped at the depot in the south part of town. Because the main business district was located a mile north of the depot and its surrounding businesses, a horse-drawn street-car line was established in 1887. For a nickel fare, it transported people from the depot to the downtown business district. It operated until 1917 when the tracks were torn up to make way for new brick-paved streets.

Red Cloud was a progressive community from the start, becoming an incorporated village in 1878. In 1887 electricity was available to the town's residents and a city water system was installed. In 1898 Bell Telephone set up a local phone system with 40 subscribers. The town's industries over the years included brick factories, creameries, a lumbermill, brick tile works, a wire and slat fence factory, a cheese plant, a brewery, a broom factory, and a cigar factory.

By 1890 the town was home to about 2,500 citizens. It was also something of a Populist center, electing Populist Congressman William McKieghan, and establishing a Populist newspaper, "The Nation."

Red Cloud survived the loss of the mainline of the B&MR Railroad in the late 1890s, as well as the drought and economic down-turn during that decade. It was the first city in Nebraska to elect a woman mayor. Mary Peterson served in that capacity from 1921-27. The people took the Depression of the 1930s, as well as the big Republican River flood, in stride.

Red Cloud also produced several very famous people:

- native son, Clarence Arthur "Dazzy" Vance, Red Cloud baseball team pitcher, was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in 1955. He led the National League in strikeouts for seven straight years in the 1930s.

- Nebraska's Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Willa Cather, spent six years of her life growing up in Red Cloud and always thought of the town as her home. Her memories of the town and its citizens are immortalized in her novels and short stories of the plains. The town of Red Cloud served as a model for her fictional towns of Black Hawk, Hanover, Moonstone, Frankfort, Haverford and Sweet Water. Today many of the places described in Cather's books are a part of the Willa Cather Historic District listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the largest dedicated to an author in the United States.

Red Cloud boasts four historical organizations which preserve and interpret the history of the town and the surrounding countryside: the Nebraska State Historical Society's Willa Cather Historical Center, the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation, the Webster County Historical Museum, and The Land and Its People Foundation. The town serves not only as a popular tourist center, but also as a trade center for the surrounding farming population.

In 1988 Red Cloud is a city of 1,300 people. The community hospital, a new grass-greens golf course, and many businesses and organizations make Red Cloud both a good place to visit and a good place to live.

By Ann E. Billesbach, Willa Cather Historical Center, Box 326, Red Cloud, NE 68970

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: See all Willa Cather's works, and contact the historical organizations located in Red Cloud.