I was reading through some of the old posts from a previous blog I started but didn’t continue last summer. I came across this post I had written about a trip to the Carl Sandburg Home we took last July. It brought back wonderful memories and warmed me up on this cold Western New York winter night. I thought I would share it again.
Today’s historical gushing topic is: my favorite literary figure of the twentieth century, Carl Sandburg.
First, some background, a few weeks ago my mother and I decided to take a little mother-daughter bonding road trip through East Tennessee and western North Carolina on our way to southwest Virginia where I am currently working a summer internship at a small museum (more about that in later posts). Our plans were rather loose, or non-existent in some cases, but the trip’s central theme was really tracking down and soaking up as much history as we could in a week.
On this trip I learned several things, one of these being that the western part of NC has precious few historic sites to be visited. As appointed “navigator” for the trip (unfortunately my efforts to convert my parents to the wonders of GPS navigation have met with little success thus far), it was my task to scout out the local history along our route, and, unfortunately, this proved surprisingly difficult. I apologize to anyone who is from that region in NC and would honestly be pleased to find out that: A.) my map was horrible or B.) I’m really not that great at reading them and that western NC has a plethora of hidden gems (of the historical variety) waiting to be unearthed. Anyway, we did know of one fantastic NPS site that, at least on this trip, became our Mecca. This, of course, was the Carl Sandburg home in Flat Rock, NC.
Now, time for my Carl Sandburg back-story. The summer before last I took a trip with my mother and father to Charleston, SC. We drove the route, and I can’t remember if it was to or from the fair city of Charleston that Mom bade us stop for, what I personally thought at the time, some dead poet dude’s old house. I must admit with some embarrassment, until that July day in Flat Rock, NC, I had never even heard of Mr. Sandburg let alone his house. I was indifferent to the idea, and my father, having a huge sinus headache and road fatigue, was just slightly annoyed by it, but Mom insisted we stop. However, when we rounded the corner of the winding walkway down from the parking lot, and my eyes met the gorgeous white mid-nineteenth century home high atop a hill looking down upon the quaintest, most placid pond I had ever seen, I fell in love. My road weariness and apathy immediately melted away. My eyes found themselves filled with stars, and I suddenly found myself filled to the brim with romance. Yes, I was hooked.
I then had absolutely no qualms about making the rather steep hike up the side of the hill atop which Connemara sat peacefully. Upon entering the small visitors’ center located in the actual house, I became quite shocked and indignant that I had not heard of this incredible man before. When we watched the visitor’s center video, I melted like butter on a hot biscuit. I, the lover of prose and only prose who “never got” poetry, suddenly had a favorite poet, “the People’s Poet.” Mom, noticing how I swooned, picked up a copy of his collected poems, promptly bought it for me, and placed it in my grateful hands.
My burgeoning love affair with Connemara itself only grew when we walked the grounds to the barn to visit the descendants of Mrs. Sandburg’s prize-winning goats. When my mother’s and my eyes first rested on the young goats frolicking in the yard, well, let’s just say there was a veritable cacophony of “awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwws,” “oh my goodness’s,” and various other unintelligible gushy remarks. We almost literally fell over ourselves to get into the barnyard to love on them before my father, we’ll just say politely, asked us not to for fear of “smelling goats all the rest of the car ride that day.” I’ll give him a break. He did have a headache.
We left soon after, so as not to torment my temporarily invalid father anymore, but Mom and I left with full hearts and a vow to visit that sacred place again upon our lips.
And this summer we did.
This past semester I took a rather lackluster class about the 1920s, which turned out to be completely about modernism, a term on which I’m still not completely clear. Luckily we were able to choose our own topics for the final term paper. Naturally, I chose Carl Sandburg. I chose to write about Sandburg as a uniquely American modernist poet by examining his early work, mainly Chicago Poems and Smoke and Steel. It not only gave me a fabulous excuse to read his poetry, but I learned a great deal more about him.
We started our second visit by stopping in the visitor’s center to purchase tickets for the house tour, and as an added bonus, chat with the two seasonals working that day about museum studies graduate programs within the NC state university system, once they found out I was not in fact fifteen, that is. After an informative and pleasant chat, we were treated to the theatrical delights of the summer stock actors from the historic Flat Rock Playhouse who performed excerpts from The World of Carl Sandburg al fresco on the site’s small but adorable amphitheater. They were fabulous.
After the play, we took our long awaited tour of the house. Now, for a little history break here, since this is after all a history blog. Connemara was originally built and owned by Christopher Memminger, who became the Secretary of the Confederate Treasury. He began construction on the house, which he called Rock Hill, in 1838. The house belonged to Memminger until his death in 1888. The house was put on the market, and bought by the Gregg family in 1889. In 1900 it was put on the market again and sold to the Smyth family. Out of respect for their ancestry, the Smyths renamed the house, Connemara. Connemara was held by the Smyth family until 1945 when it was bought by the Sandburg family.
The Sandburgs were looking for a nice home with suitable farmland and a more gentle climate than that of Michigan, so Mrs. Sandburg, Lilian or Paula as Carl called her, could better raise her goats. She was the first to visit Connemara in 1945 with one of her daughters and her sister-in-law. They found it quite agreeable, but a little on the pricey side. Carl visited it later that year, and instantly fell in love with it and insisted upon its purchase. There the Sandburgs lived out the rest of their lives as a couple happily until Carl’s death in 1967. Lillian then sold the property to the National Park Service so that we all may enjoy it perfectly preserved today.
And when I say perfectly preserved, I mean just that. When you take the tour of the house, you see it as if the Sandburgs have just stepped out to take a hike up to Glassy Mountain. The shelves are stuffed with books upon books, newspapers and magazines are stacked by the staircase, and photographs of the Sandburg family by Lillian’s brother Edward Steichen adorn the walls. The house tricks the eye into making one think it’s much smaller than it is. In reality, it is huge, but comfortable. It feels lived in, loved, and homey. Nearly every window has a breathtaking view of the gorgeous NC mountain countryside. It is easy to understand how Sandburg could write some of his best work there.
Unfortunately we were with a big group, with children (double bleh), who were not as passionate about Sandburg as my mother and I, but all of my annoyance with the less-fervent Carl fans melted completely away when we were taken upstairs, and we were able to see his personal office. Just seeing his typewriter close enough almost to touch, made me feel like a pilgrim finally able to worship at the altar at journey’s end.
At the end of the tour, Ethan, the tour guide and our new buddy, gladly directed us to the rock away from the house where Carl went to be inspired, lamenting the fact that we didn’t arrive earlier so we could get a private tour since we museum people “have to stick together.” If Ethan, a museum studies grad student himself, is any indicator of the ilk I have to look forward to in grad school, I will be quite pleased.
After we experienced the rock, and really, it’s an experience, (I fear my words here can’t do it justice), we found a spot on one of the several trails around Connemara, I pulled out my hand-me-down copy of Honey and Salt, and I read the Man’s work. It was sublime, and I highly recommend it as a must if you choose to visit the Sandburg home.
Once the poetry reading came to a close, we couldn’t help ourselves any longer and giddily made our way to the barn where a batch of young spirited kids (the goat kind mind you) and their mothers were waiting to greet us. I can’t sum it up better than we were in heaven. Oh, and just for the record, mother and baby goats don’t smell bad for any of you who were wondering (*cough cough* Dad).
The rest of our afternoon was spent wandering about the grounds, enjoying a cheese-making demonstration, and playing with the goats some more. All in all, it is most definitely one of the best days I have spent anywhere, and the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site is a must see if you find yourself in that part of NC, or just a must see in general even if you have to make a special trip.
These are some of the pictures I took that day: