Carl Sandburg: The Prairie Years


by Abraham Lincoln*

He was a common man of common parents. He was a Swede from Swedes, born without title, without fortune. He was born on a cornhusk mattress, near cornfields of the Prairie Land. Cold Prairie winds blew from the southwest, startled by the trees that anchor Galesburg. He was to become the voice of the common man, the voice of the Prairie. He was from the Prairie; for the Prairie, and would return to the Prairie. Making the circle complete – "waste not, want not". Such was the behavior of these Swedes – voiced in deed, if not by word.

He had a simple origin. A Swedish midwife attended to his arrival. The date was January 6, 1878. The location was on Third Street, in the city of Galesburg, in the county of Knox, in the State of Illinois. It was a long way from Sweden where his parents were born. They carried the soil of another land in their bodies, and in their souls. It was the "old land" that offered less hope than the rich soils of Illinois. No star shown down, marking the birth of this baby. But perhaps a locomotive passed by the house, with its lonely light searching the Prairie beyond this little town. No wise men bearing gifts came, following a star. Only a Swedish Midwife – "Det ar en pojke"– announcing that it was a boy. He was the first boy baby of the family, following a sister, Mary, born three years earlier.

He was of humble origin. His father worked for the CB&Q railroad, known locally as "The Q ". His father did not have a prestigious job. He was not a conductor or an engineer. He worked in the Q blacksmith shop, located within walking distance of their home. This newborn Swede baby, born in Galesburg, wore diapers made of Pillsbury Flour Sacks.

But the baby was born to roam, to listen, and to learn the heartbeat and soul of the workingman. At age 3, he ventured off for the first time. His father had to be retrieved from the blacksmith shop to go find his traveling son. The boy was found and taken home. History was preserved. This boy would have places to go, things to see and to write. This boy was to be a Voice – A Voice of the Prairie. The boy, was christened Carl August Sandburg, but would call himself "Charles" as it sounded more American. "Carl" would return later.

Carl was not born in "Monkey Town" where most of Galesburg’s early Swedes lived who worked for the Q railroad. Monkey Town was the near northeast side of Galesburg. The name, according to local legend came from a misunderstanding of the Swedish name for the potato pancake. The Swedes would carry cold potato pancakes in their lunch pail. Non-Swedish Q workers asked the Swedes what the pancakes were. The Swedes, yet to learn much English, would answer "Ragg Munkar". Probably with a derisive intent, the English-speaking workers heard it as "monkey." So where the Swedes lived became "Monkey Town". Thus "Monkey Town" became where those "dumb Swedes" or "stubborn Swedes" lived. But time would pass. Swedes became integrated and flourished in Galesburg. And with time, new ethnic groups would arrive to work for the Q and to feel the sting of barbs from those who came before them.

Like most Swedes in Galesburg, Carl was ambitious. He was anxious to make a buck doing whatever he could, as early as he could. Long before he wrote, and long before America read Sandburg, Carl worked at whatever was available. The young Sandburg worked as a barbershop porter, bottle washer, drugstore chore boy, icehouse worker, milkman, newsboy, a water boy, and a tinsmith’s helper.

Sandburg spent cold January nights at Lake George, east of town. He was, for awhile, a "floater" – riding and pushing cut ice toward the chutes at the ice house. He later worked in the ice house, moving the ice about and spreading saw dust to act as an insulator. Sandburg was cutting ice for Galesburg’s Glenwood Ice Company. It would later fall to the invention of "Artificial Ice" made by the Galesburg Artificial Ice Company, but not yet. At midnight, Sandburg would sit on the porch of the Soangetaha Club House. He would eat whatever was in his paper bag. Often it was pork-chop and bacon sandwiches or roast beef with pickles. There were also a doughnut and a small bottle of coffee. His mother packed these midnight lunches. And Sandburg ate them near the threshold of success, on the Soangetaha Club House porch.

But before all this, he had to grow out of diapers and learn the language of the land that was to become his tool of trade. But, he didn’t start off with English. He was a Swedish baby of Swedish parents. The family language was Swedish and so his first words were of "the old country". His parents were "far" and "mor" before he learned "father" and "mother". At night, "mor" would tuck him into bed and she would say "Sov nu, sov min pojke." Later he would learn the English version of "Sleep now, sleep my boy".

The family newspaper was a Swedish weekly, "Hemlandet" (Homeland) that would be read by his father. It was first published in Galesburg, but was later moved to Chicago. Hemlandet was a common feature of Galesburg’s Swedish homes, It told of both the old country and what the Swedes needed to know about the new. Advertisements were usually by recently established Swedish merchants who served a niche —their countrymen.

But Carl was born an American and English was the language of success. Swedes were anxious to learn the language. Parents often learned from their children, who picked it up more quickly. Kids learned English on the street and in the school. Kids learned faster. Thus, it was probably a common sight to see Swedish children helping their parents communicate in English-speaking stores. The Swedish language quickly died out in the Swedish homes. Even the Swedish Lutheran churches final gave up and switched to English, as the second generation American Swedes couldn’t speak the language.

Galesburg was a town formed on religious beliefs. Some might say religious intolerance flourished in the prairie-isolated town. But the railroad that brought money to the town and money to Knox College also brought the outside world. Outsiders came to Galesburg. Not only Swedes came, but, for some – worse. Irish Catholics came. Italians came. Germans came. The culture and religious fiber of Galesburg’s founding fathers was under attack from all sides. Galesburg even grew a respectably sized black community. In relative terms, Galesburg tolerated, and often protected, runaway slaves from the South.

But young Carl met and played with the sons of men from around the world who came to work for the Q or to work for the people who worked for the Q. Galesburg became a melting pot – a U.N. before there was one. They had different cultural backgrounds, but they shared one common characteristic. They were of working class families. They were part of the working class – the "horny-handed masses".

Carl left Galesburg and became a hobo. By riding the rails, he saw the backdoors of Prairie towns. He slept on the Prairie soils and most of his odd jobs did not get too removed from the soil. By leaving Galesburg; by leaving Knox County farms, he was able to see them all the better. When in the crowd, it is hard to see. Step out, and the perspective clears. So it must have been with Carl Sandburg. Looking over his shoulder as the railroad tracks vanished into the horizon, he could see the significance of the Prairie lands. Born of Prairie soils, some roots stay behind.

He came back to Galesburg and attended Lombard College. He learned a different education than the one he learned riding the rails. But these perspectives complimented each other. One sharpened the ability to make use of the other.

Sandburg learned to write. But he wrote with the view of the common man. He wrote with the language of the common man. He put the vernacular into poems. He put poems into the vernacular. He wrote of the ugly and the beautiful, He wrote of Chicago whores and Prairie breezes. And like me, he knew of War and of Death.

I too, am of common stock and lowly origins, born in a log cabin and was known as a rail splitter. Thus, I appreciate his writing of the Prairie – the period that I call his "Prairie Years". Although the big City Chicago folks enjoy his writings of their home, I think the Prairie soils flowed best from his pen. I think the Prairie soils flowed through his veins and to his heart. Carl Sandburg was a man of his period – a man of the Prairie Years.

"I am the prairie, mother of men, waiting.

They are mine, the threshing crews eating beefsteak, the farmboys driving steers to the railroad cattle pens.

They are mine, the crowds of people at a Fourth of July basket picnic, listening to a lawyer read the Declaration of Independence, watching the pinwheels and Roman candles at night, the young men and women two by two hunting the bypaths and kissing-bridges….

(from "Prairie" in "Cornhuskers")

"The peace of great prairies be for you.

Listen among windplayers in cornfields,

The wind learning over its oldest music"

(from "For You" in "Smoke and Steel")

But growing up on the Prairie left Sandburg with a more somber side. I know of the great loss of American men, both from the North and the South, who died on the battlefield, fighting for their own cause. It was a terrible time in our Nation’s history, but it had a profound effect on the shaping of a Nation. In hindsight, I see it took an association of states and made it a nation, with a strong federal government.

Nevertheless, I think, in the still of quiet Prairie nights, what Sandburg wrote:

"Death comes once, let it be easy.

Ring one bell for me once, let it go at that.

Or ring no bell at all, better yet….

Death comes once, let it be easy."

(from "Finish")

Such are my thoughts about Carl Sandburg’s Prairie Years. He was a man of the people – a man of the Prairie soil. Death brought Sandburg back to Galesburg, back to the Prairie soil. The circle is complete and perfectly closed. He rests where he was born. His "Remembrance Rock" stands watch.

The Prairie Wind blows across the rock. At night, one can hear the Prairie Wind whisper,

I know this man, this Swede.

He was the voice of the Prairie.

He knew us well.

Prairie soil was in his blood.

Prairie wind was in his soul.

He is welcome here –

This man, this Swede.

To continue his Prairie Years.

When my time comes, I will think of Sandburg and look to the Prairie for comfort and for my final resting place too – "Death comes once, let it be easy."

–Abe Lincoln, Sandburg biographer.

*The idea of "turning the tables" on Sandburg and Lincoln came from a cartoon I saw once. It was of Lincoln, in an office, offering up a biography of Carl Sandburg. "Prairie Years" was Sandburg’s first two volumes of the six-volume biography of Lincoln.

–Terry Hogan