Willa Cather's Birthplace for Sale
By Lili DeBarbieri | Online Only | Mar. 9, 2010
American novelist Willa Cather was born in the Back Creek Valley north of Winchester, Va., in 1873. Her birthplace was a simple, two-story log house erected in the early 19th century.
In 1950, Charles Brill's parents bought the house, and he spent most of his life on the property. Now Brill is looking for a buyer who can maintain the house—perhaps even a member of Cather's family.
Brill is committed to selling the home to "someone who is committed to preservation and not tearing it down," he says. "The land itself has some value, but I would not want to see the old place torn down," he says. The property was placed on the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1976 and the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
About three years ago, Linda Cather and several other local descendents approached Brill, he says, "to sell it to them for the purpose of preservation." Therefore, he hasn't put the house on the real estate market. "They [Cather's descendants] are the only ones I've spoken to seriously about selling. Nothing definite has been settled. If anyone appeared with a better offer, I would be agreeable," Brill says.
Brill, who can't afford to repair the Cather house, describes the structure as weather-beaten. "The kitchen floor of the home needs to be replaced, as far as the rest of the interior, the floors are old but solid condition," he says. Much of the log house is covered with clapboard. "The front porch has been leaking and needs repairs. The tin roof needs a few small repairs, but maybe wouldn't need to be replaced."
Although the house is located on a main highway, its setting is pastoral, with pastures and farms nearby. A state highway historical marker denotes the fact that the house is the birthplace of the famous author.
The birthplace was owned by Cather's great-grandfather, Jacob Seibert. George Cather, Willa's father, moved the family to Nebraska in 1873, when she was nine years old. The house has received little recognition as a literary shrine; most of the attention has been focused on Cather's later home in Red Cloud, Neb.
Cather, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Princeton, later recalled her first childhood home in her last novel, Sapuhira and the Slave Girl.
Brill is considering selling the house for about $100,000. He lives in a nearby house on the property and uses the Cather birthplace for storage.
"When I grew up in the old house, I never cared for living right next to the highway. I can't say that I was ever fond of the property or felt any affection for it," Brill says. Still, he says, "It's a great pity when any building is allowed to deteriorate. It's a nice old house, and I hate to see it falling apart when it could be preserved."
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.