#TBT: 50 years of The Carl Sandburg House

Carl Sandburg Hous. Photo: @ibecameawake
Carl Sandburg Hous. Photo: @ibecameawake

The Carl Sandburg Home + National Historic Site in Flat Rock (about 35 minutes from Asheville) celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It became a national park in 1968 and was first opened to the public in 1974. Also called Connemara (a name given to it by a previous owner), the house and 245-acre farm was originally built + developed in 1836, and the property shifted owners several times before Sandburg + his wife, Lillian, purchased it in 1945. So in honor of the anniversary + throwback Thursday, we take a look at Sandburg, his legacy, and his former home.  

Who was Carl Sandburg?

Carl Sandburg was famous for his writing + poetry (you may have read his famous poem “Fog” in grade school). But he was also well-known for his social activism, journalism (with the Chicago Daily News and other outlets), and his folk singing. An early supporter of Civil Rights, he was given an award + lifetime membership to the NAACP, who called him “a major prophet of Civil Rights” in 1965. He was also involved in the Democratic Socialist party, which at the time was working for higher wages, universal suffrage, free textbooks for schools, child labor laws + more.

Among his many awards were two Pulitzer Prizes, which he won in 1940 + 1951 for his multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln + for his Complete Poems while living at Connemara.

Carl’s wife Lilian (who he called Paula), was a fellow poet + activist. She became famous for her work breeding + raising prize-winning dairy goats. She actually found the Connemara property while searching for a place for her goats to have a longer grazing season. Her breed still lives at the farm and you can visit them when the barn is open.

Although the property was built before the Sandburgs arrived, the house + grounds are now synonymous with the couple. Today, the site includes 264 acres of farm + trail land, several ponds, and 50 structures – including the 9,000-square-foot home, filled with the Sandburg’s simple furnishings, the goat barn, and a Museum Preservation Center with a 325,000+ item archive (including his library of 11,079 books, personal letters, magazines + more).  

Pay a visit

  • For your GPS: The park is at 81 Carl Sandburg Ln. in Flat Rock. A free parking lot is located at the entrance to the property.
  • The house + barn are open daily from 9 a.m.– 5 p.m.
  • The house costs $5 for visitors ages 16-61, $3 for 62+ and is free for children 15 and under. A house tour walks you through each room and the family’s life.
  • The grounds – including hiking trails + gardens – are open from sunrise to sunset all year. Grab a trail map at the park bookstore (or see trails online here). Protip: The property is perfect for picnics.

Before you plan your visit to Connemara, dive into the history of the property, the lives and legacies of Carl + Lilian (who Carl called “Paula”), and the story behind the park and farm (including its famous goats) here.

From a Civil War-era mansion to the house of “The People’s Poet”

Events related to Carl Sandburg + his family are in bold.

1836: Christopher Gustav Memminger, a slave-owning lawyer from Charleston, S.C., builds the property as a vacation home. At this time, Flat Rock is known as “The Little Charleston of the Mountains” because so many people from the Lowcountry own vacation homes there. He refers to the estate as “Rock Hill” because of the rocky landscape.

1861: Memminger helps draft the Provisional Constitution and becomes the Secretary of the Confederate Treasury during the Civil War.

1864: Memminger resigns from his post as Secretary and moves to Rock Hill, where he, his family + friends hide out against raiders, known as “bushwackers,” who were infamous for ambushing mansions in Western North Carolina.

1865: The Civil War ends and Memminger moves back to Charleston to continue his law practice.

1878: Carl Sandburg is born in Illinois to Swedish immigrants.

1888: Memminger dies and the estate is sold to Colonel William Gregg (a former Confederate soldier), who owns it for 10 years but never lives there.

1897: At age 19, Carl travels across country by freight train on a “hobo’s journey.” Over the course of trip, he works as a wheat and hay thresher, on a railroad gang + more. His experiences eventually influence some of his best-known poems.

1898: Carl joins the Sixth Infantry Regiment, Illinois Volunteers + serves as a private in the Spanish-American War.  

1899: Ellison Adger Smyth, a Confederate veteran + industrialist from Charleston, purchases the estate and names it Connemara to honor his family’s Irish ancestry (“Connemara” is a region in County Galway, western Ireland, and the word means “of the sea.”). Smyth and his family are the first residents who live year-round on the property and the farm and barn expands to include lambs, sheep, cattle + more, as well as a garden. He dies at home in 1942 at age 94.

1907: Carl and Lilian (Paula) Steichen meet at a Social-Democratic Party meeting in Milwaukee. They marry the next year and move to in Michigan.

1919: Carl wins the Poetry Society of America Prize (the forerunner of the Pulitzer Prize) for his poetry collection Cornhuskers.

1926: Carl publishes the first two volumes in his six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln.

1927: Carl publishes American Songbag, a collection of 280 folk songs gathered on his travels.

1935: Lilian purchases her first dairy goats. Over the next few years, she becomes interested in genetics and breeding and eventually becomes famous for her prize-winning goats. She registers them with the breed name “Chikaming,” an homage to the town where she grew up.

1940: Carl publishes the last four volumes of Abraham Lincoln’s biography. The book is awarded the  Pulitzer Prize in history, and Carl is honored with honorary degrees at Harvard and Yale, as well as being elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

1945: Lilian visits the estate while looking for land to expand the grazing area for her goats + her farm operations. They purchase the property for $45,000 and move soon after. Carl is overheard referring to the property as “a million acres of sky” soon after they arrive.

1951: Carl receives a Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his Complete Poems.

1960: Carl wins a Grammy for the recording of his spoken-word performance of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with the New York Philharmonic.

1963: Carl publishes the poetry collection Honey & Salt. Around this time he becomes known in the U.S. as “the Poet of the People.”

1965: The NAACP recognizes Carl with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work on Civil Rights + his reporting during the Chicago Race Riots of 1919. It’s one of the few awards Carl displays at home (and can still be seen at the house).

1967: Carl Sandburg dies of natural causes at at home at age 89. He is survived by Lilian, three daughters + several grandchildren.

1968: Lilian Sandburg sells the property and donates Carl’s belongings to the National Park Service to ensure the preservation of the estate and her husband’s legacy. The estate becomes a National Park + National Historic Site.

1974: The home + grounds open as a National Park for visitors.

Want to live the writer’s life at Connemara?

The Writer-In-Residence program, which takes place over three weeks in March + April, accepts applications each fall. Writers stay at a historic cottage (the Farm Manager’s House) near the estate. The program is designed for writers who are early in their career and has a $1500 stipend. Can you say dream vacation?

As a writer + lover of the outdoors, hiking around Connemara has been long one of my favorite ways to spend a day, but it was only until working on this piece that I really became familiar with its full history and lives of its most famous residents. I’m excited to read more of Carl Sandburg’s writings – and maybe take a book with me next time I visit?

I learned so much during my research about the area, including the fact that the rock formations on the property, which are rare low-elevation granite domes, are how Flat Rock got its name. I also love the way the property’s history highlights the evolution of the U.S. because it was originally built by a slave owner and member of the Confederacy and is now remembered as the home of an activist for Civil Rights.

I also highly recommend making time to drive around the historic village of Flat Rock and check out local businesses and restaurants (like breakfast + brunch spot Honey and Salt) that take inspiration from Sandburg’s legacy.

Have you been to the Carl Sandburg House? What’s your favorite Sandburg poem? Tell us about your experiences by replying to this email or letting us know over on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

– Ali