Written by Marla Hardee Milling | Photos by Anthony Harden
Renovating and Restoring Carl Sandburg’s Connemara
Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what was seen during a moment. – Carl Sandburg
When famed poet Carl Sandburg and his wife, Lillian (“Paula”), lived at Connemara, a 248-acre estate in Flat Rock, North Carolina, they made use of every available space—every closet, dresser drawer, and filling cabinet was packed full of manuscripts, letters, notes, magazines, information about the prize-winning goats Mrs. Sandburg raised, amid odds and ends, mementos, and other random miscellany.
Sandburg died in 1967, and the following year Mrs. Sandburg handed over the keys to the house and property to the National Park Service and moved to Asheville. While the family may have taken a few things with personal meaning or nostalgia, they basically walked away leaving the house just as it was when they lived there. The collection they amassed includes an estimated 350,000 objects, including more than 11,000 books and 25,000 magazines.
The word “hoarders” might come to mind when thinking of so many things, but Miriam Farris, museum specialist at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, says she thinks “accumulators” best describes the couple and the fact that “they never threw anything away.”
In the late 1990s, the park service built a storage building on the property to house and protect two-thirds of the collection. “I’d say within the last 20 years, anything a visitor could not see on the tour was removed from the tour and put in storage,” said Ferris.
That left 50,000 items in the home, and for the past 10 months, gloved workers have painstakingly inventoried and cleaned each object, and then wrapped each individual piece in acid-free paper and bubble wrap. They cleaned textiles with special vacuums with HEPA filters—placing a screen between the item and the vacuum attachment to prevent fraying or unraveling.
In the first few weeks of November 2015, crews will transfer the packed boxes to trucks to haul the beloved possessions to a National Park Service repository outside of Washington, D.C.. They’ll also wrap all the furniture. The repository meets preservation standards by maintaining a climate controlled environment that is ideally 60 degrees with 45% relative humidity.
The second and third floors of the Carl Sandburg home will sit devoid of contents for the next three years as crews work to complete a number of crucial renovation projects on the aging structure. While the work could be completed much quicker than a three-year timespan, they must stagger the projects over the 36 months in order to get budget approval.
The pinpointed improvements include refinishing floors, repainting walls, rehabbing the windows, and installing a much-needed ventilation system. “It won’t be an air conditioning system, but it will force air and dehumidify the house,” said Sarah Perschall, chief of visitor services. “We can’t open the windows at night because of security. Since we can’t open them, the house stays closed up all night and traps heat in. We’ll be able to pull air all evening with the new ventilation. It’s the biggest visitor impact issue.”
Perschall says about 75% of fires in historic buildings happen when renovation is going on, so they decided to remove everything in order to preserve the Sandburgs’ legacy.
Thinking Outside the Box
During the next three years, visitors will still be allowed to tour the house if renovation projects underway at the time do not create a safety risk. Having an empty home presents new challenges for the staff as they work to find creative ways to engage guests in bare rooms. One method is to have photography panels that feature images of what the rooms looked like when furnished.
“We’re also weighing the risk of having some items in the house,” explained Farris. “We have all the freedom in the world to put period pieces out.” One example would be to stage a typewriter similar to one that Sandburg used, but not the actual artifact. “We wouldn’t put his actual typewriter on exhibit because of the risks of being in a work zone.”
She has set aside a few items representative of Sandburg, like his iconic green visor, that can be displayed in a small display case on the ground floor, where they have visitor information and a bookstore.
“We were thoughtful about whether we should close, but we want visitors to have an opportunity to see the house” said Perschall. “For the first three weeks of November, tours will not be available because we’ll be moving the collection out. The week of Thanksgiving we’ll reopen the tours, and we’ll decorate through Christmas. We’ll put poinsettias, pine bows, and greenery throughout the house.”
One thing that remains unchanged in the visitor experience is free access to the grounds, five miles of hiking trails, and the goat barn. Even if the work in the house on a certain day prohibits going inside, there are so many ways to explore the property and find spots that gave Sandburg inspiration as he wandered and jotted down ideas.
Life at Connemara
Carl Sandburg, a native of Galesburg, Illinois, moved to Flat Rock with his wife in 1945. He was 67 years old, a time when most people retire and settle into a lifestyle less devoted to career, but Sandburg remained prolific during his time at Connemara. He had already won a 1940 Pulitzer Prize for history with his work, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. The second Pulitzer Prize came in 1951 when he won in the poetry category for his collection, Complete Poems.
Other work produced during Sandburg’s Connemara years includes his only novel, Remembrance Rock, published in 1948; Always the Young Strangers, an autobiography covering the first 20 years of his life, published in 1953; and Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years, published in 1954. He also traveled the country lecturing and reading poetry through many of those years, and in 1959 delivered the Lincoln Day address before a joint session of Congress. His last book of poetry, Honey and Salt, came out in 1963, and in 1964 President Lyndon Johnson presented Sandburg with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Janene Donovan, who has served as a park ranger at the Carl Sandburg Home Historic Site for 30 years, says some people had a false idea about how Sandburg spent his time at Connemara. “He got a letter saying, ‘How can you let your wife do all the work and all you do is sit around and write?’” she said. “He definitely was the main money maker—a third of his books were published here. He was also very supportive of his wife. He would insist that any photographers go to the barn with him and take pictures of him with the goats. Her world champion goat, Jennifer, is the only time there has been a goat in the people section of Time Magazine.”
Paula Sandburg, by comparison, did maintain a more rigorous schedule. While her husband would write late into the night and sleep long into the morning, she would rise at dawn to care for her prized Chikaming goat herd. At the peak of her operation, she had up to 300 goats. She would leave a thermos of coffee on the dining room table for her husband to start his day when he got up much later.
“She was milking 80 goats twice a day and breeding for milk production,” said Donovan. “Mrs. Sandburg could not drink cow’s milk. She thought it was important to breed for more milk and did a huge favor for a lot of people.” Her Grade A operation included the distribution of the goat milk to Biltmore Dairy in Asheville, Kalmia Dairy in Hendersonville, and Greenville Dairy in Greenville, South Carolina. She helped start the American Dairy Goat Association, based in Spindale, North Carolina, and served as its director for more than 10 years.
The Sandburgs had three daughters—Margaret, Janet, and Helga—who lived with them and helped them at Connemara. Margaret and Janet never married and always lived at home. Helga lived with them at Connemara for seven years with her two young children, John Paul and Paula, before remarrying and moving to Washington, D.C. in 1952.
“Helga was in charge of the dairy. She oversaw the dairy for her mom,” said Donovan. “When she remarried that was a big blow, and Mrs. Sandburg had to hire more help. The youngest daughter, Janet, fed all the baby goats, and Margaret mostly helped her dad.”
Descendants of Mrs. Sandburg’s goat herd remain at Connemara today, but they are no longer milked. Staff does breed the goats. The breeding season takes place each fall, and it’s expected that Connemara will see between eight and ten babies arrive in the spring of 2016.
“All are registered animals and each one is named,” said Donovan. They currently have 21 goats but are planning to sell three of them. “We try to sell the older ones and keep the younger ones. This year, the three are going to Georgia and South Carolina, but I have sold goats to Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.”
Visitors are welcome to walk to the barn and interact with the goats there. Donovan says feedings take place at 9AM and 4PM, and guests can help brush the goats. “They’re so cool, because they’re so safe,” she said. “With a lot of animals you have to worry about getting bitten, but goats don’t hurt people. They are just a great animal to have around even little, tiny kids.”
In addition to spending time at the barn, there are five miles of hiking trails on the property that will give visitors a glimpse of some of the scenic beauty and natural solitude that inspired Sandburg as he gathered ideas while roaming. The park service website says he would sharpen the pencil he carried with him with his pocketknife. Most of the trails are easy to moderate and include the Big Glassy Mountain Trail, Little Glassy Trail, and a trail that goes around the front lake, among others. There’s a handy .pdf map of all the trails at the Sandburg home online that you can print out and take with you or use to do some pre-planning of where you want to hike. You can access it here: www.nps.gov/carl/planyourvisit/upload/TM-2012.pdf
50th Anniversary in 2018
Contents of the house are expected to return in late 2018, just in time for the 50th anniversary of National Park Service ownership of Connemara. Workers will then begin the painstaking task of placing each item back in the home in the exact spot where it was when the Sandburgs lived there.
“Every single object has a catalog number,” says Perschall. “We will know exactly where the objects go. It’s incredibly well documented. That’s why it’s taken a year to get packed.”
Even with clear documentation, it doesn’t mean unpacking will be speedy. “It will take as long to unpack as it did to pack,” said Farris. “We might not look normal again until 2019.”
She says the “hands-off” philosophy of the past may give way to the increased desire to give visitors a more interactive experience. “No touching will become a thing of the past in the next 50 years,” Farris added. “People want to interact. We’re really aware and thinking of creative ways to find that balance between preservation and engaging visitors. We don’t know what that will look like yet.”
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