My Dear Phantoms
by Terry Hogan
Its tentative title was “My Dear Phantoms”. It was an old man’s recollection of growing up in a small town in a sea of prairie. The prairie was giving up its deep roots to grow corn and beans and to graze cattle and hogs to be sent off by rail to Chicago. The little town was a sea of Swedes, first and second generation. Some had come to try Bishop Hill. Others had come to try their hands at farming, based on the tales of cheap rich land where a man could improve his status by hard work. Some found other jobs- railroad, store clerks, bank tellers and some became engineers, store owners, and even bank presidents.
It was a town full of blondes with blue eyes and some Swedes who didn’t look so much like Swedes- the “black Swede” with dark hair. It must have been a shock for the little Protestant town that grew from upstate New Yorkers’ dream of a town created in their own image. Gale was their leader. It wasn’t called Galesburg for nothing.
A sea of Swedish farmers, learning English from their Swedish neighbors, singing Swedish hymns on Sunday in the Lutheran churches that were appearing throughout Knox County. Albert Britt recalls the condolences given to mothers when their daughters chose to wed a hardworking Swedish farmer. Of course it wasn’t as bad as marrying a (Catholic) Irishman, but it still wasn’t one of them.
But Galesburg grew and prospered with the hard work of these Swedes. “Monkey Town” grew and grew with new Swedes and with their children. The Swedish children went to public schools and learned English, often returning home to teach their parents. Many graduated from high school and some went on to college. Yearbooks, phone books, names of stores reflect Galesburg’s abundance of Johnsons, Swansons, Williamsons, and their kin. In Galesburg, “every Tom, Dick, and Harry” was named Johnson.
Among this broth of Scandinavian gene pool, arose one lad who would work nearly every common job Galesburg would have to offer; would hop the trains and ride the rails West; would return home; fight a war; go to Lombard College; and would become Galesburg’s most famous historian and poet. In his later years, he wrote a book that he intended to name “My Dear Phantoms” but it ended up named “Always the Young Strangers”.
He had much to say good about his youth in Galesburg. If we are to believe him, it was his shortcut across the Knox College campus, reading the plaque on Old Main about the Lincoln and Douglas debate that got him interested in Abe Lincoln. If so, I doubt that there is another plaque that has accomplished so much good. Carl Sandburg’s “Prairie Years” and “War Years” biography of Lincoln represents a work that seems to go largely unnoticed in his hometown.
I recently finished reading his collected poems. It was quite a task, and I’ll admit that some of his poems left me pretty indifferent. Some reflect his political and war views and, at least for me, haven’t held up well against the passage of time. But others, when he writes about the prairie, or the farmers and their lands, seem to be written about my Swedish grandparents and great grandparents.
But Carl was not all doe-eyed about his hometown. He had little use for the purchase and restoration of the house that he was born in. I can only speculate what his voiced opinion would have been having a junior college and a shopping mall named for him. Not all that much has been written about Galesburg’s influence on Carl, although the effect of the prairie is evident in what I consider to be his best poems, but this is a personal opinion by one who shares his love of the small farm and the prairie that exists only in small remnants. On the other hand, Carl was gruff and could be abrasive, so I’m not convinced that I’d have wanted him as a neighbor.
Galesburg could do more with Sandburg. Perhaps a statue on “The Square” makes sense, perhaps not. It would make more sense, if it were part of a integral plan to promote Sandburg and Galesburg’s Swedish heritage. I think long-term Galesburg residents fail to recognize the unique culture of Swedish influence.
Galesburg should build on its Phantoms- a Swedish heritage center to complement, not compete with, Bishop Hill. “Monkey town”, Swedish antiques, old Swedish books that are still plentiful in local antique shops, oral histories, old family photos, copies of local family histories, a small library with emphasis on Swedish genealogical research will provide the incentives for folks to come off I-74 and spend some time in Galesburg. The Sandburg-Lincoln- Old Main debates trilogy provides too good an opportunity to be ignored. Knox College undoubtedly has a repository of old documents that would be helpful in preparing a visitor center. A Sandburg sculpture would be a nice component of the visitor center.
Galesburg has its “dear phantoms.” It just needs to give them a ghost of a chance.