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From Cather Studies Volume 8

Report from Cherry Valley, Where Willa Cather Was Very Likely "Overcome by a Feeling of Place"

Anne Waldman’s poem “I Wept Unto a Car” appeared inThe Cherry Valley Anthology, published in 1975 by the Cherry Valley Writing Project, issued in memory of Chief Joseph Brant, Samuel Morse, and Cornelia Schwartz. According to Waldman, “I’d spent time during several summers at Allen Ginsberg’s farm in Cherry Valley, New York, approximately four hours from the city. Many friends, poets, artists, distinguished guests, Zen teachers, others would pass through” (Museum of American Poetics).

The Cherry Valley Anthology celebrates the Cherry Valley sense that much has happened in the village in the past, and lately, even more has not. Anne Waldman’s Cather-esque sentiments are born of and in Cherry Valley: “the road so long, the journey limitless / when you settle in the calamity stops”; and, “I am not an owner / I am not a trespasser / I’ll be moving shortly.” Cherry Valley is at once a major hub on a defunct system of roadways, the end of the road for many old roads, and a place that the major roads bypass; it gives its name to a road—the Cherry Valley Turnpike—that no longer goes to Cherry Valley. The village’s population peaked in 1850, and has declined since; and save by Gypsies, beats, and hippies, the town “dropped out” of history long before that phrase became emblematic of a counterculture that would be dropping in. Willa Cather may well have been among the first hipsters to nurture her art in Cherry Valley.

From the Otsego Farmer—the Otsego County newspaper—6 October 1911: “Miss W. Cathers [sic] and Miss Isabelle McClung, of Pittsburg, pa, have rented the Dakin farm residence for a month or two. Miss Cathers is a staff contributor to McClure’s Magazine and will devote her time to literary work while here” (8). The place where they stayed was owned by Paul W. Dakin; it was located on Alden Street in Cherry Valley—it was also referred to as the “Woodbine” residence (Otsego Farmer 8 August 1913: 8). From October through December 1911 in Cherry Valley, Cather completed Alexander’s Bridge and “Behind the Singer Tower,” wrote “The Bohemian Girl,” and continued work on an earlier draft of a story called “Alexandra,” which would become O Pioneers! Cather’s biography is marked by what Sharon O’Brien calls “her watershed experience, the liberating weeks she spent in the Southwest early in 1912.” However, “What actually happened during 1911,” the year she left McClure’s and began her career as a literary artist, “is far more complex and interesting than she later acknowledged” (381). Isabelle McClung’s mother grew up in Cherry Valley, and Isabelle “loved the place,” according to James Woodress. “After three weeks of rest,” he reports, Cather began “writing very industriously and enjoying it immensely” (213).

Cherry Valley preceded and perhaps made possible the transformations that would follow in Arizona. As O’Brien has it, “something did happen to [Cather] during” her stay in Cherry Valley “that had a profound impact on her writing,” because after Cherry Valley “her novels kept appearing, one after another, with scarcely a break. It was as if a dam had been broken and the stories she had been storing up came pouring forth” (400). What happened to Cather in Cherry Valley? The end is nothing, to be sure, but here the road is nothing either—each is dissolved.

Cather was delivered by Isabelle McClung into a lush Happy Valley that looks a lot more like Back Creek, Virginia, than Red Cloud, Nebraska, for its rolling forest hills and green fertile landscape, but which, perhaps because it would have reminded her of Virginia, “seemed a spot where,” to borrow from Death Comes for the Archbishop, “a man might get his thoughts together” (411). Here is Cather writing to S. S. McClure from Cherry Valley: The weather is about the only thing that happens [here], but when one is resting that is quite enough. . . . I shall not even think about magazine work for a while. (5 November 1911) [I] have plenty to do. Things keep turning up. I want to stay here until after Christmas if I can; this seems to be exactly the kind of life I need for a while. I have not felt so well or enjoyed life so much for several years. . . . I think I shall be feeling ready for an ocean voyage after I have completed my “winter cure” up here. (17 November 1911)

The local lore is that the water in Cherry Valley somehow “lightens life’s burdens, lifts the spirits and even, it is said, adds a little snap to the physical passions.” In 1999, the owner of the local coffee shop told a New York Times reporter, “We are an unusually happy town, so you really can’t help but believe there’s something to it” (“A Spring’s Prospects”). The local water supply contains lithium.

According to the Times, “The legend of Cherry Valley’s water long predates the scientific discovery, in the 1940’s, of lithium’s psychiatric uses, and the advent of its widespread use in the late 1960’s.” In 1911, lithium was a well-known aphrodisiac. “It seems doubtful that such a small concentration would have any effect,” according to Dr. John C. Markowitz of Cornell University Medical College. “But I suppose it’s conceivable” (“A Spring’s Prospects”). The Cherry Valley Museum contains a number of sepia-tone photographs of smiling women standing in front of the Lithia Spring in the center of town. According to John Sawyer’s account, published in 1898, “The history of Cherry Valley, so far as its general influence and prominence is concerned, may be said to have ended with the close of the first half of the [nineteenth] century. Perhaps the most remarkable thing in its whole history is the suddenness with which it dropped from a place of leading importance into a commonplace country village” (90). Sawyer, Cherry Valley’s first historian, was president of the town’s board of trustees when Cather stayed there in 1911. He has an ironic sense of the town’s significance. The town cultivates the idea of the bypass (according to Sawyer, the absence of prosperity has “preserved to the place its natural beauty”) as fiercely as its colonial ancestors craved centrality. In the 1960s, hippies found it welcoming; a century ago, Cather’s life recalibrated there—all off the beaten path.

The first settlement at Cherry Valley was established by John Lindesay in 1738. The place had originally been called Lindesay’s Bush, presumably because of the prevalent maple tree orchards (called a bush, locally) in the area. According to Pauline Dakin Taft, “Lindesay’s friend the Rev. Samuel Dunlop convinced seven Scotch-Irish families from New Hampshire to join Lindesay” in 1740. “The fertile soil and strategic location attracted others, and Cherry Valley soon became one of the strongest settlements of the frontier.” Dunlop also convinced Lindesay to change the town’s name from Lindesay’s Bush to the generic Cherry Valley. There is a tale of Lindesay’s being saved from starvation by a friendly native who, “On snowshoes . . . brought them a bag of provisions on his back all the way from the river” (Taft 6). But, alas, Cherry Valley’s paradigm is that of the larger colonial experience, and friendly natives would disappear like (neighbor) Fenimore Cooper’s Mohicans.

The strategic position of the town made it vulnerable to attack in wartime. “The Cherry Valley Massacre occurred on 11 November 1778, when a regiment of Tory rangers under Captain Walter Butler and Native forces under the Mohawk war chief Joseph Brant,” the first dedicatee of The Cherry Valley Anthology, “fell upon the settlement, killing 47, including 32 noncombatants—mostly by tomahawk” (“Cherry Valley, New York”). The few surviving citizens returned and attempted to rebuild the settlement; they were slaughtered in a subsequent attack, and the village disappeared from the landscape.

After the Revolution, settlers reestablished Cherry Valley for its next chapter: road building. In 1799 the New York State Legislature granted a charter to the First Great Western Turnpike Company—some fifty miles of road from Albany to Cherry Valley—and allowed it to collect tolls. For the next twenty-five years a kind of turnpike mania swept the state, and by 1821 four thousand miles of roads had been completed. In 1801 the Second Great Western company built a turnpike from Cherry Valley to Cooperstown; in 1803 the Third Great Western company built a turnpike from Cherry Valley west—this one would become known as the Cherry Valley Turnpike (Williams and Cardamone 1–2). Cherry Valley was a major turnpike hub during the first years of the nineteenth century, and hundreds of wagons passed daily through the town. At its peak the village had eighty private homes and a thriving downtown (stabling for 110 horses; eight stagecoach lines and fifteen taverns), as all three New York turnpikes converged there (Williams and Cardamone 29). (Parenthetically, “It was during this time that the Rev. Solomon Spaulding, the principal of the [Cherry Valley] Academy, wrote the Biblical romance, which afterwards fell into the hands of Joseph Smith, and was adopted by him as the basis of the Mormon Bible. Soon after this the Trustees of the Academy called for Mr. Spaulding’s resignation” [Sawyer 42]. Among its historical claims, Cherry Valley is one birthplace of the Mormon religion.) The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 marked the beginning of the end of the turnpike era in upstate New York, and over the next fifteen years the railroads would secure its demise. By the 1850s the Great Western roads had been taken over by state maintenance.

In addition to being the birth-hub of the American highway, Cherry Valley lays claim to being the starting place of the information highway. “In 1837 Samuel F. B. Morse,” the second dedicatee of The Cherry Valley Anthology, “visited the Cherry Valley home of his cousin,” and here “Morse developed the first working telegraphic machine. . . . Morse returned to Cherry Valley in 1844 to establish the first telegraph office in the area, along the Albany-Syracuse telegraph run” (“Cherry Valley, New York”).

At midcentury, history began to bypass Cherry Valley figuratively and literally, making it a kind of upstate New York Sweet Water—of course, any influence goes in the reverse. The Monty Python malapropism “Blessed are the cheesemakers” finds a signifier in Cherry Valley. By 1850 there were sixty-two cheesemakers in Cherry Valley, with the largest, Lucian Hinds, manufacturing five tons annually. By the end of the century, hopes pinned on cheese melted as cheese factories were built in cities to save transportation costs—once again, the cost of the road closed down a Cherry Valley industry. Nonetheless, the town gained local renown in 1871 when the Buffalo Industrial Exhibition displayed a three-thousand-pound cheese made just outside Cherry Valley (Green 62–67). But after this milestone, decline set in once again.

As Sawyer has it, “The history of Cherry Valley, since 1870, has been but a constant record of disasters and deaths; of devastating fires, of loss of population by removals, and of business through these and other causes” (98). In the 1890s, for example, a displaced Cherry Valley native returned to the village, purchased the old Academy, and invested thousands of dollars to create a summer resort, based around the presence of the Lithia Spring in town. One year into renovations, the building was destroyed by a fire—the worst in the town’s history. It was neither the first nor the last. Judith Green’s history of the town, published in 1991, has a whole section on Cherry Valley fires (83–91).

In 1910 the old turnpike was moved so that it no longer passed through the town center. And more recently (in the 1950s), the State of New York moved U.S. Route 20, the motoring descendant of the Cherry Valley Turnpike, so that it too bypasses Cherry Valley. Today, Cherry Valley is an exit off its own turnpike, neither the end nor the road; the town is neither “nothing” nor “all,” in Catherian terms. In a PhD thesis, Michael Gimigliano calls Cherry Valley “the village by-passed by modern events” (285). In fact, taking a long view of history, which Cather knew well, Gimigliano observes that as “a connecting point to other turnpikes [Cherry Valley] was only briefly important . . . for it soon became just another stop, albeit an important one, on an increasingly unimportant line of travel” (276). Despite decline and bypass, the village of Cherry Valley has maintained a sense of delight about its place in history.

According to Cornelia Schwartz (the third dedicatee in The Cherry Valley Anthology), after Harriet Beecher Stowe visited Cherry Valley in 1872 and gave a talk in Fireman’s Hall, she wrote a newspaper article in which she christened the area “The Happy Valley” (Schwartz and Cox 43)—a common nickname by the time Cather visited, used to promote tourism. Stowe’s choice may have as well been influenced by the regular arrival and encampment of bands of Gypsies, in the late nineteenth century, who found Cherry Valley a welcoming community for an annual summer visit.

Poet Allen Ginsberg’s farm was on East Hill in Cherry Valley. “The Committee on Poetry (cop) was Ginsberg’s non-profit corporation funded by his poetry readings at colleges. cop was the vehicle for Ginsberg to help writers and artists in need with modest grants.” A letter published in the Cooperstown Crier continues, “Ginsberg . . . did no damage to the land or the community. In fact, Committee on Poetry grew the Cherry Valley population. Literally scores of people are now living and working around Cherry Valley because cop farm was the first place in the area they visited” (Rosenthal). In 1974 the group of poets established Cherry Valley Editions, and the house has published poetry and fiction from an eclectic list of artists including William Burroughs, Herbert Huncke, Ginsberg, Claude Pelieu, and Mary Beach (Allen Ginsberg Trust).

Why is everyone so happy in Cherry Valley? TheOtsego Farmer pointed out on 22 December 1911 that “The citizens of this village [are] always liberal in their patronage to amusements” (5). The village has attracted interest for over two centuries, even with, or perhaps because of, its centrally marginal presence. In the same way that she would later describe Bishop Latour being “overcome by a feeling of place” in New Orleans and being “dropped, cassock and all . . . into a garden in the south of France” (Archbishop 46), Willa Cather dropped into Cherry Valley and out of the rush of history that had consumed her as managing editor of McClure’s. “I have not felt so well or enjoyed life so much for several years. . . . I think I shall be feeling ready for an ocean voyage after I have completed my ‘winter cure’ up here.” As the cliché has it, life in the Happy Valley is a bowl of . . . There is a cherry trope in Cather that runs from “The Bohemian Girl” through “The Old Beauty” like a code— we might think of it as Cather’s Cherry Valley code, an awakening to happiness, readiness, and creativity.

Sharon O’Brien rightly describes “The Bohemian Girl” as “a story about risk and self-transformation [and so about] the possibilities facing Willa Cather at Cherry Valley” (396). When Nils Ericson tells the reluctant heroine “You have to plunge” (127), no doubt Cather felt her own plunge into the Happy Valley and out of the world of a McClure’s paycheck. Clara Vavrika is the Bohemian girl who is convinced by Nils, the wanderer, to take the plunge out of her secure (but unhappy) marriage and to follow him on horseback out of the story of marriage and family. Nils speaks “lazily, locking his hands behind his head and squinting up through the leaves of the cherry tree. ‘Do you remember the time I squeezed the cherries all over your clean dress? . . . My gracious, weren’t you mad! You had both hands full of cherries, and I squeezed ’em and made the juice fly all over you.’ . . . Clara laughed. The late afternoon sun was shining full in her face, and deep in the back of her eyes there shone something fiery” (116).

Around the same time she completed “The Bohemian Girl” in her Cherry Valley cottage, Cather penned the scene from O Pioneers! in which Marie tells Emil: “I wish I had an athlete to mow my orchard. I get wet to my knees when I go down to pick cherries” (78). Not to put too fine a point on it, Cather later offers a parenthetical remark about the rhythm of Emil’s scythe-swing, and while Marie is “shivering” in the “shower of raindrops . . . Emil mowed his way slowly down toward the cherry trees” (137), eventually going “softly down between the cherry trees toward the wheatfield” (231). Later, when Alexandra visits the university, after the deaths of Emil and Marie, she encounters a student who says, “I’m a Freshie, just off the farm. Cherry County. Were you hunting somebody?” Alexandra thinks, “I hope he will get on well here. Cherry County; that’s where the hay is so fine, and the coyotes can scratch down to water” (256–57).

And the cherry motif continues. In Panther Canyon, with its desert images predominating, Thea nonetheless finds among “the wet, dark underbrush . . . . dripping cherry bushes” (Song of the Lark 561). In My Ántonia, Jim’s earliest childhood memory of his neighbors was that “After weeks on the ocean, the Shimerdas were famished for fruit. The two girls would wander for miles along the edge of the cornfields, hunting for ground-cherries” (30). In town, where sexual and class awakenings coincide, “It must have been late in June, for Mrs. Harling and Ántonia were preserving cherries, when I stopped one morning to tell them that a dancing pavilion had come to town” (187–88). So much for preservation. And more distinctly, in One of Ours, Claude’s mother was humiliated into “entreating Mr. Wheeler to go down to the orchard and pick the cherries from a tree that hung loaded.” She complained she could not reach them. Mr. Wheeler does the job, returns, and says, “Cherries won’t give you any trouble” (44). Later, in France, where cherry trees stand, Madame Joubert sits with Gerhardt “Under a cherry tree . . . sewing” (457). They later dine there: “Dinner was very cheerful that evening. . . . The cherry tree shook down bright drops on the tablecloth when the breeze stirred” (467).

The same historical process that orphaned Cherry Valley from historical change left Sweet Water in isolation, a footnote to the era. It may be such parallels that gives A Lost Lady’s cherries their playfulness: Frank “Ellinger drank his cocktail standing beside [Constance’s] chair, and offered her the cherry in his glass. . . . ‘Niel,’ Mrs. Forrester laughed, ‘won’t you give the child your cherry, too?’” (44–45). And Captain Forrester’s “narrative” begins with his arrival in “Cherry Creek, as Denver was then called” (50), a story also taken up in the Archbishop when the Bishop of Leavenworth writes to Father Latour to report “Cherry Creek was full of saloons and gambling-rooms; and among all the wanderers and wastrels were many honest men, hundreds of good Catholics, and not one priest” (258). And “Behind the Auclairs’ little back yard” in Shadows on the Rock, “the cliff went up to the Château in a perpendicular wall, and the face of it was overgrown with wild cherry bushes and knotty little Canadian willows. It was up there that one looked, from the back door, for the first sign of spring” (181), as perhaps did John Lindesay, to the south in Lindesay’s Bush forty years later.

In Sapphira and the Slave Girl it was in 1878 when, Cather says, she “had been put into my mother’s bed so that I could watch the turnpike, then a macadam road with a blue limestone facing” (930). A macadam road from Cherry Valley to Roseboom was under construction during Cather’s stay in 1911 (Green 47). According to the 11 August 1911 Otsego Farmer, “Cherry Valley is setting the pace for the rest of the county and in fact for most of the State in the matter of building permanent roads, or improved highways as they are called, this fall” (8). Envisioning herself watching the Virginia turnpike, was Cather also recalling Cherry Valley, her autumn in Happy Valley? Referring to “a day out in the wet woods,” as she wrote to S. S. McClure in October 1911, Cather recalled “four days of unrelenting rain . . . but I rather like it and we tramp about no matter what the weather.” Enter Martin Colbert from Sapphira: “He came through the wet grass straight toward the cherry trees” (878). Nancy “didn’t move, but she laughed,” and she “dropped a bunch of cherries down to him. ‘I don’t want cherries. They’re sour, and I want something sweet,’” he teases (879). Readers are familiar with the stunning scene that follows, when Martin frames his cheeks with her legs and allows “an intoxicating fragrance [to] run away with him” (880). “Never mind”; the narrator concludes the scene: “he would keep at a distance for a while, as if he had forgotten the cherry tree” (880). As if. And finally, Cather closed on the enigmatic “Cherry Beamish,” who attends Gabrielle Longstreet in “The Old Beauty,” and we are told “how Cherry Beamish used to do the tipsy schoolboy coming in at four in the morning and meeting his tutor in the garden” (712).

Something splendid happened to Willa Cather in Cherry Valley. When I visited the town in 2006, the secretary of the historical society told me that Cather came back to town every summer for a number of years, and she also told me a story about the day the McClung house had been sold and “a number of Cather manuscripts destroyed.” No one else in town could corroborate either story, although the bookseller at Clough’s Bookshop told me, with what I think was a wink but it’s hard to tell in a dark, musty room of used books, “Oh yes, she came to town every summer with her girlfriend. Caused quite a stir, those two.” I made calls to prominent and elderly Cherry Valley citizens, and none recalled much more than the fact that Cather did visit—her stay is a local legend, along with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s visit. However, there is no Otsego Farmer reference to a return visit after 1911.

Cherry Valley spoke to Cather, rested her hassled mind, stimulated her creativity, undammed the floodwaters, as it were, and allowed her the freedom to tramp around in the wet woods. The Cherry Valley code suggests a sexual as well as creative awakening, and not without fear, leading in the months to follow to Julio, extended revelations, and further plunging into the kind of world she needed for her art to flourish. In her own words from Cherry Valley: “I rather like it.” As Anne Waldman put it, “water falling on water / the inspiration is feminine / I will spiral / splendid sex.”


Allen Ginsberg Trust.
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