Born in a tiny cottage in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1878, Carl Sandburg grew with America. As a boy he left school at the age of thirteen to embark on a life of work—driving a milk wagon and serving as a hotel porter, a bricklayer, and a farm laborer before eventually finding his place in the world of literature.
In Always the Young Strangers, Sandburg delivers a nostalgic view of small-town life around the turn of the twentieth century and an invaluable perspective on American history.
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About the Author
Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize, first in 1940 for his biography of Abraham Lincoln and again in 1951 for Complete Poems. Before becoming known as a poet, he worked as a milkman, an ice harvester, a dishwasher, a salesman, a fireman, and a journalist. Among his classics are the Rootabaga Stories, which he wrote for his young daughters at the beginning of his long and distinguished literary career.
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A big unseen bell goes "Bong!" Knots come loose, long-woven bonds break from their folds and clutches. "It is my time now," says the mother while tugs and struggles in her womb say, "My time too has come." There is a tearing asunder of every last hold and bond, the violence of leaving the nine-month home to enter a second and vastly larger home. In the mother and the child the crashes and explosions go on, a series leading to the final expulsion. Not till then can there be a birth certificate, a name and a christening, a savage small mouth tugging at pink nipples.
Many have written and spoken it, "I was born — why?" Seeking the answer in brief, some have summarized it, "I was born because my father and mother met and exercised between them an ancient act of passion, love, and generation."
In my case the announcement came, "Det är en pojke," the Swedish for "It is a boy," and so definitely not, "Det är en flicka." The first baby, some three years earlier, was my sister Mary. They wanted a boy. I was a welcome man-child.
I was born on a cornhusks mattress. Until I was past ten or more years, when we became a family of nine persons, I remember the mattresses were bed-ticking filled with cornhusks. And as we all slept well on cornhusks and never knew the feel of feather beds till far later years, we were in favor of what we had. Of the slats on which the mattress rested, we sometimes murmured. One would break, then another, till finally the mattress crashed to the floor — and we were suspicious of the new slats.
I was born a little after midnight, my mother told me. A Swedish midwife had been at hand early in the evening. She cut the umbilical cord, tended to the afterbirth, did her responsible duties, and was praised for her skill. This was in a three-room frame house on Third Street, the second house east of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad tracks, in Galesburg, Illinois. The date was January 6, 1878. Exactly one year later on January 6 Joseph Medill Patterson was born. Exactly one hundred years earlier on January 6 Thomas Lincoln, the father of Abraham Lincoln, was born. And the coincidences of these births don't mean a thing except that the odd facts stick in the mind even though they prove nothing.
The midwife stayed two days, doing the needful, cooking and cleaning, seeing to my father's breakfast before he left to start swinging hammer and sledge at the C.B.&Q. blacksmith shop at seven in the morning. After those two days my mother was up and around, doing a washing, cutting and sewing diapers. Some of my diapers she made from Pillsbury Best Flour sacks. When the later babies came I saw her cut and hem the Pillsbury sacks in which came a white flour. Often we children heard from the father and mother, "In the old country we had white bread only at Easter and Christmas. Here in America we have white bread every day in the year!"
Of the house where I was born I remember nothing. I sucked at my mother's breasts there, had hundreds of changes of diapers and took healthy spankings there yet memory is a blank on those routine affairs. My sister Mary once pointed at the cradle in later years and said, "When they took me out they put him in." And a year and a half later they took me out to put Mart in. The cradle stood on three legs at each end, and mother told Mary that father made the cradle with his own hands. Mary said too that before I was three I ran away from home one afternoon and mother sent her to the C.B.&Q. shops and she brought father home from the shop and he found me a few blocks away going nowhere in particular.
We moved to another three-room one-story house, this on the north side of South Street, three doors west of Pearl Street. Here I wore dresses and watched my father spade a garden and plant and dig potatoes and carrots. I can never forget the feel of potatoes and carrots as my fingers brushed the black loam off them and I threw them into the baskets. Here we had the mare Dolly — a small bay, old, fat and slow — kept in a shed at the end of the lot. It was ten or fifteen dollars my father paid for Dolly, selling her after a year or two — for ten or fifteen dollars.
Dolly pulled us in a four-wheeled, two-seater wagon out from the town streets and houses to where we saw for the first time the open country, rolling prairie and timber, miles of zigzag rail fences, fields of corn and oats, cows, sheep, and horses feeding in pastures. Grazing animals in the open had wonder for me then and will always have.
We were fairly regular at Swedish Lutheran Church services, though about once a month of a Sunday morning father would throw the harness on old Dolly and the word was, "We are going to the Kranses." Out seven miles near a small coal-mine crossroads with a post office named Soperville, on a thirty-acre farm, lived John and his wife Lena Krans, Lena a cousin of my mother. Those four Swedish-born Americans had warm kinship. Their faces lighted on seeing each other. The Swedish language was hurled back and forth, too swift for us children to be sure what they were saying. When they talked of the steerage trip from Sweden, six to ten weeks on a sailing ship, their food only the black bread and cheese and baloney they brought along, we children couldn't quite follow it though we knew it was rugged going. The Kranses were the nearest kinfolk we had in America except for one family in Galesburg. Their talk ran warm and pleasant. They were strong for work, liked it, and talked it in those years of their thirties. Devoted Lutherans, convinced and complete Republicans, they couldn't argue religion or politics.
Here was a wooden barn with a dirt floor, three horses, four cows driven to and from the near-by pasture night and morning. Here we saw hands at udders, milk streaming into pails, pails carried up a slope to the house thirty yards away. There the cellar had a clean, hard dirt floor and plank shelves with a long line of crocks into which the milk was poured. We saw the yellow cream at the top of the crocks and once saw cream churned into butter. For the first time we drank milk from cows we saw give the milk. For the first time we ate fried eggs having seen the hens that laid the eggs.
Riding home from the Kranses I usually fell asleep and was laid on the wagon bottom and awakened when we reached home in Galesburg.
My father was a "black Swede," his hair straight and black, his eyes black with a hint of brown, eyes rather deep-set in the bone, and the skin crinkled with his smile or laugh. He was somewhat below medium height, weighing about a hundred and forty-eight, well muscled, the skin of his chest showing a pale white against the grime when his collar was turned down. No sports interested him, though he did make a genuine sport of work that needed to be done. He was at the C.B.&Q. blacksmith shop, rated as "a helper,"' the year round, with no vacations, leaving home at six forty-five in the morning, walking to arrive at the Q. shop at seven, never late, mauling away at engine and car parts till twelve noon. He walked, home, ate the noon "dinner," walked back to the shop to begin work at one and go on till the six o'clock whistle. Then he stood sledge-alongside anvil and walked home.
His hands thick with calluses, he was strictly "a horny-handed son of toil." It would take him ten or fifteen minutes to get the soot and grime off hands, face, and neck. He poured the cistern rain water from a tin pail into a tin basin on a washstand, twice throwing the used water into a tin pail on the floor before the final delicious, rinsing at a third basin of the water that had run off the roof into the cistern. The calluses inside his hands were intricate with hollows and fissures. To dig out the black grit from the deep cracks took longer than any part of the washing. Even then there were black lines of smudge that failed to come out. Then came supper and often his favorite meat, pork chops fried well done. In late spring, summer, and early fall, he would often work in the garden till after dark, more than one night in October picking tomatoes and digging potatoes by the light of a moon. In the colder months he always found something to fix or improve in walls, floors, chairs, tables, the stove, the coal shed, the cistern, the pump. He liked to sew patches on his jeans pants or his work coat, having his own strong thread and large needle for replacing lost buttons. In those early years he read a weekly paper from Chicago, Hemlandet, the Swedish for Homeland. Regularly he or the mother read aloud, to each other and the children, from the Swedish Bible.
And the mother, young Clara Mathilda Anderson who had married my father, what was she like? She had fair hair, between blond and brown — the color of oat straw just before the sun tans it — eyes light-blue, the skin white as fresh linen by candlelight, the mouth for smiling. She had ten smiles for us to one from our father. Her nose was recessive, retroussé, not snub. Her full and rich white breasts — how can I forget them, having seen the babies one by one, year on year, nursing at them, having seen her leave the washtub to take up a crying child and feed it and go back to the washtub? She was five feet five inches in height, weighing perhaps one hundred and forty, tireless muscles on her bones, tireless about her housework. She did the cooking, washing, sewing, bedmaking, and housecleaning for the family of nine persons. At six o'clock in the morning she was up to get breakfast for her man, later breakfast for the children, and meals for all again at noon and at evening. Always there were clothes to be patched, the boys sometimes wearing out a third seat of trousers and having the other kids hollering, when the shirttail stuck out, "There's a letter in the post office for you!" As we got into long pants, the knees always needed patching. Playing marbles in the spring, wrestling, and scuffling, we wore holes at the knees of pants, going bare at the knees till "Mama" patched them. That was always our name for her when we spoke to her or of her in the family circle. The father always called her "Clara," spoken in Swedish as "Klawrah."
Two memories of the little South Street house stand dear. On a Sunday John Krans and his wife drove into town. They went to Lutheran church services with my father and mother and drove back to our house for a dinner of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and gravy. I, still wearing dresses and about three years old, stood at the back door and watched John Krans snap a halter to the bit of one of the horses and tie the halter to the pump. Then Mr. Krans came into the house, gave me a pat on the head, and began talking with the folks. I stood watching that team of farm work horses, well-matched iron-grays hitched to a farmer's light market wagon. Then it happened. On a sudden impulse that I couldn't explain afterward, I ran out to the pump, got my hands on the halter and pulled it loose. I climbed up a wheel and got myself onto the seat. I had the reins in my hands — oh glory! I was going to call "Giddap" to the horses. Then my father and Mr. Krans came rushing out of the house. They had me hauled down from that wagon in a flash. Then came a scolding and reproaches. I was ashamed because I couldn't explain. I felt guilty of doing something terribly foolish. The horses were facing the garden, which was no place to take a pleasant Sunday drive. I had never driven Dolly. My father had at no time offered me the reins, though I recalled I had asked him once and he had said we would wait till I was older. I have done many silly things in my life, and often taken incalculable risks, but none so suddenly on impulse and unaware of the danger.
The second memory is of late summer. South Street was dusty. The black dirt had been ground fine by wheels and horseshoes over many days of dry weather. My bare feet liked the feel of the street dust. I was standing in the middle of the street. Along the wooden sidewalk across the street from our house came a Negro woman known as Mammy Lewis. She was the first woman of black skin I had ever seen and a few days before I had heard neighbor boys older than I hooting at her. Now she was walking along with long slow steps, looking straight ahead. Standing there with bare feet in street dust, I poked my head toward Mammy Lewis and called in my loudest jeering child voice "Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!" Mammy Lewis, a servant woman of good reputation, as I later came to know well, stopped and turned slowly to see who could be so mean and low as to cry like that at her on a sunny summer morning. We were about twenty feet apart. I could see her eyes glisten. I heard her voice, a marvelously deep harsh contralto. And she was saying words that came slow and clear and made me know her dignity and her righteous anger. She was saying, "I'll get a pair of scissors and cut your ears off!" I heard her. I believed her. I picked up my feet and scampered breathless into our house and clutched my mother's skirts and more than half expected to see Mammy Lewis come through the door with the promised scissors. That morning I didn't dare tell my mother what had happened, though later I managed to get it told. She gave me a talk in Swedish. What I had done was bad manners, was not Christian, and I should look out about following the ways of the older neighbor boys. Sweetly and softly she could say, "Var en snäll pojke" (Be a good boy).
When I was about four we moved two blocks over to Berrien Street and a ten-room house with a long roomy third-story garret running the length of the house, a four-room cellar having floors in the two front rooms. A two-compartment privy had a henhouse back of it. The lot was three times the size of the South Street place, had a big garden with several gooseberry bushes, a front yard with five tall soft-maple trees, a picket fence, a brick sidewalk, and a ditch in front. It was really two houses and lots. Over the front door a small tin sign read "Aetna Fire Insurance Company" to show that the house was insured, and two sign numbers said that we lived at 622 and 624 East Berrien Street. Here the emigrant Swede August Sandburg set himself up, with due humility and constant anxiety, as a landlord. The two east rooms of the first floor, along with the two cellar rooms under them, were rented to different families across the years, never vacant for more than a day or two, while the large upstairs east rooms always had a renter.
My father wrote no letters. He did no writing at all. He had never learned to write. When his father and mother died in Sweden his schooling had only taught him to read and he earned some kind of a living as a chore boy in a distillery. He became a teamster at the distillery, finally laying by enough money to buy steerage passage to America, to "the new country where there was a better chance." Arriving at the port of New York, Swedes who had kinfolk at Herkimer, New York, sent him to a job in a cheese factory there. After a few months at cheese-making he read a letter from a cousin, Magnus Holmes, in Galesburg, Illinois, who wrote that the chances were all good in Galesburg. Magnus Holmes ought to know. He had been in Galesburg for many years. Holmes had a face with likeness to my father's, their faces more alike than is common among brothers. Holmes voted for Lincoln, but refused to answer Lincoln's call for troops. He had left Sweden to keep out of military service. He hated war and had a conscience about it. As his daughter Lily told me more than once, "He wouldn't argue with anyone about it, simply wouldn't talk, except to say to his wife and children that he couldn't take a hand in killing men." So on account of Holmes hating military service and leaving Sweden early, to end up at work in a C.B.&Q. Railroad shop, he was there to advise a newcomer cousin to come on West and get a job. The first job my father had was on the Q. railroad with a construction gang at a dollar a day. They lived in bunk cars, cooked their own meals, did their own washing, worked six days a week, ten hours a day.
My father had respect and affection for his cousin Magnus Holmes, and it lasted. Holmes was older by fifteen years. He had become well Americanized when August Sandburg arrived at Holmes' house in Galesburg in the early 1870's. The older cousin had been in Galesburg more than fifteen years. The men he worked with on the job were mostly Irish and English, and he and Mrs. Holmes learned English so well that they made it the one language spoken in their house. Their four sons never learned to speak Swedish. Their daughter Lily learned her Swedish speech by going one summer to the Swedish Lutheran parish school kept in a barn-like building west of the church. "One summer of my keeping company with the Lutherans and having them teach me was enough for my father," Lily told me. "He was a steady member of the Swedish Methodist Church and if I had joined the Lutherans he would have taken my head off." Lily told it just so.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Always the Young Strangers"
Copyright © 1981 Margaret Sandburg, Helga Sandburg Crile, and Janet Sandburg.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The House on Berrien Street,
Father and Mother,
The Sleeping Mortgage,
Along Berrien Street,
Kid Talk — Folk Talk,
The Dirty Dozen,
Learning a Trade,
"Where Shall We Go?",
Theme in Shadow and Gold,
Pioneers and Old-Timers,
About the Author,