Last week I had the opportunity to do some time travelling, an occupation usually reserved for science fiction. My husband, youngest son, and I visited Connemara, Carl Sandburg’s home in Flat Rock, North Carolina, which was like walking back into the world of 1967, complete with calendars. When Sandburg died in 1967, his wife and daughter moved to Asheville, leaving almost everything in the house — even the cigarette butts, according to our docent. My perspective on 1967 was that of a four-year-old, but mingled with my memories of mimosa trees and my omnipotent older brother are corded telephones, linoleum floors, a television set with legs, and Danish modern furniture. These metal lawn chairs outside the bookstore reminded me so vividly of the long-gone green chairs on my parents’ concrete patio that I caught my breath.
The history of the house itself was more interesting than I had expected. Built in the 1830s by Christopher Memminger, a Charleston lawyer, the house — which he called Rock Hill — was used as a hide-out during the Civil War, when Memminger’s Charleston property was seized and he, as Secretary of the Treasury of the Confederate States of America, was a fugitive. As pictured below, this long slit in the dining room wall was made by Memminger so that he could stick the barrel of a gun through it and frighten off would-be marauders; the dining room was downstairs, presumably so that it would be closer to the outdoor kitchen. Fortunately, no raiders ever appeared, but the intriguing hole remains — presumably, they found a way to block it in the winter. Our guide chuckled at the irony that Sandburg, Lincoln’s best-known biographer, bought a house that had been built by a slave-owner and officer in the CSA. There are even rumors that the seal of the CSA was once hidden atop Glassy Mountain!
The next inhabitants, the Smyths, were also from Charleston, but they used the house as a year-round residence and named it Connemara to honor their Irish ancestry. In 1945, Lilian Sandburg bought the house and its 264 acres because she was looking for a place where she could raise her growing herd of Chikaming goats and where Carl could write. And she found it! At Connemara, Sandburg produced about a third of his total output, while Lilian’s herds went on to win numerous prizes. He also read a great deal, judging by the number of books in the house: apparently, the Sandburgs shipped an entire boxcar of books from Michigan to North Carolina when they moved. Bookshelves lined the walls of the two main floors of the house. (Workers regularly clean the books to minimize silverfish damage.)
In the first room, we saw a large piano (played primarily by the Sandburgs’ oldest daughter, Margaret) and a guitar, which Carl played. Andres Segovia was a fan of his and even wrote a piece in honor of Sandburg — which, if I heard correctly, was too challenging for Sandburg to play; Segovia’s sheet music was available for purchase in the bookstore.
Pictured on the left is one of the many television sets in the Sandburg house — another irony, since Sandburg felt that television was a thief of time. The president of Zenith was his admirer, however, and more than once bestowed televisions upon the Sandburg household. There were televisions in the bedrooms, too, along with furniture reminiscent of the twin beds in my childhood room and a treadle sewing machine that reminded my husband of his grandmother’s machine. To avoid distractions, Sandburg preferred to write in an attic room without a view.
While the kitchen seems antiquated now, it, too, was representative of its time. My husband was forcefully reminded of his Aunt Rosabelle’s kitchen in South Carolina, which was probably updated around the same time as the Sandburgs’.
Although my husband and I were fascinated by the house, my son was delighted when we finally emerged from its musty interior into the afternoon sunlight. After a quick stroll through the outbuildings near the house, we headed on to the Goat Barn, where David happily interacted with the young goats; the billy goats were sequestered on the other side of the road.
Nowadays, the goats — which are descendants of the prize-winning herd that Lilian (or “Paula,” as Sandburg affectionately called her) developed — have a fairly carefree existence, tended by the National Park workers; back in the day, however, Lilian worked tirelessly to breed a goat that would produce the maximum amount of milk, finally resulting in Jennifer II. Amusingly, the Sandburgs became involved with goats when one of their daughters wanted a pet cow: they talked her into a goat instead.
Playing with the goats was David’s favorite part of the trip. I do think that I will read some of Sandburg’s poetry to him in the next couple of weeks, and perhaps we will embark on Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories, which I vaguely remember from my childhood.
David was sad that we didn’t see water snakes by the dam as we crossed over the pond at the entrance to the Carl Sandburg Home — on our previous visit, several snakes had been sunning themselves — but he and his father enjoyed seeing some brim swim past (no fishing was allowed, however). Next summer, we’ll have to be on the watch for the free productions put on at the ampitheater!
All photos in this post were taken by Sandra Fleming (on her iPhone, because she left her better camera at home). Click here for a virtual tour of Connemara, courtesy of the National Park Service.
Here are the snakes that we saw from the safety of the bridge on our first visit to Connemara: