Carl Sandburg called himself the eternal hobo, and his writing career soared while he drifted. But in his final years, the people’s poet settled into a quiet, North Carolina mountain paradise in Flat Rock and began producing his best work. The place, called Connemara, remains open today as a source of inspiration.
At the top of a hill in Flat Rock, a small slab of granite spreads over the earth at a slight downward tilt. A stand of pines surrounds the slab, and a lone, bentwood chair sits near its crest, the pines’ arms so crudely woven they seem to sprout from the forest floor.
Fifty years ago, from this solitary spot, you may have heard the faint scratch of a pencil or the tuning of a classical guitar. Fifty years ago, you may have seen the man seated in the chair writing or playing music. You would have noticed this tall Midwesterner, plainly dressed in farmer’s flannel, his shock of white hair falling over his left eye. On this rock and its surrounding 264-acre farm, Carl Sandburg — the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and historian, musician, and social activist — found the stillness he sought all his life.
“There is a place for me somewhere, where I can write and speak much as I can think, and make it pay for my living and some besides,” he declared as a youth. “Just where this place is I have small idea now, but I’m going to find it.”
The Year Was 1945. The ashes of war still drifted across Europe and the Pacific. Sandburg, who rode the rails as a teenager and called himself the eternal hobo, was 67; his wife, Lilian Steichen Sandburg, was 62. They lived on the dunes of Lake Michigan with their three daughters and two grandchildren, and their marriage was still, as it would always be, a world unto itself. In the code of their romance, “Charles” became “Carl,” and “Lilian” became “Paula” — names the couple believed sounded more relaxed to the American ear than the formal ones given them by their immigrant parents (his Swedish, hers from Luxembourg).
Carl had already won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for poetry and the other for his multi volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, and he had no idea that much of his life’s work (including one more Pulitzer for his collected poems) was still ahead of him. And Paula, fiercely intelligent and equally driven, was never one to play a passive role. A decade after she purchased her first dairy goats on a lark and became fascinated by genetics, she attained in the world of animal husbandry the same sort of international adoration her husband received in the world of letters. Her Nubians, Saanens, and Toggenburgs were world-champion milkers, and her Chikaming herd grew to nearly 200. Paula realized the sandy soil of northern Michigan no longer provided proper pasture.
Several years earlier, Paula drove through western North Carolina on vacation with her sister. She fell in love with the mountain landscape. Soon, she discovered that a large farm called Connemara (named by previous owners for its resemblance to the fields of Ireland) was up for sale at a bargain price of $40,000. The farm needed work, especially the white 9,000-square-foot house at the top of its winding, wooded drive, but the land itself contained everything the couple loved — enough farm buildings and fertile soil for the family to live a fairly self-sufficient life, and enough glades and glens, creeks and streams for a lifetime of long walks.
Carl left the necessary repairs and updates to Paula’s supervision, and they were completed in a matter of months. Soon, the family, all seven of them, packed up the goats and relocated to the Carolina hills. Sandburg never regretted the move, noting later that the family “didn’t just buy two-hundred and forty-five acres when we bought Connemara, we bought a million acres of sky, too.”
In the early decades of the 20th century, Carl could hardly travel anywhere without being recognized as “the American sage.” His calendar quickly filled with lecture dates, interviews, and speaking engagements. He was all but robbed of his solitude. He guarded that solitude carefully at Connemara.
“A man must find time for himself,” Sandburg told his good friend Ralph McGill in 1951 as the two walked one of Connemara’s many footpaths. “Time is what we spend our lives with. If we are not careful we find others spending it for us. It is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness, to sit on a rock in the forest and ask of himself, ‘Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?’” He called this loneliness “the creative hush,” and making room for it consumed much of his later life.
Sandburg wasn’t a fussy man. A former farm laborer who never graduated from college, he looked upon material wealth — even his own — with great suspicion. He never removed his Pulitzers from their mailing tubes. He balanced his typewriters on old orange crates and attended to his correspondence wearing a green visor, chomping on cigars under the harsh glare of fluorescent lights, all of which reminded him of his years as a newspaperman in Chicago. When Edward R. Murrow asked him once in a television interview what he considered his least favorite word, Sandburg replied with rapid and surprising intensity: exclusive. “When you’re exclusive,” he said, “you shut out a more or less large range of humanity from your mind and heart — from your understanding of them.”
At Connemara, Sandburg, a lifetime lover of nonsense and whimsy, withdrew as much as possible from the national spotlight and concerned himself mainly with his role as husband, father, and “Buppong” to his grandchildren. The place allowed him the freedom and flexibility to structure his days however he saw fit, which usually meant reading, strumming old folk songs on his guitar, and picnicking with Paula on top of Big Glassy Mountain.
When Sandburg died in July 1967 at 89, he had composed roughly a third of his life’s work during his 22 years at Connemara Farms. The National Park Service immediately recognized the historical value of his homestead and offered Paula $400,000 to turn it into a permanent public monument. She thought about it, took half that amount, and left her home with little more than a suitcase and a few family mementos for her children. Everything else, from the grand piano to the clothes in the closets to boxes of Kleenex and laundry detergent, she bestowed upon the American people, the ones her husband spoke to in his writing, and, more often, spoke for.
To visit the Carl Sandburg Home Historic National Site — admission to which is free to the public — is to step intimately into the life of an exceptional thinker and dedicated artist. “We like to say it’s a 22-year snapshot of this family,” says lead ranger Connie Backlund, who has worked at the Sandburg home for more than 17 years. “It’s almost as if Carl and Paula have just stepped out for a moment and we really are visiting them in their home.”
The children’s Chinese checkers still rest on the coffee table, the buckeyes that Sandburg collected on his walks still adorn his desks. There are the stumps of cigars; the stacks of books and magazines; the green, plastic visors. Lining nearly every wall are his books, more than 12,000 in all, so numerous that only boxcars could transport them from Michigan. The poet’s garret of rooms on the third floor is exactly how he left it. The Pulitzers still languish, unworshipped, in their mailing tubes. Despite its size, the house’s interior feels modest, almost stark in its lack of decor, but the warmth — the life — in the place is undeniable. One almost smells a trace of cigar smoke and hears the delicate melody of Segovia on the phonograph.
Many visitors hike the acres of mountain trails and let their children play with the 15 goats descended from Paula’s original herd. In warmer months, young artists set up easels or tote their guitars here, hoping to soak up a little of the place’s creative energy. One gets the feeling that Carl Sandburg is smiling on them all, for he, better than anyone, knew the restorative power of the simplest pleasures, the smallest moments. “The eternal hobo asks for a quiet room,” he once wrote, “With a little paper he can dirty/With birds who sit where he tells ’em.”
Investigating in Asheville, Swannanoa, and Flat Rock, they learn about the history of Connemara and about the folk music that so interested Sandburg.
And they find themselves in danger as they figure out what really happened with the Sandburg verses, and why they matter.
— by Linda Brinson
Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site
1800 Little River Road
Flat Rock, N.C. 28731
Guided house tours: $5 for adults,
$3 for senior citizens, free for children 15 and younger
Bronwen Dickey writes about travel and the environment for Oxford American. Her work has also appeared in Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Travel Writing 2009, Newsweek, and Outside magazine. In 2009, she received a first-place Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award and a MacDowell Colony residency grant. Bronwen’s most recent story for Our State was “Into the Forest” (October 2011).