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Dressing for the Occasion at the Carl Sandburg Home

The last home of writer Carl Sandburg is located in Flat Rock, NC, and I’ve visited the home, now a national historic site, many times. Besides taking hundreds of fifth graders to see where the great poet lived, it’s a great place to hike and have a picnic. The last time we took the tour through the house, it was a bit disappointing because most of the furnishings had been removed for renovations. The house felt naked.

When Sandburg died in 1967 his widow Lilian sold the house and most of the contents to the US Department of Interior, with the goal of opening it to the public. As a result, the house has the feel of the family having just stepped outside. Someone on today’s tour called it a time capsule, but it is much more than that. It’s almost as if the house retains the spirit of the Sandburg family.

With the renovations complete, I wanted to see how the newly spruced-up house looked. To my great joy and surprise, for the first time clothing of the Sandburgs was also on display. Most are the property of the house, while some are in the possession of the Sandburgs’ granddaughter, Paula.

The house, Connemara, was built in 1839 as a summer home for Charlestonian Christopher Memminger. The house has been altered somewhat by subsequent owners, but if you look closely, you can see that this is an antebellum house. Memminger was quite wealthy, and he served as the secretary of the treasury for the Confederacy from 1861 to 1864. And while the Wikipedia article on Connemara refers to them as “servants”, Memminger kept enslaved persons on the property. A building identified as the wash house, and later a chicken house, was originally housing for the enslaved, which is acknowledged by a Park Service sign.

But to visit Connemara today, you don’t get the feeling that it is a fine house. It simply feels like the Sandburg home. I loved taking my fifth graders here because they always questioned how someone so famous could live in such an ordinary house with ordinary furnishings.  They were amazed at how “lived-in” the house was.

But back to the present, I must say the old house looks great with its new paint and freshly cleaned rugs, and whatever else was done. In the living room we see Carl’s chair, and one of his many hats. And books. The house contains thousands of books, all cataloged by the Library of Congress, and many still retaining the small slips of paper Carl used to mark the place of  passages he liked.

Probably the grandest thing in the home is this grand piano.  Carl often played his guitar in this room in the evening. And he was quite fond of plaid shirts.

Carl’s office is next to the living room, and in it are more books, of course.  I learned not to make assumptions after seeing his sweater and set of silk scarves. I assumed they belonged to Lilian, Carl’s wife.

But no, these belonged to Carl who enjoyed a bit of silk around his neck! He also wore the green visor, a holdover from his days as a newspaperman.

This denim chore jacket and skirt belonged to Lilian who wore them while working with her herd of prize-winning goats.  Mrs. Sandburg never wore pants.

These two garments belonged to Sandburg daughter Margaret, and were on display in the dining room. Yes, even the walls of the dining room are covered with books. This room has a wall of windows, and the family also used it for bird-watching. The brown suede jacket was Margaret’s birding jacket. Margaret was the family librarian, and often served as her father’s editor.

Carl had a small room beside his bedroom which he used for writing. He wrote at night, went to bed around 5 AM, and then joined the family for lunch at noon.

The house curatorial staff did a good job showing the Sandburgs wearing similar clothing in photographs. Note Carl’s green visor.

This dress belonged to daughter Janet. Janet helped with the goat farming. This looks like a quite youthful style, but Janet would have been in her sixties when she wore it. Neither Janet nor Margaret ever married, and they remained in the home until their father’s death. The third daughter, Helga, lived in the house with her two children until 1952, when she remarried and moved to Washington, DC.

This is Margaret’s bedroom. I wonder if this dress was made on the sewing machine in the background.

Lilian had the best room in the house.

The dress shown in this room was worn by Lilian on a visit to the White House. That’s her wearing the dress, with Carl on the grounds of the White House.

When the Sandburgs bought the house in 1946, the kitchen was located in a separate building, a practice common in antebellum houses. Lilian had a modern 1940s kitchen installed inside the house.

This is a view of the guestroom, which featured Lilian’s dressy silk frock from 1935. And, look! Another sewing machine!

Carl often took his books and writing to the out-of-doors. What could be a nicer place to write?

I have a few words to add about visiting historic sites. While the group which which I toured the house was small (fifteen), there were some things that probably drove the volunteer docent to drink. The last thing she said was to silence phones. We stepped into the house and, you guessed it, someone’s phone rang. The guy ignored it, and so the person on the other end began yelling into the voicemail. The docent finally had to unlock the front door and let the guy out to take his call.

Then there was the family – two little boys of around two and four and their parents. I usually cut parents of small kids some slack, but the docent had to continually tell the kids not to climb on the furniture, swing on the rope barriers, and keep hands off the artifacts. And the parents did nothing at all to keep the two in line.

In comparison, there was another family of older kids, maybe six and eight, and they were really well-behaved, and even asked questions. It was fun being with them, or would have been if not for the other family. I got the gist of the real problem as the tour was coming to an end and the docent asked if there were any other questions. The father piped up, “Yeah. Can we leave now?”

It was perhaps the rudest thing I’ve ever experienced in a museum or historic setting. But boy, does it not explain a lot about his kids?

 

 

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