There is plenty to learn about Carl Sandburg




Book shelves in the Carl Sandburg home
Photo by Frank Ramirez

By Frank Ramirez

One of my clearest memories of elementary school was the mandatory assignment to memorize a poem. Most of us chose the shortest poems we could find in our readers, which included “Fog” by Carl Sandburg (1878-1967).

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Sandburg had watched the fog settle over Chicago harbor, which inspired him to write these words:

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Even as a child I was entranced its brevity, wit, and soul. However, I was chagrined that some other kid raised his hand first and got this one. I’m glad I lost out, however, because a week later that student stood in front of the class and solemnly intoned, “Fog comes from little cat’s feet.” After the pandemonium that followed it took a long time for Sister Mary Regis to restore order.

As it turns out, there is plenty to learn about Carl Sandburg--journalist, poet, activist, gardener, and family man. A Wednesday afternoon bus trip took NOACers to the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site. The house is located on 246 acres, with 5 miles of hiking trails. Sandburg and his wife Lillian moved from the Midwest to the site in North Carolina in 1945 because one of his daughters wanted a cow for a 4-H project but a goat fit better in their car. Lillian fell in love with raising and milking goats, and the family became famous for developing unique breeds. This led to a search for better land to raise the goats, which led them to a house in North Carolina. Eventually their goat milk and cheese became very popular throughout the region.

Goats at the Carl Sandburg home
Photo by Frank Ramirez

Ironically, considering Sandburg was well known for writing that exposed racial injustice, the house was first built by Christopher Memminger in 1838--who went on to serve in the Confederate government as secretary of the Treasury. Later it was purchased by Ellison Smyth, who became rich through the textile industry. He gave the property its name, Connemara, in honor of his Irish ancestry. Sandburg was 67 when he bought the property.

Goats are still raised on the site today, and a goat farm (which includes the opportunity to pet the younger animals) is run by the National Park Service. The house is preserved as it was when Sandburg died in 1967. Visitors watch a short 1954 television broadcast featuring Edward R. Murrow and Carl Sandburg, and receive a personalized tour of the house.

Although Sandburg gave away over 4,000 books to the local library, there are still more than 12,000 books jammed into shelves that reach from ceiling to floor in no particular order. These include a book by Brethren educator A.C. Wieand as well as the autobiography of Nathan Leopold, the murderer convicted of what was then the Crime of the Century and later paroled in the care of Brethren in Puerto Rico. Magazines are stacked in every corner, and the stack of records includes an intriguing box set of Woody Guthrie recordings produced by the Library of Congress.

You see Sandburg’s writing office, devoted to replying to his many correspondents, in which he was aided by a daughter. His upstairs office devoted to his creative writing. Lillian’s office filled with practical books, photographs of family members with the famed goats, and many awards.

Sandburg generally wrote through the night, slept all morning while other family members focused on their passion for goats, and joined the family for the evening meal. Both Sandburgs were committed to women’s education and careers as well to working against racism, for worker’s rights, and in general advocating for ordinary human beings.

Many of Carl Sandburg’s books are available in the bookstore. I bought an inexpensive paperback edition of “Chicago Poems,” which includes the famous little verse about fog.

Yes, I checked. Fog comes in, not from, little cat feet.

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