Last year my husband and I drove to Red Cloud, Nebraska. It had long been my ambition to visit Willa Cather’s hometown, and our tour of her childhood home, the gorgeous renovated opera house, the bank museum with its brass teller’s cages, the depot, and the Episcopal church for which she bought a stained glass window was one of the highlights of the summer.
Bess Streeter Aldrich (1881-1954), author of A Lantern in Her Hand, is less well-known than the flamboyant, brilliant Willa, but equally beloved by some of us who enjoy her quieter writing. Today, feeling literary, we drove to Elmwood, Nebraska, population 300, the town where Bess, who grew up in Cedar Falls, Iowa, lived most of her adult life.
There’s something very moving about seeing this gracious brick-and-wooden house, which she and her husband built for $7,000 in 1922. There was ample room for their four children. Her walk-in closets would do Carrie Bradshaw proud.
She composed her stories between household tasks, and her manuscripts were often spattered with dish water because she jotted down notes while washing the dishes. Her desk was in a front room with lots of windows where she could keep an eye on her four children. Because she wrote by hand and hated to type, a secret compartment in the desk holds the typewriter, which pops up when you push some magic switch (I didn’t actually see the mechanism). She hired high-school students to type for her.
Their way of life was prosperous–her husband, Charles “Cap” Aldrich, a lawyer, bought the American Exchange Bank in Elmwood with Bess’s brother-in-law in 1909. When they arrived in Elmwood, all dusty from the trip, she was dismayed by the landscape and didn’t believe she could ever live there. But soon she was making friends with the neighbors, going every day to Green Drug to pick up the mail and sitting at a little table to chat with friends (the table now occupies a corner of the living room), and attending concerts at the GA.R. Hall . Writing fiction was her hobby, and she began to publish short stories and novels set in Elmwood (under different names).
But in May 1925, just after her second novel, The Rim of the Prairie, was published, her husband died of a cerebral hemmhorage. Then Bess had to support her four children. She wrote for The American, Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s, and other magazines. Some of her books were best-sellers. Her novel, Miss Bishop, a about a teacher, was made into the movie, Cheers for Miss Bishop.
Bess didn’t like to travel, though occasionally she had to go to New York to see her publisher. I saw her luggage! And lots of little hats with veils. I also saw the buffalo robe–a heavy fur coat–which she wore on wagon trips. And her daughter’s pink wedding dress!
Bess embroidered luncheon cloths for a friend’s wedding present. She was multi-talented.
Here is an excerpt from her essay, “Why I Live in a Small Town”:
More about Bess later!