The following is the paper Dr. Mary Weddle presented at the "Willa Cather and World War I Symposium" held April 4 & 5, 2002, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Weddle donated rare Cather , photographs, and other historical documents to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives & Special Collections, many of which give new insights into G.P. Cather, the prototype for Claude Wheeler in One of Ours. Weddle's paper introduces this important collection to the Cather community from the perspective of a family member.
The art of letter writing may well be obsolete, but in days before cell phones and e-mail someone made the observation that if you write to another twice a week you find much to say, whereas if you write twice a year you find little. (The exception to this rule must be those interminable, impersonal, folksy Christmas letters in which we find out who had a hernia operation, what Junior scored on the SAT's, what first words Brookie uttered, how the dog bit the postman...) The George Cather family did not send Christmas letters. They wrote often and had much to say.
I am here to introduce the George Cather Ray Collection, named for my father, and to tell you something about how it came together, how these letters survived, traveled widely, and finally arrived back in Nebraska.
George Perry Cather and his wife, Frances Amanda Smith Cather, were my great grandparents. (Their daughter, Blanche, who married William Wallace Ray, was my grandmother.) I call the George Cathers and their children "the other Cathers' because whereas George and Franc were the first Cathers to arrived in Nebraska, indeed among the first settlers to homestead in Webster County, the Red Cloud Cathers-George's younger brother Charles and his family-receive the attention. This is Willa Cather's immediate family.
But the letters of the George Cather family add significantly not only to Willa Cather studies but to the history of Nebraska's settlement and agrarian development, fleshing out historical, social, economic, and intellectual aspects of the times, as we shall see.
The remarkable condition of the letters in this collection is a tribute to the meticulous habits of George and Franc Cather. The sheer volume of letters along with other ephemera-bills of sale, cancelled checks, advertisements, political campaign material, farm ledgers, even ticket stubs-attests to their inability to part with anything: the pack rat syndrome. Unfortunately, method and order seem to have been lost with passing generations, while pack-ratism flourished. Neither of my great grandparents ever tore open a letter with abandon. Letters were carefully slit on the side, the contents removed, read, replaced, the envelope dated according to when a response was penned. Even my father continued to operate in this manner, though order was not otherwise noticeable in his affairs. He complained that I did not know how to open a letter.
The letters of this Collection are well traveled. Some accompanied Frances Amanda Smith from Boston to Winchester, Virginia, there to be supplemented by letters she received from New England during 1872-1873, then to make their way with the new Mrs. George Cather to the prairie of Nebraska, where more and more letters were added over the years. Wonderfully, given the humidity of both Virginia and Nebraska, and the radical seasonal temperature fluctuations year after year, the letters in the Collection remain unfoxed, without mildew or disintergration, even though many, particularly intra-family letters, are written on cheap paper.
George Cather imposed the first real organization on this material. Having lost his wife in 1922, he spent his twilight years under the shared care of his daughters-six months with Blanche Ray in Grand Island, six months with Carrie Lindgren in Bladen. During these years (George Cather died in 1938 at age 91), he worked on a family genealogy. He also sorted the letters now in the George Cather Ray collection, tying them into packets designated by year and author, usually inventorying the contents of each packet on a cover sheet. Clearly, George Cather had a sense of his family's importance. He also seemingly wanted to preserve the memory of his son Grosvenor Philips (always known as G.P.), killed in World War I. Significantly, I think, although George Cather had the opportunity to edit the picture of G.P. that one may draw from the letters, he chose not to censor the letters that present G.P. in a less than favorable light. George Cather could have suppressed a major scandal that had altered the course of his son's life by destroying certain letters. He chose not to.
With George Cather's death in 1938, Blanche Ray took possession of the letters. Bundled away into cupboards in my grandmother's house in Grand Island, the letters sat undisturbed until after Blanche Ray's death in 1964. During her life my grandmother had collected her own tons of ephemera, more important to her than all her other "stuff." (Here I find useful comedian George Carlin's distinction-"My stuff, your crap." In the late '60s my father decided he must attempt to sort out my grandmother's "stuff" (her "crap" according to my mother.) My mother probably argued for tossing all that "crap"—the letters, but upon opening some packets my parents discovered an original Willa Cather letter here and another there. So they proceeded to go carefully through all the packets, searching out others. The rest of the letters, now liberated from George Cather's packets and woefully mixed, continued to sit in boxes in my grandmother's attic. After my father's death in 1972, the Willa Cather letters went East with my mother, who returned to her original home of Boston. The "other Cather letters" came West to me in Sacramento, California.
Initially, I tried to make typescripts of my great grandmother's letters but soon ran out of gas. The letters sat untouched first in the attic of our house, then in the basement of another, for some thirty years. Meanwhile, my mother had given me the Willa Cather letters. Written over a number of years, all to my great grandmother Franc Cather, they are now in the University Archives & Special Collections at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.
And then, just a few years ago, my friend Maggie O'Connor at Chapel Hill mentioned that she was going to teach One of Ours, and I recalled the George Cather family letters stored somewhere in my basement. I had always know that G.P. was the prototype for Claude Wheeler, the protagonist of One of Ours. So off went the letters to North Carolina, where Maggie painstakingly catalogued them, creating detailed summaries of many. I thought the letters might provide some insights for Maggie's students, but Maggie saw greater possibilities. She put Sue Rosowski in touch with me, and so Professor O'Connor was pivotal in the return of the letters to Nebraska. Crucial, of course, in Nebraska's acquisition of these letters were Professor Susan Rosowski of the UNL English Department and editor of the Cather texts being produced by the University of Nebraska Press, Katherine Walter of the UNL Libraries, and Susan Sack of the University of Nebraska Foundation, all of whom worked closely with me to make the George Cather Ray Collection a permanent archive for Nebraska.
In any case, the letters that now comprise the George Cather Ray Collection did survive, if only partly by design and mostly by chance. So let's look at what is actually in them. First, let me attempt a general description of the raw materials that make up these letters.
The largest number of letters in the Collection falls into what I would call intra-family correspondence. Because the George Cather children were sent at varying ages to Grand Island for higher education, including study at Grand Island Baptist College, the Collection has a unique aspect: an extensive, almost daily, correspondence between parent (usually Franc Cather) and child (usually G.P.), fully preserved on both sides. This dual aspect of the letters continues for G.P. and his mother until G.P.'s marriage to Myrtle Bartlett, whereupon the letters from Franc Cather apparently were no longer saved. (Probably therein hangs a tale.)
Both sides of the correspondence are also available for the courtship of George Cather and Frances Smith in Virginia in 1872-1873. (For now the Collection has this correspondence only in typescript, prepared by me some 30 years ago.
Unfortunately, the original letters are lost somewhere in the excess "stuff" ("crap?") that makes my house a home. I am not a Cather descendant for nothing.
The intra-family letters will probably be of most interest to literary scholars for what they provide about G.P., but they have much to offer to several fields of study: the day-to-day, season-to-season workings of the Cather farm with its joys and economic heartaches emerge vividly from the family letters. The social and intellectual life of a seemingly secure and prosperous family, who though sometimes unconventional, yet still intimidated by neighbors' opinions, reveals itself in its inherent contradictions. The role of women in the existing status quo finds expression in the letters only by contrast with the pursuits of the Cather women; the George Cather family, though showing preference for their sons, nonetheless cultivated the intellects and tradition-breaking ambitions of their daughters, sending them to college and encouraging their political awareness. And since both G.P. and later Oscar Cather homesteaded in Western Nebraska, their letters home depict one of the last frontiers not only in Nebraska but in the United States-reminding us frighteningly that within one generation great open spaces could be over-run, going from pristine prairie to farmed-out dust bowl, that what had existed for eons could be so rapidly altered forever by man.
Beyond the intra-family correspondence, the Collection provides numerous topics around which to group the mountains of letters from others to members of the George Cather family. Let me begin by noting some surprising gaps or omissions in the Collection. If I have not yet made this clear, it should by now be obvious: this was a family that saved everything! Where then are family letters from Virginia to George and Franc during their early years on the prairie? The George Cathers came to Nebraska in 1873. The Nebraska State Historical Society does have copies of their letters to family in Virginia and some examples of letters to George and Franc from the Virginia family. But while the George Cather Ray Collection does have numerous letters from Virginia cousins, neighbors, even from former students of Franc Cather, only a few letters from William and Caroline Cather, George's parents, survive and these without envelopes (almost all the letters in the collection came to me in their original envelopes.) Letters from George's siblings still residing in Virginia are almost non-existent in the Collection. Only one letter from this period is authored by Charles Cather to his brother George. (This letter of Jan. 22, 1874, from Willow Shade, the Cather's farm in Back Creek, Virginia, is quite special as it announces the naming of Charles and Virginia Cather's new baby girl, who according to Charles is "just as good as she is pretty.")
Other letters sent to members of the George Cather family fall into a range of categories: a number of letters to Franc Smith during her 1872-1873 teaching term in Winchester, Virginia, from family and friends in the East; letters to Franc after her marriage and settling in Nebraska from family and friends in the East; letters to Franc and/or George from friends, neighbors, and relatives within Nebraska and from around the Midwest; letters to George Cather in his capacity as railroad agent from prospective settlers inquiring about Nebraska land; letters to family members from Nebraska participants in the Spanish American War; business letters to George Cather dealing with farming and livestock; letters to the family ruminating on the politics of the day. Of the East (and in these weather is a constant topic), the state of crops and the seasonal farming chores dominate, even in letters to and from women, despite point of origin. In the Midwest, West, and South, after all, this was still an agrarian society, and the George Cathers, perhaps unfortunately, had staked their futures on the assumption it would continue to be so.
The George Cather Ray Collection presents many fascinating stories. The letters are addictive: they come alive in unexpected ways. Reading them, I forget that I am related to these people and begin to root for and against certain "characters." When I do remember about whom I'm reading or who is writing, I experience a sort of temporal dislocation. It is strange to read a letter written by your grandmother as a young woman in which she inquires whether the pond is frozen over, and should she bring her ice skates when she comes home from college break. I remember a woman who retired to bed in her sixties never to dress again for twenty years. As I read her letter, I see an old woman in a flannel nightgown, grey hair plaited in along braid, gliding effortlessly across a frozen expanse, finally no longer needing her cane. The G.P. saga reads like an epistolary novel that Dr. Johnson would not sniff at: it has it all-innocence, loss, hypocrisy, sex, death, disappointment, sermons galore, courtship, marriage, and more death. (I believe that Professor Richard Harris intends to recount the adventures of G.P.) The Spanish American letters present a fascinating contrast of experiences and outlooks by three Nebraskans, two former farm-hands for the George Cathers and a UNL college boy from Bladen who was a friend. (Professor O'Connor will be dealing with these letters in detail.)
The "story" I will focus on here by way of illustrating the breadth of the Collection is that of my great grandmother, Franc Cather, remarkable by all accounts. She was prototype for Aunt Georgiana in "A Wagner Matinee," a Willa Cather short story which, according to my father, set family members to muttering about a possible lawsuit. Since Franc was already gone when Willa published the story, we can't know what she thought, but I'd like to believe that Franc would distinguish between the inspiration and the artist's creation.
In any case, from the letters written to France Cather, both before and after marriage, and those she herself penned, emerges the picture of a woman who was self-reliant, adventurous, intellectually curious, musically talented, nature-loving, conventionally pious, yet capable of great passion. Having graduated from Mt. Holyoke College in 1870, then a woman's Baptist seminary, Frances Amanda Smith took a tutoring job with the Cone family in Hartford, Vermont, where she had been raised by her adopted family the Chandlers, who may have been relatives, after the death of her mother in 1852. Her father, Horatio Nelson Smith, residing in Oxford, New Hampshire, had remarried, and though she had a brother, Franc seems to have had little contact with her natural family, whereas she addresses the Chandler's son as "brother." During her year as tutor, Franc is looking for another position, and the several letters in response to her job search convey what opportunities were available for educated women in those days. Most of Franc's Mt. Holyoke classmates who were not immediately taking on the role of wife upon graduating intended to become Christian missionaries. Franc opted to teach.
When Franc took a teaching job at Virginia's Winchester Female Institute in 1872, she continued a lively correspondence with her pupil, Charles Cone, then a freshman at Dartmouth College. Cone's letters provide a detailed, witty account of a freshman's academic and social life in 1872-1873.
No great beauty, to judge by her pictures (though she cuts a handsome figure in later years,) and of necessity having to support herself, Frannces Smith nevertheless seems to have had no lack of admirers. Her wit, education, and temperament seem to have served instead of a dowry. Early in her stay in Winchester, Franc accepts the marriage proposal of a L.R. Leavitt of New Hampshire, whom she had met at a Christian conference and had corresponded with. (His letters are present in the Collection.) He seems to be something of a prig, and his devotion to phrenology borders on obsession. Fortunately, Mr. Leavitt is soon to b e replaced by George Perry Cather, of Willow Shade Farm in Back Creek County, whose sisters Alverna and Virginia ("Jennie") are pupils of Miss Smith at the Winchester Female Institute. Franc will often be a guest at Willow Shade.
The engagement to Mr. Leavitt explains the secrecy that
surrounds the growing relationship between Franc and George; Franc
must find a socially acceptable way to disentangle herself, and we
should remember that betrothal had legal ramifications. Clearly Mr.
Leavitt is no match for the ardor with which George Cather pursues
Franc. On Sept. 27, 1872, early in their acquiantanceship, George
Cather sends a note with a gift of fruit.
"Please accept the basket of fruit I send, and in so doing, I hope you will not consider the quality alone; but think of the passion which animated the donor in running over the neighborhood and begging the same; and, if fitting, letting it share your acceptance, if you cannot ascribe all to that sentiment. The fruit was gather expressly for you...Because of the exquisite sweetness of the pears, and as they are the last of the season, I wish them tasted by the lips of the same flavor; so you eat them for me; and, also, the largest bunch of grapes." [Writer's emphasis]
George Cather signed his note, "With compliments, G.P. Cather." By February of 1873, he is signing his note, "Yours with love, G.P. Cather." Increasingly passionate closings follow as the romance blossoms: "Yours alone," "With much love & an overgrown kiss, I am devotedly Your botanizing Geo," "With love and a squeeze, Yours entirely."
Frank Smith was no less unrestrained in the expressions of devotion she penned to George. Theirs was to be a genuine love match. When George is away for several weeks on a sheep drive into West Virginia, both sweethearts lament the separation in frequent letters to one another. They are now clearly, if as yet secretly, planning on marriage on George's return. Franc has trouble concentrating on her duties, George fills more than her waking hours:
"I dreamed last night that you and I were going over a steep mountain together, and some way I thought I found a subterranean passage through the mountains & I had gotten separated from you and went back to find you but could not and then the place got metamorphosed [sic] into a dungeon, and it seemed like those old Spanish dungeons we read about, but a man said it was the Maine Penitentiary after a while, and I did not find you at all, but after a while I woke up crying." [May 18, 1873]
In another letter, Franc declares, "Expect I shall be a weeping
Niobe before you get back" [May 12, 1873]. Not only are Franc and
George now betrothed, they are already planning to go West to
homestead. A tiny woman, Franc Smith is not daunted by prospects of
hardship and work; she will follow her 6'4" red-headed husband
wherever he leads:
"...waking or sleeping you have scarcely been out of my mind since you went away. I look up at the clock in the school-room and count the dates on the dial until you will be back safely. I'm glad you do not want to go west without me, as much trouble as I am. I must go where you go, & stay where you stay." [May 21, 1873]
Franc Smith and George Cather were married in Virginia on June 26, 1873. After a wedding trip to New England, they headed West, initially planning to settle in Iowa, where George had an uncle. But after a visit with George's relatives, they decided to continue on to Nebraska to homestead.
The passion of their courting letters in not surprisingly transformed by years of marriage, but in letters they exchange in later years when they are sometimes apart, there is clearly mutual respect, restrained affection, and concern. In summer, 1891, Franc makes a trip to New England, accompanied by her daughter Carrie (then fifteen) and her son G.P. (then eight). The running of the farm household was left to Caroline Cather, George's mother, who was living in Red Cloud. Franc's letters home have not survived, but George's letters to her are part of the Collection. George clearly wishes his wife to enjoy the trip, and his letters are newsy and reassuring. On August 21, 1891, he writes:
"I learn from Blanche that mother [Caroline Cather] got her to write you saying she would like for you to be home by Sept. 5th. Now that is all nonsense. Don't let that hurry you home before your visit is out. It is a long way back to New England and while you are there, you should visit all your relatives and friends you are wanting to see."
George goes on to say that even if his mother goes back to Red Cloud, he can stay at home and manage for a few weeks so that Fran can stay in New England until mid-September. Blanche at this time is thirteen and the twins, Frank and Oscar, only five. Not many men today would be willing to stay for that length of time with small children without help, and from other letters it is clear that the twins are a handful. George Cather in his letters to his wife, not numerous, always seem considerate and respectful.
Beginning in 1898, when Blanche and Carrie, together with their cousin Wilella Payne, are in school in Grand Island, Franc is periodically away from the farm visiting Grand Island to do certain things for her children, so again we get letters from her to her husband. Her tone is sometimes almost formal, as in her March 30, 1901 letter: "Remembering that this is your birthday, I write to congratulate you upon having safely passed another mile stone in life and to wish for you a continuance of life's blessings and God's mercy." Formal as this sounds, maybe even a little cold, this is no greeting card sentiment on Franc's part. George Cather had lost all three of his sisters to tuberculosis, two of them after they had resettled in Nebraska from Virginia. George and Charles Cather were the only children of William and Caroline Cather to survive beyond early adulthood. In fact, according to my father, George Cather had come West because he thought the climate healthier than that of where he grew up. Reaching fifty-five was for him, as France well knew, an accomplishment.
And certain letters of Franc to her husband show traces of the old passion. In a June 2, 1901 letter, Franc declares herself disappointed that she has not received a letter from George since she arrived in Grand Island the week before. With the college session over, Franc is in Grand Island to shut up the house for the summer as her children will be coming home to the farm. (After G.P. joined his sisters in Grand Island, George Cather purchased a house there for them all to share; later the twins lived there.) In a postscript to the June 2, 1901 letter, France shows how much she misses her husband: "How I wish I should see you walk in tomorrow or next day-If you need me before Sat., I can come home now anytime..."
Let us now look at some of Franc's intellectual pursuits. A botanist by training, and having taught botany at Winchester Female Institute, Franc had delighted in the vegetation she encountered in Virginia. Later she would revel in finds she made on the Nebraska prairie. Willa Cather's devotion to the raw prairie may well have been initially inspired by her aunt-by-marriage, to whom she remained close until Franc's death in 1922. In Virginia, Franc enlisted George Cather to espy unusual or rare plants and to supply samples for her botany classes. His enthusiastic support must have endeared him to Franc. George used his "botanizing" to woo Franc. In a note he sends her on April 17, 1873, when Franc is suffering a throat ailment, he scolds,
"As I know it would please you to get some flowers, I have collected a few, which I send you; yet I fear they will increase your labor, still as you know how anxious I am that you should do no more that your duty; I hope you will not let them interfere with my desires. My desire to please my idol is so great, that I fear I am willing to do that which would delight her, even when I know it is not best." [Writer's emphasis]
On his sheep drive in West Virginia, George collects more samples for Franc. From a place called Clover Run, he writes on May 16, 1873,
"I have found several new flowers to me, in fact I have my pockets full; will send you some now, & in a few days will write & send more. If any are very rare let me know the kind, & I will bring some home with me. Tell me which you never saw before. Gather flowers for you is all the fin I find in sheep droving now, so say you want a lot of some kind I send you very bad, & give me the pleasure of collecting them for you."
In a letter sent to Burnerville, West Virginia, May 18, 1873, Franc comments on some of the samples she has received from George: "The flower you sent last was Plex subulatum. I had seen it cultivated but never wild. The violet too was a litter different in shape from any I have ever seen before." [Writer does not indicate italics for the Latin by underlining]
Unfortunately, the George Cather Ray Collection possesses no accounts by Franc Cather of the vegetation she found in her new Nebraska home. And in later years, the plants that concerned her most were the farm's precarious crops. From family accounts, however, it is clear that she never lost her love for botany. I even possess two small field microscopes that were hers; my parents had thought them toys, and only recently did I realize what they are.
Franc Cather put her expertise to practical use in the emerging farm community of Catherton, a precinct just outside of Bladen, Nebraska. My Aunt Margaret, Blanche Cather Ray's daughter, recalled her grandmother's huge herb cupboard in the farmhouse kitchen. And from when she first arrived in Nebraska evidently Franc Cather did serve as a health consultant in a homesteading community too new and raw to have yet attracted those official "healers" known as medical doctors. People came to Franc her herbal cures which she extracted from plants she had gathered locally and some she had sent away for. [These observations are drawn from conversations I held with Margaret Ray Craig, Franc's granddaughter.]
In this emerging rural community, Franc was also a major cultural force. In her studies at Mt. Holyoke, Franc Cather had specialized in music, as well as botany, and her duties at Winchester Female Institute seem to have gone well beyond teaching music; her own voice was frequently in demand, and her health was not always up to it. In a letter of March 28, 1873, she tells George,
"I have not been able to speak a word aloud since Sunday so I think you would find me a very dull visitor [to Willow Shade] this week. I do not seem to have any cold, but have just lost the use of my vocal powers altogether. I had to sing a good deal Sunday in Sunday-school, in the morning at a funeral and at night, and practiced some between. I suppose I must have strained my voice. I felt something give way, and I have so much whispering in classes etc. to do that it don't [sic] have a chance to get rested."
Franc's musical abilities seem to have fascinated George Cather. Though he admitted to being tone deaf (another of those traits passes to later generations-my father couldn't carry a tune, nor can I), George Cather meticulously recorded in a notebook, now in the Collection, lyrics to several folk songs popular in Back Creek County-evidently to please Franc Smith-and he takes particular pains with his penmanship.
The long separation of the sheep drive seems to put a strain on Franc's voice as effectively as illness: "Have to sing a good share of the time, and I don't feel a bit like doing anything. I shall send you some copied music soon." [May 12, 1873]. In her letters to George, Franc still shares her music, giving us insight into her duties as a music teacher:
"I intended to have copied the bass to a new chorus yesterday but did not have time. Will do it and send as soon as I hear from you. It is a very fine thing from the Oratorio of the Creation [by Handel] "The Heavens are Telling" and if we succeed [sic] in doing it [we] will give character to the whole concert, but we will have to practice a great deal upon it. We have had not rehersal yet, but I think will have one on Monday eve...I gave me [sic] a baton with gilt paper on it which I circulate with a great deal of vim over the heads of the draggists." [May 25, 1873]
Franc Cather's contributions in music in her Nebraska community are not recorded in the George Cather Ray Collection, but I have no doubt they were significant. Perhaps she also influenced Willa Cather in this regard. But Franc's continued commitment to music is obvious if in nothing else than her frequent and substantial orders of sheet music over the years. (Receipts are present in the Collection. I have it on family hearsay that the rest of the community thought Franc highly extravagant in this particular. They must have felt the same way about the George Cathers' purchase of books, always a major expense, even when things were not going well on the farm. Many things might be sacrificed, but not books!) Franc encouraged all her children to love music. George and Franc provided a piano in the Grand Island house (which their son Frank sold without permission before he went East.) And of course the George Cathers were willing to bear the expense of sending son Frank to Boston Conservatory of Music. Unfortunately, a disappointment for his parents.
The Collection does clearly demonstrate that both Franc and George Cather were pivotal in the establishment of a school system in the environs of Bladen (the precinct of Catherton). Franc Cather taught school locally until her first pregnancy (Carrie was born in 1876). George Cather served as head of the school board and hired teachers. My grandmother taught in the one-room schoolhouse down the road from the Cather farm before she went off to Grand Island Baptist College. I'm not sure how old my grandmother was when she started teaching in Catherton, nor how long she did, but I understand that she had some local farm lads who were not only much bigger than she but also older. The Collection has a wonderful formal photograph of my grandmother standing in front of her multi-grade class in the one-room schoolhouse.
By the time their children were entering young adulthood, George and Franc Cather must have been proud of what their community could offer. Letters in the Collection and from that of the Nebraska State Historical Society speak of local concerts, expositions, recitals, formal debating teams, political clubs, literary discussions held on a rotating basis in private homes, and Chautauqua programs with lectures combines with individual study. Surprisingly for the turn of the Century, women were involved in the debate club and in local political clubs-at least the women of the George Cather family were. Oscar Lindgren writes to G.P., his friend and brother-in-law, away at college in Grand Island, for suggestions about topics worthy of debate; Carrie, now a busy mother, adds to the letters to her brother, showing much interest in possible debate topics as her husband does-she obviously attends the local debates. Whether she actually serves on the debate team I do not know. She had publicly debated as a student at Grand Island Baptist College. (Carrie fell ill during a small pox outbreak in Grand Island and had to return to the farm to recover; her romance and subsequent marriage to Oscar Lindgren, a Bladen resident who had worked on the Cather farm, precluded her return to college.)
Undaunted by the lack of female franchise, Franc Cather displays a keen interest in politics. Indeed, the Collection includes a political speech Franc composed in support of McKinley's 1896 run against Nebraska's favorite son, William Jennings Bryan. (The Cathers were staunch Republicans, and George Cather held offices in the Webster County Republican Party. George Cather also served as Registrar of Voters in the Bladen area, perhaps a political plum for his service to the state and county Republican Party.) Whether Franc delivered her speech herself or composed it for her husband I do not know; but it is clearly in her hand and shows the trappings of her training in formal rhetoric.
But importantly Franc raised her daughters to be independent and analytical, prizing education and intellectual pursuits. Anxious to get back to her books, my grandmother would always be an indifferent cook and housekeeper, but she had a mind for math and business that my grandfather Wallace Ray admired and sometimes relied on after he left teaching at Grand Island Business College and went on to build a major lumber brokering enterprise.
Franc's early letters to her children in Grand Island (1898-1903) are full of advice, particularly for G.P., but these were still the years when Franc had high expectations for her favorite child, G.P. Her letters are newsy-often humorous. She has an eye for the absurd. In her letter of Oct. 9, 1898, she gives G.P. an account of a Bladen "exposition" or fair, to which George Cather had taken twelve-year-old son Frank:
"He [Frank] burst into the kitchen when they came back exclaiming O! Ma! You ought to have been there! Old women with their mouths all puckered up & without teeth rode on the Merry-go-round lots & lots. He [Frank] said Mrs. Larrick rode on the horses & rode with Mr. Lockhart!!! I ought to have been there. I don't think I should have been on it if I had been."
But even as she sees the humor in the situation, Franc feels she has to draw a moral for her son, remind him that what others think of one is so important. She continues,
"There was lots of gambling. They said one man between here & Campbell lost $60. Antone lost $5. A boy no older than you lost $15. One night the men [the hired hands on the Cather farm] were up from here—it may be some of the tem put up some. They wouldn't tell. They were all out 4 nights and were a sleepy set I assure you. It closed Sat. night. Pity there must be so many bad things along so many drunken men. Mr. Boudreau was there & drunk & riding a horse on the Merry-go-round & Leah & Pommela were there. Claude Wilson was telling Brady how they tried to put him off & couldn't. Maybe he [Claude Wilson] was drunk too.
Although Franc worries constantly about crops and weather, and about relentless epidemics that may threaten her children-measles, scarlet fever, whooping cough, small Pox, all deviling the Bladen area and Grand Island-the years G.P. and the others are in school in Grand Island and happy ones for Franc Cather. The farm seems prosperous, the children are applying themselves (or so Franc hopes), and her farming community grows. But I think an examination of their finances will show that the George Cathers were already over-exending themselves, and this only gets worse as G.P. goes off to the University of Nebraska (1904), and then a few years later is off to homestead in western Nebraska, financed, of course, by his parents.
Franc Cather was certainly no stranger to hard work. She and George had created their farm out of the beautiful but forbidding prairie. Before they built their fine farmhouse they had lived in a sod structure in which both their daughters were born. When they first came to their land, water both for crops and even for drinking had to be hauled from neighbors' wells miles away. It was two years before they had their own well.
So in 1904, at almost sixty, Franc should have been ready to
rest on her accomplishments. But over the next decade and more, the
economy of the times and the spendthrift ways of their sons catch
up to the George Cathers. Franc had always had a blind spot for
G.P.—"Mama's Boy" as she affectionately calls him in one of her
first letters to him-but she must have become increasingly
disappointed as his recklessness and self-indulgence destroyed the
bright future she envisioned. Pursued by scandal, G.P. had dropped
out of the University a few years later to set off to homestead,
only to throw it all up in the romantic gesture of running off and
joining the navy which his parents had to buy him out of. His
marriage to Myrtle Bartlett on June 8, 1910, probably further
removed him emotionally from Franc, even though he was now back in
the Bladen area. His marriage, however, did not end his financial
demands on his parents. In ways, G.P. was lost to Franc long before
he was killed in World War I.
Franc's letters to my grandmother, now married to Wallace Ray and living in Grand Island, begin to have a tone of melancholy an exhibit a certain loneliness. On Oct. 24, 1911, she writes to the Rays, unproductive of good are appreciated-so I thank you again for your kind letter wh.[sic] did me more good than perhaps you can ever know."
"Have you not found out that the greatest pleasure in life is in doing for those we love-but next to this is the satisfaction of knowing that our efforts however feeble & unproductive of good are appreciated-so I thank you again for your kind letter wh.[sic] did me more good than perhaps you can ever know."
In her early days on the prairie, Franc had done everything she could to make their enterprise successful, just as George Cather had taken on several jobs in addition to farming to advance his family. In one of her early letters to the Virginia family [available through the Nebraska State Historical Society], Franc tells of inviting several neighbors to a celebratory dinner of one scrawny hen from her precious flock. Some forty years later, in poor health, a 69-year-old Franc is by herself again raising fowl to help out family finances. Times are bad; many of the local farm wives are trying to stretch their budgets with egg money. While Franc still enjoys the beauty of nature, her comments to her daughter Blanche are often poignant, as in Franc's letter of May 25, 1914:
"I want to see you all so badly-if we should ever get out of debt or nearly so I can breathe easier, I am going to visit you all till you are as tired of it as you are of coming to see me. Make the most of your little ones while you have them. It is so short a time. How I should enjoy one of those days so long past with my babies around me no matter how tired the arms were-if one could have but one it would not be quite so bad."
I don not believe the George Cathers ever really recovered economically, and though Franc did not live to see the Great Depression (Franc Cather died on April 29, 1922, at seventy-seven) George Cather did, and at some point after the death of his wife, the old man, weighed down by personal debt and the disastrous economy of the times, sold his beloved farm to his daughters Blanche Ray and Carrie Lindgren. Blanche's portion included the farmhouse. The house and land remained in my family until a few years after my father's death in 1972. Remarkably the farmhouse and some of that land is now owned by Oscar Cather's adopted daughter Sarah Cather Wagner, who came back to Nebraska, after the death of her husband, to find the farm she had visited as a child. Carrie Lindgren's portion of the George Cather homestead is still being farmed by her descendants.
For this account of my great grandmother I have relied almost wholly on the letters in the George Cather Ray Collection. When I was growing up, I usually stopped listening when my father rambled on about his family; it usually degenerated into a genealogy lecture about his ancestors from colonial times and even earlier. (My father shared with his grandfather, George Cather, a passion for genealogy; my grandmother Blanche Ray had been addicted as well.) Now, I wish that I had listed or at least asked my father about his childhood and his experiences with his grandparents. But somehow I have managed to take care of these letters, even if by default, and I have now learned to appreciate them.
But the value of the George Cather Ray Collection really has nothing to do with how I or other family members, now or in the past or in the future, feel. I believe that this Collection would have value as social, economic, historical, and environmental records even if Willa Cather and never existed.
When I was in high school, girlfriends and I would drive to a town called Phillips, little more than a village close to Grand Island and the Platte River. (There's no accounting for what teenagers find entertaining; we used to patrol the unpaved, empty streets of Phillips looking for trouble-that is, local farm boys who wanted to play "ditch.") I remember once, out in the countryside near Phillips, we came upon an abandoned, derelict old farmhouse. A couple of its outer walls had collapsed or had been torn down by vandals, exposing the shabby, pitiful interior. Naturally, we stopped and entered. There was no furniture, no appointments-fixtures, useable wires, sinks, toilet (if there had ever been one) were long gone. The house had been stripped. But strewn throughout the rooms, some still in rotting cardboard boxes, were hundreds of moldering old letters, the personal history of some long-gone farm family. We sat on the filthy, probably unsafe, floor in a room in which a family had once gathered, and we read aloud by turns some of the letters, snickering. Later I was ashamed of myself. We invaded some family's privacy for our own entertainment. For a long time after, when I thought of those abandoned letters, I wished someone had burnt them for decency's sake to keep them from prying eyes like ours. Ash heaps or landfills have long been the final stop for many such family histories.
I now understand that the letters I found in that old farmhouse years ago should have been in an archive just as my family's letters should.
In the end, the real and lasting value of the George Cather Ray Collection letters and documents resides in the simple fact that they still exist. Most people did not save letters and old family papers, and much of the heart's blood of our history has been lost thereby.
There is a lot to be said for pack-ratism.