Galesburg’s Sandburg


by Terry Hogan


When I was growing up in Galesburg, Sandburg did not particularly interest me.  I remember hearing that Sandburg once claimed that he was born in Chicago.  I’m not sure that this is true.  In all my reading of work by Sandburg and about Sandburg, I never came across this statement.  On the contrary, it seems to me that Sandburg was very heavily influenced by Galesburg.


Carl Sandburg was born in Galesburg. He was pure Swede, with both his parents being immigrants.  But he grew and was nourished by the Illinois prairie soil.  He swam in Galesburg’s brick factory ponds, and he worked numerous jobs around town when he was young. His earliest recollections of work were those of the common man at “the bottom of the food chain”.  He delivered milk to Galesburg’s front porches. He roofed houses.  He cleaned up in a barbershop located on the Square in what was later to be known as the Broadview Hotel. He manhandled ice and packed it with sawdust so that there would be ice to be sold for Galesburg’s iceboxes (before the invention of “artificial ice” as it was first known).


Carl was very close to his mother, but more distant to his father.  His father worked as a blacksmith at the “Q” in a building that no longer stands, but was located near South Seminary Street, west of the Q tracks.  Carl used to trudge across the Knox College campus to and from his milk delivery job.  He recalled years later, reading the inscription on the side of Old Main that commemorated the Lincoln and Douglas Debate held in Galesburg. Perhaps that was the seed for Sandburg’s extensive biographies of Lincoln and related writings.


Certainly, Sandburg spoke kindly of Galesburg and its residents in his autobiography, Always the Young Strangers (1953) that covered his early life in Galesburg.  His autobiography that was to cover the later years was never finished.  But the portion that had been written prior to his death was edited and published by a daughter, Margaret Sandburg and George Hendrick as Ever the Winds of Chance (1983).  It also spoke well of Galesburg and the importance of Lombard College in directing his future in writing. This book is, or at least was, for sale in Galesburg at Sandburg’s birthplace.


Sandburg left Galesburg a number of times during his life.  But he always came back.  Before attending Lombard, he became a self-proclaimed Hobo, hopping a train out of town.  He worked various jobs, but he returned to Galesburg.  He went to war, of sorts, joining Company C, 6th Illinois Volunteers for the Spanish American War and went to Cuba. His ship arrived the day Santiago was captured. Thus they shipped to Puerto Rico where he and his unit remained for about 2 months.  But he again came home to Galesburg. There is a photo of a parade in Galesburg that is believed to be Company C returning home on September 21, 1898 (Galesburg Public Library archives).


Even after Sandburg had left home to pursue socialist ideas in Wisconsin and refine his early writing skills, he’d returned home.  He was very close to his sister, Mary who taught school at Bishop Hill for awhile. He would visit her at Bishop Hill, as well.  


Even after Sandburg became famous, he’d return to Galesburg from time to time.  He planted a tree at the former Lombard College (Lombard Junior High).  He returned for various special events and one trip was featured in Life Magazine with several photos of Galesburg. 


Sandburg’s daughter, Helga, even maintains the family tie to her father’s birthplace by coming to Galesburg for Sandburg Days.  One of her visits allowed me the opportunity to meet her after corresponding with her for a couple of years concerning Sandburg photos and correspondence that I have collected over the years.  She has always been most gracious and considerate.


Carl Sandburg’s last trip was to Galesburg.  Nourished by prairie soil, he returned to it after his death.  Sandburg closed the loop and ended the story. He was buried where he began his life, on the south side of Galesburg, not far from the Q tracks and within walking distance to where his father used to work.  Later, Carl’s wife, Lillian, joined him, at “Remembrance Rock”. The rock was named after Sandburg’s large and perhaps overly ambitious effort at writing historical fiction.  Even this large rock has a local origin.  It came from a field where it was probably deposited by a glacier some thousands of years ago.


Folks from Chicago seem to like Sandburg for his poetic treatment of the rough and tumble early years of that city.  He portrayed Chicago as being much like the immigrants who worked in the stockyards, in the railroads, and other rough and tumble jobs.  He admired Chicago.  It was a horny handed city that was making something of itself. Chicago intended to take on the biggest cities of the east.  Chicago was dirty, noisy, and full of itself, but it had no self-doubt and got on with its work, even if it had to round a few corners and take a few shortcuts to get it done. In Sandburg’s younger years, Chicago was a place of opportunity for some, and a living hell for others. Perhaps that dichotomy is what drew him there for so many years.


But for me, Sandburg was at his best, when recalling Galesburg and the farmers and small town inhabitants of the Midwest.  Prairie farming, prairie winds, and pretty young blue-eyed, blond Swedish women left a life-long impression with Carl.  His poems of the prairie years of his life are filled with the warm recollection of his early years. 


But as much as he was influenced by the prairie soils, Carl seemed to have also been inoculated by the wanderlust of the rail. He jumped a train on his first trip out of town as a hobo.  He took a train, using a rail pass his father got from the Q, to make his first trip to Chicago. Later, as a well known poet and writer, he traveled widely around the U.S. by rail. He often wrote while traveling by train.  Sometimes it was personal correspondence. Sometimes it became a published poem.  I acquired a letter by Sandburg while written on the “Blue Bird”, a passenger train that furnished its own letter head.


But one doesn’t need to spend a lifetime in Galesburg, to have deep roots there. His parents lived, died, and are buried in Galesburg.  He has other family buried in Galesburg. To go back in his family beyond Galesburg, Carl had to travel to Sweden to find his ancestral soil.  He was touched by his trip to Sweden; to see his ancestral home.


But his home was Galesburg.  Always the Young Strangers is about as good of a testament to a Midwestern town as one could find.


He always was Galesburg’s Sandburg.