A powerhouse duo — Willa Cather, a famous novelist, and Patsy Cline, a legendary singer — are both from Winchester, Virginia. Not many small towns can boast having two such amazing figures gracing their geographic limits.
Sometimes it amazes me that I can drive by landmarks, like where these women were born and once lived, on a daily basis. It is where they went to school, visited family and started their lives.
I always admired Willa Cather’s writing and life adventures. I remember being impressed by her use of the English language, weaving stories of her beloved prairie, before I moved to Winchester in 1968.
She was born in 1873 in the Back Creek area of Frederick County. Her family left Virginia for Red Cloud, Nebraska, when she was 9 years old. This new life formed the backdrop for most of her works — 12 novels, 58 short stories and essays — winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for “One of Ours.”
But Winchester and Frederick County were featured in her last novel, “Sapphira and the Slave Girl,” which is a most impressive read for all citizens of the area.
Likewise, Patsy (who was born in 1932 in Frederick County) impressed me with her unique voice and lasting legacy of memorable music way beyond her years — she died in 1963 at age 30 in a plane crash. Her tremendous music abilities landed her in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973 as the first solo woman performer inducted. She recorded more than 100 songs, including such hits as “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces” and “Walking after Midnight.”
How could so much talent come from this small rural area at the top of Virginia? Certainly there are no answers to this question, but the strength of the work of the two women has definitely withstood the test of time and endured into modern days. Patsy’s music is played not only in this country but in many foreign lands. Willa’s books still sell and are read worldwide — some have even become TV movies.
And yet many residents of the area are unaware of the obvious sites where these women lived and prospered, or else they are so used to them it doesn’t have the impact as it does on those new to the area like me. I have visited every site, listened to most of the songs, and read most of the books.
Two highway markers trace the roots of Willa’s family on U.S. 50 west of Winchester. One marker denotes the house where she was born, and the other sign tells about the house, Willa Shade, where she lived when the family moved. Both structures are privately owned and not open to the public. A road near the houses is named for her — Willa Cather Lane. A postage stamp bears her likeness and a replica is available at the local visitors center. She died in 1947 after a busy life of teaching and writing, while receiving awards for her work. She spent the last four decades of her life in New York City.
The local One Book One Community committee honored Willa by choosing her novel, “O! Pioneers,” as the 2013 selection, which was read by area citizens, and programs were designed around the book. Also the archives at Handley Library in Winchester house some of her first editions, and a reading room at the library has been named in her honor.
Patsy’s days in Winchester are recounted in the Patsy Cline Historic House at 608 S. Kent Street in Winchester, where she lived in the late 1940s to the late 1950s with her family. Celebrating Patsy Cline, Inc. has restored the house to the time period when she lived there. It is open to visitors from spring to late fall. A highway marker in front of the house marks the historic location. A road named for her is within the city limits of Winchester — Patsy Cline Boulevard. A postage stamp bears her likeness, as well as many items in the historic house’s gift shop. She is also buried in Shenandoah Memorial Park, a local cemetery.
I invite all residents (and visitors) to join me in celebrating these very talented, award-winning women. Read one of the novels, check out the highway markers, visit the historic house, or listen to some of the music. Their work has lasted and flourished way beyond their time on earth after beginning at the top of Virginia.