Carl Sandburg’s Connemara

“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 to ask of himself, ‘Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?’”
— Carl Sandburg


From Big Glassy overlook at Connemara (now the Carl Sandburg Home) in Flat Rock, the poet, journalist, folk singer and biographer looked down the valley to the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond and was inspired to question what it means to be an American.

Sandburg is perhaps best known for his multivolume biography of Abraham Lincoln, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history; he also collected two Pulitzers for his poetry. A Midwesterner, the writer moved to Flat Rock with his family and 14,000 books in 1945.

"I am thrilled to have a place that honors the memory of one of America's best poets and the author of the Lincoln biographies right in my own backyard," notes Kathleen Hudson of the Friends of Carl Sandburg. The nonprofit supports diverse educational programming for school groups plus a writer-in-residence program kicked off this spring by poet Christina Lovin, who lived in the historic farm manager’s house.

Since the early 1800s, Flat Rock had been a summer haven for rich Charlestonians fleeing Low Country heat and malaria. The house was built in 1838 by Christopher Memminger, a lawyer who became the Confederacy’s secretary of the treasury. The next owner named the estate Connemara after an area in Ireland.

Sandburg's wife, Lilian Steichen Sandburg, had developed a herd of prizewinning goats in Michigan that needed more room and a milder climate. At Connemara, she could raise goats and her husband could write in peace. Lilian sold milk throughout the Southeast and shipped animals to breeders, and it’s said that many of her contacts had no idea who her husband was.

When Carl died in 1967, the National Park Service acquired Connemara, the first national historic site honoring an American poet. The 30-minute guided house tour shows the Sandburgs as they lived — frugally and sensibly, surrounded by books and musical instruments. Old magazines are stacked on the floor and on tables. Images by acclaimed photographer Edward Steichen, Lilian’s brother, adorn every room. The table is set, waiting for the family to sit down to dinner. A gun port is a reminder that the house survived the Civil War.

Descendants of Lilian’s goats, now cared for by park rangers and volunteers, still graze in the fields; the 264 acre farm also offers five miles of well-maintained, signposted trails. From the parking area, a walk around Front Lake is an easy leg-stretcher. A one-mile hike brings you to the top of Little Glassy Mountain, where a bench invites you to admire the easterly view through the trees. Big Glassy Mountain takes a little more effort, but it’s worth it for the view.

But what Park Superintendent Connie Backlund loves most about the site "is the sense of tranquility it offers. Coming here is like stepping back into the time the Sandburgs lived here. You feel as if the family will return at any moment from a hike up Big Glassy Mountain."

The Hobo Ball, a fundraiser for the Friends of Carl Sandburg, happens Saturday, Sept. 11, at Kenmure in Flat Rock (see Conscious Party elsewhere in this issue).

— Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein is the author of Hiking the Blue Ridge Heritage. She can be reached at danny@hikertohiker.org.

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