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Past and Present in the Midwest

In the Midwest, great minds settled the land, brought innovation and spurred our nation forward. Red Cloud, Nebraska, supports the largest collection of nationally designated historic sites dedicated to an American author — Willa Cather. Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park showcases the Wright Brothers’ work and became the birthplace of aviation.

The Living History Farms in Urbandale, Iowa, tell the 300-year story of how Iowans transformed fertile prairies into the most productive farmland in the world. And the re-created Farm at Prophetstown, near Lafayette, Indiana, showcases a 1920s farm as it transitioned from animal to tractor power. In Kansas, the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve’s 10,894 acres remains the only place in the national park system dedicated to the natural and cultural history of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.

National Willa Cather Center

Red Cloud, Nebraska

The newly opened National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud will be dedicated June 3. The ceremony follows the 62nd Annual Willa Cather Spring Conference, June 1-3, which has several events open to the public. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Willa Cather focused on the themes of westward expansion, railroads and the settlement of the plains.

The preconceived notion that Cather was a frumpy Midwestern writer is not true. The center’s collection contains many of Cather’s personal possessions. The newest museum exhibit is called “American Bittersweet: The Life and Writings of Willa Cather.” Exhibits tell the stories of Cather’s life on the Nebraska prairie, her travels abroad and her adult life in New York City. The center houses an expanded bookstore and archives, and hosts numerous workshops and film screenings.

“In recent years, Cather has become more widely recognized as a prominent writer of the 20th century,” said Ashley Olson, executive director of the Willa Cather Foundation. “Although lauded for her Midwestern novels, her scope included stories based in Canada, the Southwest and Virginia.”

Groups can connect with Cather’s life and stories by taking a guided tour of Cather’s childhood home and six other historic Cather sites in Red Cloud. Hiking trails include three loops on the 612-acre Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. The Red Cloud Opera House has a full schedule of productions. 

Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park

Dayton, Ohio

Until 1903, the Wright brothers researched and engineered their flying machines in Ohio, and the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park tells their story. It’s a little-known fact that Orville and Wilbur Wright invented what is generally considered to be the first successful airplane in Dayton before testing it at Kitty Hawk.

The brothers’ story starts at the Wright-Dunbar Interpretative Center, which is in the neighborhood where the Wrights lived during the years they were inventing their plane. Nearby are the Wright Cycle Company and Hoover Block, where the brothers operated their printing company. Wilbur and Orville started their careers as printers, and in this location, the Wrights edited and published newspapers.

“The Wrights were working on bicycles before they invented the airplane,” said Dean Alexander, superintendent of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. “A ranger-guided bike tour to the sites gives a better understanding of these two brothers.”

Between 1904 and 1905, the brothers tested their planes just northeast of Dayton at Huffman Prairie Flying Field, located within Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. On-site are replicas of their hangar and catapult. A walking trail through the prairie includes exhibits that detail how the brothers perfected their invention.

One mile away, the Wright Brothers Aviation Center displays the 1905 Wright Flyer III they flew at Huffman. Another site is the Wrights’ Georgian Revival mansion, Hawthorn Hill, in west Dayton.

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.