In search of the house in Lincoln where Edith Lewis spent her childhood

A picture of the home where a person grew up is a standard feature of biography. First, I figured out where the house had been and that it was no longer standing. Then, I set out to find out when her parents bought it and when they sold it. What I found instead was that her father had so much debt that the he signed the house over to his creditors and walked away.

Very early in my research, I found an address for the Lewis family in Lincoln, Nebraska. They were listed in city directories as “at the Southwest Corner of 27th and N.” However, there were a number of structures standing in that vicinity, and I wasn’t sure how to figure out whether one of them was the Lewis House. My friend Courtney told me that I needed to look at old Sanborn maps (fire insurance maps), so one Saturday in the spring of 2014, we biked over to the Nebraska State Historical Society and found this:

I could see that their house had been at the corner with other structures South of it. I could see the outline of their house and information about the number of floors. I could see the large outbuilding in the back and their irregular lot-and-a-half.

Then Courtney and I biked over to 27th and N Streets and verified that the building was no longer there. Instead, there were (and still are) two two mid-century, two-story, limestone-fronted duplexes. Here’s a picture:

Lewis house would have been to the right, where the matching mid-century structures are although probably further back (27th Street is much wider than it was in the 19th century, when the house was build). The Shinn house (see below) is the building to their left with the peaked roof. The small house to the left of the Shinn house is the Brown house, currently the oldest standing residential structure in Lincoln (I discovered this all later).

So what happened to the Lewises’ house? Attempts to find a historic photograph of the house in the collections of the Nebraska State Historical Society failed, and it wasn’t until the summer of 2016 that I figured out how to access residential property records for Lancaster County (where Lincoln is) and spent many days in front of a microfiche reader in a room tucked inside the Register of Deeds office. There, I found the record of their purchase of the house from George E. Church on October 29, 1883. Church had been a professor at the University of Nebraska but was discharged by the regents. From family letters, I knew that the Lewises began renting the house from him about a year before.

When, then, did they sell the house? I knew that they moved to Massachusetts in 1909, so I was expecting to find a deed transferring of the property to another family then. Instead, I found that in 1904 they had sold part of their lot to William Shinn, who built a house on it. I also found, however, a bewildering array of documents recorded against the Lewis property, all associated with mortgages and lawsuits. And here, the fact that I used to be a paralegal came in handy. Although the county had custody of the real estate records, the Nebraska State Historical Society had court records, and I dove in:

There were claims by investors who had bought the county’s tax liens against the Lewis property (the Lewises seem to have stopped paying their taxes around 1895; real estate values plunged in the wake of the Panic of 1893 and then drought in Nebraska made things worse, and their situation was hardly unusual). Also, William Shinn tried to claim that they didn’t really have title to the property they sold him, and he stopped paying them what he owed on his installment loan.

In 1906 a court compelled Shinn to pay. Later, however, in an action brought by one of the tax investors, Henry Lewis disclosed that their house and land were worth $2,000 but he had mortgage debt secured by the property totaling $10,000. In April 1909, then, Henry and Lillie Lewis executed a deed in lieu of foreclosure to a New Hampshire banking holding the mortgage debt (Henry was from New Hampshire), and they moved to a Boston suburb.

Based on my early research, I had interpreted this move as a sign of success, but by looking for basic information about the sale of their house, I discovered a very different story of the total collapse of the Lewis family fortunes in Nebraska. This information is important for interpreting the life course of their daughter, Edith, and decisions she made during her early years in New York City, where she moved in 1903 and where Willa Cather moved in 1906. Although it has often been presumed that Willa Cather dictated Edith Lewis’s life choices, she had other reasons to make the choices that she did. The Lewis family’s financial troubles in the first decade of the twentieth century were also a product of Henry’s agricultural enterprises in central Nebraska. My next blog post will be about my search for the Lewis family ranch.

Why did Willa Cather and Edith Lewis burn up all those letters, including their correspondence with each other?

Short answer:

There is no particular reason to believe they did. Just because we don’t know where letters are doesn’t mean that they have been destroyed, and if we don’t know for sure they’ve been destroyed, we can’t attribute motive to any particular person for destroying them.

Longer answer:

Despite what you may have read in books, in magazines and newspapers, or on the internet, there is no evidence that Willa Cather made a regular practice of demanding the return of her letters so that she could destroy them. Likewise, the evidence of Lewis gathering up and destroying Cather’s letters after Cather’s death is very limited. Indeed, she was responsible for the preservation of many letters. I discuss and fully document these claims in an article forthcoming in Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature in 2021, but I can offer some examples and details here.

There is one clearly documented instance of Cather’s destroying a significant number of her own letters, namely her letters to Isabelle McClung Hambourg. Isabelle’s husband, Jan Hambourg, sent these letters to Cather after his wife’s death in Italy. There is no evidence, however, that Cather demanded that Jan Hambourg send her these letters.

From this example, some make the leap to Willa Cather and Edith Lewis routinely destroying their correspondence with each other. Cather, however, never faced Lewis’s death, as she faced that of Isabelle McClung Hambourg. Lewis outlived Cather by twenty-five years, so she did face Cather’s death. At the present moment, only one letter and five postcards from Cather to Lewis are known. I derive the title of my book from that one beautiful letter, which you can read here.

Even though they lived together, Cather often traveled without Lewis, so clearly she wrote Lewis more letters than this one. So where are they?

I wish I knew, of course, but I’m not convinced that Cather and/or Lewis destroyed them. The fate of that surviving letter and the postcards is interesting. The letter is in the archive of the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud. It’s not clear how it ended up there, but I feel certain that Lewis herself did not send it there. She opposed the creation in the 1950s of what was then called the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial because she believed that it would not have pleased Cather. So how did this letter exit the Park Avenue apartment which Cather and Lewis shared from 1932 to 1947 and where Lewis continued to live until her death in 1972?

Similarly, how did the five postcards end up in the hands of collectors, who then donated them to libraries? I have some theories, but the continuing existence of these pieces of correspondence suggest that Lewis did not make a bonfire of Cather’s letters to her after her partner’s death. Furthermore, she paraphrased parts of Cather’s 1936 letter in her memoir of Cather in Willa Cather Living, which was published in 1953. This paraphrase suggests that Lewis still had this letter in her possession at least into the early 1950s.