Sandburg's Last Home
by Terry Hogan
You probably know about Carl Sandburg's first home. It was, after all, right here in Galesburg. It is where he was born. But you may not know much about his last home. It was where he died on July 22, 1967. Although he wrote primarily about the Midwest, he spent the last 22 years of his life living in Flat Rock, North Carolina. The lived in an estate, called Connemara Farm. They moved there in 1945, shipping the household goods and thousands of books with bookcases, by rail car.
Connemara was not named by the Sandburgs, but rather by the previous owner. It has an Irish origin, not Swedish. But the name found favor with the Sandburgs, and was kept. The wood frame house was standing before the Civil War. During the war, it had housed Confederate troops. It has withstood the war and many summers and winters. It shows more than a few scars from its long life. The place was sold to the U.S. Government by Sandburg's widow, Lilian, for 1/2 the appraised value. She also "threw in" the contents of the house as an extra gift to the American public. To this day, according to the tour guide, the contents of the house have largely remained the same. The books, magazines and furniture were generally left in the condition and location when the Sandburg family departed. However the house has been renovated, and bookcases modified to protect the books from visitors' touch.
My wife and I visited the Sandburg home, located a little south of Asheville, North Carolina. It is not far from Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains. It costs $5 a person to take a tour of the house. Unfortunately, the National Park Service prohibits the taking of photographs in the home. It is a shame to have such a rule when digital cameras can function in limited light without relying on a flash. Nearly everything is either corded off or behind Plexiglas, making it very difficult to see what titles where on the bookcases to be found throughout the house.
However, on the bright side, there are outbuildings and trails and the countryside are beautiful. To the National Park Service's credit, it has maintained a small herd of goats which Lilian Sandburg reared and bred. At one point, Lillian had over 200 goats. She became a nationally recognized goat breeder. The goats are relatively "user friendly" and visitors can enter the goat barn. The Park Service even allows photos to be taken of the goats.
A portion of the basement of the house has been converted into a National Park Service gift shop, which oddly, may be one of the highlights of the site. It was well-stocked with Sandburg books, photos, quotes, post cards and the like for sale. Some items are the same as can be purchased at the Sandburg birthplace in Galesburg.
Sandburg liked to continue the image of being the common man, untouched by success and money. He liked to be posed with his old manual typewriter, perched on the end of an upturned wood crate, in a cramped, crowded room stacked with books. Little enough was said of the large estate and pre-Civil War house that he owned. Nor was there much said about the staff of hired help to run the farm.
But Connemara was a good place to live quietly and to reflect and to write. It was also a good place to raise goats and children and grandchildren. Thus as is often the case, Connemara was a compromise site, providing both Carl and his wife, Lilian, what the each wanted most. It was while living at Connemara that Sandburg wrote Always the Young Strangers (1953), his autobiography of the early years in Galesburg. Perhaps it was this vantage point in time and space, that allowed Sandburg the clarity to write of his early years. It is, after all, hard to describe a mature corn field when you're standing in the middle of it.
I can't honestly say that I learned much new about Sandburg from visiting his last home. I expected to. Or at least I hoped to. I think that Galesburg and the prairie set his foundation for future writings. The Swedish roots were firmly planted in the prairie soil. They clung tightly to the soil when transplanted to the rocky hills of North Carolina.
After all, Sandburg came back to Galesburg to be buried. He understood the circle of life. He knew he needed to be returned to the rich prairie soil, where the wind still whispers about the Swedish son of the American prairie.
If Carl could see the house, all protected from visitors, and if he could listen to the drone of the tour guide, I bet he'd have a chuckle or two. He was always looking for a bit of humor, even if he had to create it himself.
If you want to learn a little bit about Sandburg, save the gas money and visit his birthplace in Galesburg and read Always the Young Strangers.
We had him in his formative years.
Anon. Undated. Carl Sandburg Home, Official Map and Guide. National Park Service.
Reuther, G. 2006. The Carl Sandburg Home, Connemara. Arcadia Publishing. 127 pages.
Sandburg, C. 1953. Always the Young Strangers. Harcourt, Brace and Company. 445 pages.