Always The Young Strangers-- A Window On Yesterday

by Terry Hogan

It is really embarrassing what you can run across in antique shops and old book stores. Somehow, I was educated in Galesburg Public Schools and graduated from Knox College and as far as I can remember, I never learned that Carl Sandburg wrote a book about growing up in Galesburg. Of course, this is more a reflection on me than the educational system. The book is entitled "Always The Young Strangers" (1952) and makes fascinating reading for someone interested in Galesburg's history and/or who has family in Galesburg during that period.

It makes an unusual, but nevertheless, a very useful source of genealogical information and local history. He describes the life of Swedes working for the CB&Q railroad, and his own life as a young lad trying to make a buck or two at whatever job that looked promising. The book is full of references to famous and unknown Galesburg residents that may be one of your kin. He even made a reference to one of mine.

I have previously written about one of my relatives, a great, great, great uncle, Moses Ocean ("M. O.") Williamson. M. O. got his name as he was born while crossing the Atlantic, en route to America in 1850. Obviously, he was traveling with his Mother, and the rest of his family also made the trip. M. O. became successful in Galesburg and became very active in Republican politics. Carl Sandburg writes in Chapter 14 "Prairie Town" : "Many Swedes had become voters and a power in politics and business. Their Republican leader for years was a banker, Moses O. Williamson, known as 'Mose.' He was on the Illinois State Committee of the Republican Party, and if you wanted a state or Federal office the word was 'See Mose.'"

Sandburg also writes about a story that I have read before but without attribution to who the main character was. The story is about a black man in Galesburg that Sandburg says was known as "Nigger Duke." Duke, who while working for the "Q" learned to speak fluent Swedish due to his constant contact with Swedes and presumably a particular language talent. Duke, so goes the story, was at the Q Depot when a train full of Swedes arrived, en route to Nebraska. Duke boarded the train and walked down the aisles, talking perfect Swedish and telling the newcomers "After a while when you have been in this country as long as I have you'll turn black like I am." Sandburg reports that some of the Swedes laughed at him, other looked sober and then gloomy and it was claimed that some Swedish women "broke into tears and sobbed." A similar story was attributed to one John Allen by his wife, Susan Allen, according to Sandburg.

As Sandburg does, he talks frankly about day to day life in Galesburg- romances, getting arrested for skinny-dipping in an old brick factory pond, and work ranging from sweeping out a barbershop to delivering milk. In most cases, he uses the real names of the people he encountered.

Sandburg talks about sweeping out the barbershop using a broom made by the Boyer Broom Factory. I have previously written about Aaron Boyer who was blind and how he came to Galesburg from Indiana and established a large and successful broom factory, starting with essentially nothing. He had initially learned broom manufacturing at the Indiana School for the Blind, located in Indianapolis.

Being raised in Galesburg, I think many of us get "turned off" by Carl Sandburg being forced to read little snippets of his writing, usually about Chicago and cat feet, as I recall. It is really too bad. This book about growing up in Galesburg would make him much more "human." This Sandburg is one that a young person could relate to. He worked odd jobs, got in trouble, learned and new about the racier side of Galesburg and even the sin city to the east, Peoria. Later he left Galesburg for awhile and became a hobo, riding trains, and picking up odd jobs along the way. Such a man with Galesburg roots is far different that the internationally known, well-established poet/writer that we encountered in public school. As a young man, he was someone that many could relate to- real people, real places, real events.

Sandburg describes an earlier Galesburg, simpler, and more vibrant, living off the wealth of the railroads. It was a Galesburg, confident about tomorrow. It was a Galesburg that absorbed new citizens and added them to the economic base. Some went to work directly for the railroads, others went to work providing services for those who did. Some were Swedes, some were Irish Catholics, some were Germans and some were blacks. But they came, settled, and worked. They all seemed to have names for the others and Sandburg tells them all.

It was also a Galesburg that was struggling with all these new influences, tearing at the conservative, religious fabric that was Galesburg's foundation. This struggle is reflected in the story of Knox College President, Jonathan Blanchard who railed at the Q locomotive as it attempted to leave Galesburg on a Sunday morning in 1854. Blanchard was determined not to let the Sabbath be broken. The train arrived, passengers departed and as the conductor was about to call "All aboard," the imposing figure of Jonathan Blanchard stepped forward from the crowd and ordered "Take that engine to the roundhouse." The engineer peered out from the locomotive and asked who was giving such an order. Blanchard responded, "I am President Blanchard of Knox College and again I order you to take that engine to the roundhouse and not run this train on Sunday." A reply was quick from the engine: "Well, President Blanchard of Knox College, you can go to hell and mind your own business, and I'll take my train out as ordered." Unfortunately, history apparently did not record the engineer's name.

And as in so many cities in America, Galesburg seemed to have its own areas where each group primarily settled. Whether this was segregation, or each group seeking out what was familiar and comfortable, I'll leave to others to debate. My guess it was a little of both. But I think we are becoming mature enough now to celebrate our differences as well as our similarities. Galesburg became better by their presence and their toil. We all can learn and extract the best from other cultures.

There is something in the treatment of his writing about Galesburg for the not-so-young. Sandburg writes that he recalled hearing a man say "This town I grew up in didn't have a woman worth a second look." Sandburg remarks "Of course, I could mention the drab and the tragic that came to some of my album women, but I knew them in their Springtime Years when a freshness of dawn was on them before time and fate put on the later marks." I really like the second part of that sentence. It is perhaps the best statement I've heard for not going back to class reunions "...I knew them in their Springtime Years...."

Sandburg's book provides a window to Galesburg's past, as seen and recorded through the eyes of a common soul of humble roots, not a world famous poet. As most of us come from common but solid stock, Sandburg describes a Galesburg that was our ancestors' daily existence.

It is a window on yesterday.

Posted to Zephyr Online September 26, 1998
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