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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Old Illinois Houses

John Drury

reprinted by
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London, 1977

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a two‑story rectangular brick house, with a gabled roof pitched at about 40° and two chimneys; it is partly overgrown with roses or ivy. The front door is arched with a fanlight. It is the Carl Sandburg House in Galesburg, Illinois.]

C. C. Burford

Carl Sandburg House, Galesburg, Built 1870's.

 p175  Workman's Cottage

During the 1937 centennial of Knox College there was placed on a plain little workman's cottage near the smoky railroad shops in Galesburg a wooden marker containing the inscription: "Birthplace of Carl Sandburg. one of America's immortals. Placed by A. G." Although it is debatable whether a writer who is still alive can be designated an "immortal," most literary critics agree that if any living American writer has a chance to become immortal he is Carl Sandburg.

One noted literary critic, Harry Hansen, in his book, Midwest Portraits, touched on this point more than two decades ago (1923) or before Sandburg published his great master work on Abraham Lincoln. "In less than ten years," wrote Hansen, "Carl Sandburg has become a figure of national significance. Today he is invariably named as one of the four or five outstanding poets of America, and his influence toward a liberation from classical bondage and the development of wholesome American themes is felt among a host of followers. He has helped direct our thinking back to the primitive forces of our land; to the soil, human labor, the great industries, the masses of men. No matter what he writes in the future, the cumulative effect of his poems will survive and be of great influence in our land."

If Sandburg had written nothing at all after the publication of his numerous books of poetry, volumes which brought him national fame as the "Chicago Poet" or "the bard of the prairies," the house in which he was born would still be of widespread interest. But following the completion of his six-volume life of Lincoln, a work which made his name familiar throughout the Anglo-American world, the little workman's cottage in Galesburg has become one of America's literary landmarks. More and more visitors are coming to Galesburg each year to view the birthplace of the man who made Lincoln live again.

Although not of log construction, the house in which this man was born is as plain and humble as is the birthplace of his truly immortal hero. There is nothing to distinguish it from millions other workmen's cottages that cluster near grim industrial works in cities throughout the country. It is a one‑story frame dwelling with a gable roof, clapboard siding, front and rear door and a few windows. Nothing more. There is not even a small porch at the front entrance.

Here, then, in this small workman's cottage, was born Carl Sandburg, poet, ballad singer, columnist, lecturer, and Lincoln biographer. His birth occurred on January 6, 1878. He was one of the sons of August  p176 Johnson, a Swedish immigrant who, upon arriving in Galesburg, discovered there were too many "Johnsons" among the Swedes there and changed his name to "Sandburg." It is said that a mixup in pay checks at the railroad shops caused Sandburg's father to make the change.

When Sandburg was a baby his father worked as a blacksmith for the Burlington railroad. He was a husky Swede who, it is said, could not write English. In the little house he reared his family and took his place as one of the hundreds of honest, thrifty laborers who worked ten-hour shifts, six days a week, in the near-by railroad shops.

It was in the Galesburg cottage, at 331º East Third Street, that Carl Sandburg spent the first five or six years of his life.​a1 Each month, the elder Sandburg, out of his meager wages, had to pay rent for the use of the cottage. Later, however, August Sandburg bought a house of his own, and thereafter the family had little thought of the Third Street cottage. When Carl Sandburg was thirteen years old it was necessary  p177 for him to leave school and go to work, but he managed later to earn his way through Lombard and Knox colleges.​a2

The poet's subsequent career, his work as a newspaperman on The Chicago Daily News, his first fame as the "Chicago Poet," his ballad singing, and finally the writing of his great, six-volume life of Lincoln — all these achievements are vividly told in Carl Sandburg: A Study in Personality and Background by Karl Detzer, published in 1941. Incidentally, it was recently recalled that Sandburg's first book of poetry, In Reckless Ecstasy, was issued by a Lombard, Illinois, printer in 1904, the author signing himself "Charles A. Sandburg." That Lombard printer was Philip G. Wright, father of Professor Quincy Wright, University of Chicago authority on international affairs and author of A Study of War and other books.​b

As might have been indicated by the closing phrase "Placed by A. G.," the wooden marker attached to the Sandburg cottage in 1937 was placed there by Mrs. Adda George of Galesburg. Since that time, she has organized the Carl Sandburg Association, which now numbers many prominent persons among its members. It was this association that purchased the Sandburg cottage and, after restoring it, opened it to the public as a museum of Sandburg and Lincoln relics and mementos.​c

Thayer's Notes:

a1 a2 I am indebted to Karen S. Lynch for the following corrections to Drury's text:

(a) The Sandburg family moved out of the house where Carl was born, not after "five or six years", but in 1879 when he had just turned one year old: they bought a house at 641 East South Street. They moved once again in 1882, still before the boy was five or six: the duplex at 622‑624 East Berrien would be the home the children grew up in and best remembered.

(b) Sandburg attended not Knox College, but Lombard College, which closed its doors in 1930. It's easy to see how Drury might have made the mistake in his text; his quick source for Sandburg's life must have read that the poet went to college in Galesburg, where by the time Drury wrote Knox was the only college — although as a journalist he should have known to check his facts a bit better. (For the close ties between the two colleges, see "Honoring Lombard College", on the website of Knox College.)

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b And to Norm Winick, chairman of the Carl Sandburg Historic Site Association in Galesburg, I am indebted for the following information: Philip Green Wright was not "a Lombard, Illinois printer", but a professor at Lombard College in Galesburg, Illinois who had an Asgard Printing Press in the basement of his house on East Knox Street. The mistake can again be laid to Drury's quick reading of a source and his failure to check that something called Lombard once existed in Galesburg. . . .

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c Both Sandburg and his wife Lilian are buried at the site.

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Page updated: 3 Dec 17