Visitors may come to the Carl Sandburg Home in the mountain town of Flat Rock, N.C., for the poetry, but they’ll likely linger for the goats. Twenty-five descendants of Lilian Sandburg’s prize-winning herd happily mill in the dairy and fields behind the family house, munching straw, oblivious to the literary history of their homeplace and the delight of the visitors who surround them.
Connemara was a century old in 1945, when Carl and Lilian Sandburg moved there from the Midwest with three daughters, dozens of goats and more than 14,000 books. Already one of the most famous writers in America, the Poet of the People had published volumes of poetry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Abraham Lincoln, a series of Rootabaga Stories for children, and “The American Songbag,” a compilation of ballads that influenced musician friends like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.
The Sandburgs selected the 245-acre farm specifically for Lilian’s goats. But Sandburg, 67 at the time, also saw it as a good place to write and wander. Over the next 22 years, he would complete more than a third of his life’s work, pick up another Pulitzer for poetry and travel the world accepting awards, speaking and representing the American government, often accompanied by Lilian’s brother and his best friend, the photographer Edward Steichen.
This fall, the Carl Sandburg Home celebrates its 50th year as a national historic site, the first unit of the National Park Service established to honor a poet. Over the past four years, the 180-year old house has undergone renovation, but everything is back in order: the poet’s furniture, chosen for comfort over style; overflowing floor-to-ceiling bookshelves; Steichen’s iconic photograph of the couple; the family piano; and Sandburg’s guitar and typewriter, among other personal effects. Guided tours are held ever hour on the half-hour.
Once again, the 22-foot-high-ceilinged rooms, warm with natural light, will look as if the Sandburgs just stepped out for a stroll up to the barn or along the property’s five miles of trails that circle a pretty lake and ascend a mountain, all accessible to the public. Sandburg often walked the property to “experience loneliness, sit on a rock and ask himself who he was and where he was going.”
The son of Swedish immigrants, Sandburg grew up in Illinois. He dropped out of school after eighth grade to help support his family, working as a laborer and riding the rails as a hobo.
After serving in the Spanish-American War, he worked as a newspaperman in Chicago before turning to poetry and writing about social reform and human rights.
Despite his lovingly maintained image as one of the common folk, his success as a writer would lead him to hobnob with presidents and celebrities like John. F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.
Sandburg died in Connemara in 1967 at the age of 89. Soon after, Lilian, who lived another 10 years in Asheville, donated the house and land to the National Park Service. It opened the following year as the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, and it wouldn’t be the same without the goats.
At its peak in the 1950s, the herd numbered more than 200. In the goat world, Lilian’s fame far outshone her husband’s. Breeders across the globe admired her herd’s bloodlines and milk production. Today, visitors meet descendants of her tan-and-white Toggenburgs, white Saanens and floppy-eared Nubians. The gift shop sells goat’s milk cheese and soap beside books of poetry.
Christmas was always special for the Sandburgs. On Nov. 24, visitors can enjoy hot cider, cookies, sing-alongs, craft-making and entertainment provided by musicians and storytellers celebrating the Sandburg family holiday traditions. The house will be decorated with poinsettias and a traditional Christmas tree through Jan. 6.
While in Flat Rock, there are number of other things to do and see. Designated the state theater of North Carolina, Flat Rock Playhouse is a 506-seat theater that presents a robust season of plays and musicals. Upcoming productions include “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas.” A 250-seat Playhouse Downtown in Hendersonville expands the offerings.
On the National Register of Historic Places, nearby Hendersonville retains Southern, small-town charm with its wide, tree-lined streets, historic buildings and inns, and the Curb Market, selling locally produced goods including produce, jam, flowers and handmade items such as straw brooms, hooked rugs and carved walking sticks.
In addition to World War I graves, Hendersonville’s Oakdale Cemetery is home to the marble angel carved by Thomas Wolfe’s father and memorialized in Wolfe’s first novel “Look Homeward Angel.” The town also has a local history museum, air museum with vintage planes, model railroad museum in a restored depot and children’s museum.
And this time of year, it is essential that visitors take advantage of apple season with a stop at Flat Rock’s Sky Top Orchard, where visitors can pick their own apples, or buy sacks from the market, which also sells warm apple cider doughnuts dusted with sugar and cinnamon. In addition to the beautiful mountain views, other attractions include cider making demonstrations, a duck pond and a menagerie of barnyard animals.
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