Located in beautiful Flat Rock, North Carolina, Connemara is a 264 acre estate where Carl Sandburg, well known for his Lincoln biographies and poetry, spent the last 22 years of his life.
Now a National Historic Site, it’s a great place to spend a couple of hours walking around the grounds, petting heirs to Lillian Sandburg’s (Carl’s wife) prize winning goat herd, take a hike on the Glassy Mountain Trail, see some of the spots where Carl Sandburg reflected and wrote, or take a 30 minute tour of the residence with a knowledgeable guide who gives a brief history of not just the Sandburg family, but the home as well.
Carl Sandburg was the typical American story. Born to Swedish immigrants in 1878 in Illinois, he was the second of seven children. Like most children of large families at that time, he had to quit school at the age of 13 to help support the family. His story doesn’t end there, though. The son of an illiterate immigrant went on to do some amazing things. He became a journalist, poet, biographer, novelist, editor, and even minstrel. He won the Pulitzer Prize for History. He received honorary degrees from schools such as Harvard and Yale. He later received the Pulitzer Prize for Art and Poetry. He went on to receive a Grammy Award for his recording of Aaron Copeland’s “A Lincoln Portrait,” with the New York Philharmonic. He worked as a Hollywood Film Consultant. He received the International United Poets Laureate Award.
When touring the former home of Carl Sandburg one thought follows you throughout every room; books, books, and more books. This family loved books. As a matter of fact, when they relocated their family to Connemara in 1945, they had 17,000 books sent by train to their new home. In every single room, halls, and even the basement there are book cases. Some floor to ceiling, some wall to wall, and some angled to fit the space available. When I toured the home there wasn’t even any books on the shelves, but just seeing all the book cases is still an awesome sight. One of Carl’s daughters was in charge of keeping with the books and fetching what he needed when he needed it. It’s said that he was always researching and leaving book marks in his books to keep up with quotes he liked. I can totally understand that.
All of the home’s furnishings have been removed for a two year period for preservation work. Honestly, it’s less to distract one from the story of the home and the Sandburg family. You can almost hear the scratch of the pencil, the turn of a page, click of the typewriter, and the shifting of paper.
The Great Hunt
I cannot tell you now;
When the wind’s drive and whirl
Blow me along no longer,
And the wind’s a whisper at last—
Maybe I’ll tell you then—
some other time.
When the rose’s flash to the sunset
Reels to the rack and the twist,
And the rose is a red bygone,
When the face I love is going
And the gate to the end shall clang,
And it’s no use to beckon or say, “So long”—
Maybe I’ll tell you then—
some other time.
I never knew any more beautiful than you:
I have hunted you under my thoughts,
I have broken down under the wind
And into the roses looking for you.
I shall never find any
greater than you.– Carl Sandburg
Long before Carl and Lillie Sandburg called Connemara home, the home had its own history. It was built in 1838 by Christopher Memminger, an attorney from Charleston. He named the residence Rock Hill. Flat Rock was the ideal place for wealthy Charleston residents, wanting an escape from the horrible summer heat of the coastal town, to build summer homes. Because so many Charleston residents built summer homes in the area, Flat Rock was referred to as “Little Charleston in the Mountains.” On an interesting note, Christopher Memminger was a founding father of the Confederacy. The last home of the Lincoln biographer was owned first by a man who served as the Secretary of the Confederate Treasury. Life can be so ironic like that.
Ellison Edgar Smyth was the third owner of Connemara. He was also from Charleston and he owned the house from 1900 until 1942. He renamed the home Connemara after his ancestral Irish home. You will find Connemara on the West Coast of Ireland. It’s geography includes not only some of the West Coast of Ireland, but also the Twelve Bens mountains and Owenglen River.
The “Poet of the People” came to Flat Rock because of the goat business Lillian, and their daughter, Helga, owned. The family left their home in Michigan in search of a place that had a milder climate for their herd. After seeing Connemara, the family decided that it was the perfect place for Carl to write and the goat herd to thrive. In 1945, Carl and Lillian, along with their three daughters and two grandchildren, settled into their new home. While the women worked with the goats, Carl researched and wrote. In the evenings the family would gather to read aloud, sing folk songs, and sometimes take a walk.
“A man must find time for himself. Time is what we spend our lives with. If we are not careful we find others spending it for us. . . . 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?’ . . . If one is not careful, one allows diversions to take up one’s time—the stuff of life.”
– Carl Sandburg
They had some notable guests at Connemara. Lillian’s brother and Carl’s closest friend was Edward Steichen. He was an extremely talented and well known photographer who was way ahead of his time. Our tour guide showed me some pictures that he took of famous people in the 1920’s. They were amazing. The Luxembourg born photographer was a frequent guest at Connemara. Bob Dylan was among other notable guests. During a road trip, he just kind of dropped in on Carl and Lillian and announced who he was, like he expected instant recognition. He didn’t get it. Carl was nice, but obviously not familiar with Dylan. In a Rolling Stones article, it was said that Dylan was disturbed by the encounter. I think a little humbling every now and again is good for the ego. That’s just my opinion, though.
Who Am I?My head knocks against the stars.My feet are on the hilltops.My finger-tips are in the valleys and shores of universal life.Down in the sounding foam of primal things I reach my hands and play with pebbles of destiny.I have been to hell and back many times.I know all about heaven, for I have talked with God.I dabble in the blood and guts of the terrible.I know the passionate seizure of beautyAnd the marvelous rebellion of man at all signs reading “Keep Off.”My name is Truth and I am the most elusive captive in the universe.-Carl Sandburg