Willa Cather


In the autumn of 1911, Willa Cather, the renowned American novelist, worked on one of her most famous novels and other writings while visiting the Village of Cherry Valley to the west of Sharon Springs.


Willa Sibert Cather was born on December 7, 1873, near Winchester, Virginia, the daughter of Charles Fectigue Cather and Virginia Sibert Boak. When Willa was nine, her family moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska. She later attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. She became the editor of the school journal and contributed to local newspapers. On graduating at the age of 19, she moved to Pittsburgh to work in journalism, writing for various periodicals. She also found work as an English teacher. In 1903, she published her first book of verse, April Twilights, and, in 1903, her first book of short stories, The Troll Garden.

While living in Pittsburgh, Willa met Isabelle McClung, the daughter of Samuel McClung, a prominent Pittsburgh judge, and Fannie Amelia Merritt from Cherry Valley. Willa and Isabelle shared an interest in the arts, and the two women eventually traveled to Europe together.


Willa’s short stories caught the eye of S.S. McClure, the editor of McClure’s Magazine, which featured both political and literary content. In 1906, Willa  moved to New York City to work for the magazine. Two years later, she became its managing editor.


In the fall 1911, while on leave from the magazine, Willa spent three months – October through December – in Cherry Valley, renting a house with Isabelle. During her time there, she completed the novel Alexander’s Bridge and the short story “The Bohemian Girl” and continued working on an earlier draft of a story that became the novel O Pioneers!, published in 1913.


By 1918, Willa had published two other novels, Song of the Lark and My Antonia. She soon quit her job at McClure’s to work fulltime as a writer.


In 1923, Willa was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the 1922 novel One of Ours. Her 1923 novel, A Lost Lady, about changing mores in a small town, was loosely adapted into a movie starring Barbara Stanwyck in 1934. In 1938, Willa was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, was published in 1940.


Willa died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1947 in New York City. Before her death, she attempted to destroy all of her letters and, although many still exist, they are generally protected from reproduction by the terms of her will. She is buried at Jaffrey, New Hampshire, where she spent her autumns from 1918 to 1938.


Willa Cather is known for depicting the influences of the physical and cultural environment on her characters. Her time in the prairie country of Nebraska and in the small towns of rural New York State and New Hampshire, as well as her time in big cities, contributed to her depth of  understanding about human nature.


The History Boys are

Chris Campbell has made his permanent home in Cherry Valley, NY. The Campbell family dates back to 1739 in this town, situated about eight miles from Sharon Springs. Some family members were captured by Tories and Iroquois allies in the Cherry Valley Massacre of 1778 during the American Revolution and taken to Canada, released two years later in Albany as part of a prisoner exchange. Chris is a rare book and map collector and has had a lifelong interest in history, especially relating to upstate New York and colonial land patents. He was the founder and first chairman of the Cherry Valley Planning Board and has worked as a surveyor and realtor as well as a researcher for the Otsego County map department. His hobbies include Ham radio.


Carl Waldman, also living in Cherry Valley, is a former archivist for the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown. He is he author of a number of reference books published by Facts On File, including Atlas of the North American Indian and Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, both originally published in the 1980s and both in their third editions. He is the co-author of Encyclopedia of Exploration (2005) and Encyclopedia of European Peoples (2006). Carl has also done screenwriting about Native Americans, including an episode of Miami Vice entitled “Indian Wars” and the Legend of Two-Path, a drama about the Native American side of Raleigh’s Lost Colony, shown at Festival Park on Roanoke Island in North Carolina. His hobbies include music and he works with young people in the Performance and Production Workshops at the Cherry Valley Old School.



A Note from Chris Campbell and Carl Waldman:

We’ve recently published a book entitled The Sharon Springs Timeline. The subtitle is A Microcosm of American History, with Dates Relating to a Remarkable Village and Neighboring Regions, from the 16th Century to Modern Times. This project came out of our blogs for the Beekman 1802 website because, in researching them, we found we needed an easily accessible source for important dates in local history (such as what year Willa Cather lived in Cherry Valley!). We also thought it a good idea to present  an overview of the area’s fascinating history. The Timeline is now available only as an eBook, which can be ordered for $4.99 at Alva Press (http://www.alvapressinc.com/alva_thesharonsrpingstimeline.html), at Amazon.com, or at Kobo.com. We believe that The Sharon Springs Timeline will be helpful for all those interested in the history of this special corner of upstate New York.


by History Boys

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Erin C.

I grew up in Nebraska about 60 miles from Red Cloud. Willa Cather is treasured and celebrated in Nebraska. My Anthonia was required reading in school (a fabulous book) and her childhood home is a museum. I enjoyed reading this blog and her connection to the Sharon Springs area. Thank you!