While an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I worked as a research assistant for the Cather Project through the Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experience (UCARE) program. My work focused on the four diaries written in Virginia by George Cather (brother to Charles, uncle to Willa) immediately following the Civil War. After battling George's spelling oddities to transcribe the diaries, I turned to their historical context. Researching people, places and events nearly 150 years and 2000 miles distant, however, proved to be a difficult task. Despite advances in the digitization of public records and other historical documents, I found only limited information. When I received a grant from the Dr. Barbara J. Lawrence Arnold Award in the spring of 2005, I set off for the Shenandoah Valley and a chance to explore the historical sources of Frederick County, Virginia.
I have often found that people in Nebraska are unaware of Willa Cather's existence, or know her only as "that author." I expected the same to be true in Virginia, but the people of Winchester proved me wrong. Cather is as highly touted as the city's other famous native sons: Patsy Cline, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, and Daniel Morgan. People I spoke to around town were more than happy to expound on their favorite Cather novel or proudly confide their acquaintance with one of Willa's descendants. Perhaps it is because, as one woman explained and a quick glance at the phone book confirmed, Cathers are still "thick on the ground."
The people most excited to discuss Cather were the staff of the Stewart Bell Jr. Archives Room. The archives are located in the Handley Regional Library, a beautiful beaux-arts building in the heart of Winchester's "Old Town." While the archives has limited primary sources directly related to the Cather family, the genealogy and general history books of the region, as well as the county's vital records, are a treasure trove of information. The staff shared their personal knowledge of Cather and local history and pointed me in the right direction time and again. One of the archive's holdings is a catalog of historical buildings and homes that are located in Frederick County. Each property has a file complete with tax records, photos, and maps. With the help of this collection I was able to find the location of Margaret (Lupton) Cather's home, often mentioned by George in his diaries. The property, called Stoney Acres, is located several miles west of Winchester, much closer to town than Willow Shade, making it a convenient stopover for George and his family. Clark Cather, Margaret's husband and Willa's great-uncle, built the brick two-story house in 1846, and it remained in the Cather family until 1937. 
Though never making direct references to the Civil War, George's diaries do hold clues to the process of reconstruction in the Shenandoah Valley. Because he was a Northern sympathizer, the Union Army appointed William Cather as sheriff of Frederick County in 1869; in turn, he appointed his sons, George and Charles, as deputies. In his diaries, George lists the court cases that were tried in 1869 and 1870, and I was anxious to learn more about them. Many of Frederick County's court records have not yet been microfilmed, so I found myself at a table in Winchester's new courthouse, surrounded by paralegals and volumes of dusty record books. I found less-detailed records than I had hoped, often just a list of the parties involved in each case, though I am still in the process of transcribing the many photocopies of records I obtained. The courthouse where the Cathers worked is still standing. Both the Union and the Confederate armies used the building to house prisoners during the war, and it is now a museum. I visited the building during my stay, and while the curator was busy talking to other tourists I surreptitiously inspected an original, graffiti-covered, chair for George's signature, but no luck.
The archives room is open only limited hours, so I took advantage of free time to explore Cather country. Using George's diary entries and Frederick County history books, I set off to find the cemeteries where friends and family of the Cathers are buried. With just a few wrong turns into West Virginia and an unexpected drive through an apple orchard, I found Bethel Church and Cemetery, where George notes that Mrs. Edward Scrivener was buried December 31, 1869. Emily Scrivener's gravestone is still standing, and other stones at Bethel Cemetery hold the names of Cather acquaintances. I also visited the Gainesboro Cemetery where the Cather family is buried. I wasn't the only visitor at the cemetery; the caretaker, a thick-bearded native of the Blue Hill Mountains, happily took a break from his work to chat. Gesturing with gusto, he told tales of the large blacksnakes that call the cemetery home - unwelcome news for me, a person with an intense dislike of legless reptiles - his taste for cooked snake, and his shoeless childhood, before turning to the subject of the Cather family. He told me that he had recently discovered Jasper Cather's original gravestone, which had been buried close behind the large stone erected in 1961 by Jasper's descendants. I walked among the rows of river stones used for grave makers towards the corner of the cemetery occupied by the Cather family, and after a brief reconnaissance for snakes, I knelt to inspect Jasper's stone. The words and numbers are crudely carved and Jasper is spelled with a "G," but it is still easily readable nearly two hundred years later. I was also gratified to find the gravestone of Wilella Cather, George's sister. George noted Wilella's illness in his diary and on January 12, 1829, on a page smudged with ink and tears, he recorded her death. 
The landscapes described by George in his writings came to life in my search for historical documents and facts in Frederick County. In addition, George's diaries offer tantalizing hints about the sometimes-condescending treatment of his family by southern sympathizers, the difficulty of reconstruction, and the Union's struggle to regain control in the area. There is still much more waiting to be discovered about the Cather family's life in Virginia than my short time in Winchester allowed.