Our 2021 Road Trip #2: Sandburg History Theatre

Carl Sandburg bust.

Kudos to the pedestal maker who saved me the trouble of researching the sculptor credits on this Carl Sandburg bust.

Sometimes we stop at historic sites that celebrate figures or events with which we’re well acquainted. Anne the history buff is far more versed and versatile than me in this regard. Oftentimes she’s read multiple books on a given subject and offers her own supplemental trivia as we walk along, especially where Americana is involved. Also oftentimes, I’m reminded of that episode of The Office where Ryan Howard, living avatar of skin-deep youth culture, anguished over premature reports of the death of Smokey Robinson and scolded others for not grieving as intensely as he, only to reveal he only knows one Smokey Robinson song. Sometimes in our travels, I can be kind of a Ryan.

At our next attraction, we were both the Ryan. We were faintly familiar with the subject, and “faintly” is an overstatement, but we were curious to see what was to be seen. Bonus trivia for the skin-deep youths out there: our subject was a strident socialist. It’s not the source of his renown, but it’s something that a fair number of the internet’s Ryans can latch onto and add to their idol collection.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. We were each raised in a household that couldn’t afford annual out-of-state family vacations. We’re geeks more accustomed to vicarious life through the windows of pop culture than through in-person adventures. Eventually we tired of some of our self-imposed limitations and figured out how to leave the comforts of home for the chance to see creative, exciting, breathtaking, outlandish, and/or bewildering new sights in states beyond our own, from the horizons of nature to the limits of imagination, from history’s greatest hits to humanity’s deepest regrets and the sometimes quotidian, sometimes quirky stopovers in between.

We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.

Technically not even 2020 stopped us. We played by the new rules of the interim normal and wandered Indiana in multiple directions as safely as we could. This year the long-awaited vaccines arrived. For 2021 we agreed we had to go big. Our new primary objective was Yellowstone National Park, 1500 miles from Indy…

After Danville the rains died down around lunchtime and let us grab a sunny lunch in Peoria. From there we kept bearing west into Illinois and hopped off I-74 near the town of Galesburg. Famous residents in past eras have included George Reeves, Ronald Reagan, Blue Bloods costar Amy Carlson (who was also part of Ryan Reynolds’ family in Green Lantern), and, as we learned this year, three-time Pulitzer Prize Winner Carl Sandburg. The Chicago journalist and beloved poet of yesteryear, author of numerous poems as well as an acclaimed six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, was born in Galesburg in 1878. His boyhood home stands to this day as part of the Carl Sandburg State Historic Site,

Sandburg boyhood home!

Not to be confused with the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site in North Carolina, where he spent his final 22 years. Totally different site.

Carl Sandburg State Historic Site!

The official historical marker stands between the boyhood home and the museum, and in front of a generous backyard.

Marijuana Use Prohibited!

Party-hearty Sandburg fans beware: they got rules up in these parts.

We started with the museum, which was slightly larger than the boyhood home. The congenial and helpful docent was the only person on the premises when we arrived, and graciously cued up a sixteen-minute video recapping Sandburg’s lifetime highlights for the uninitiated. From there we inched around the two exhibit rooms and learned a bit more about him from the artifacts at hand — some from his years of fame, some from his earlier days. As a college dropout like me, Sandburg played a number of parts in society over the years — milkman, bricklayer, West Point attendee, Spanish-American War vet, folk singer, film critic, and more.

Carl Sandburg poem "Fog".

His classic “Fog” is the one Sandburg poem I knew going into 2021. I felt validated to find they had a copy in his own handwriting.

Carl Sandburg books.

Reprint editions of some of his earliest books.

Carl Sandburg's typewriter!

The typewriter he used for years on staff with the Chicago Daily News.

Carl Sandburg's Lincoln biography!

His Lincoln sextology began with the two-volume The Prairie Years; then came The War Years, the four-volume sequel in which Lincoln drops the ring into Mount Doom and makes his way back to The Shire, Illinois.

Carl Sandburg in Life Magazine.

Living large on the cover of Life Magazine in 1938.

Carl Sandburg stereoscope!

Among his odd jobs, Sandburg was once a stereoscope salesman.

1958 spruce and rosewood guitar.

The 1958 Framus spruce and rosewood guitar he once played at a 1960 concert in Princeton, NJ.

Carl Sandburg Poetry Goat!

A little poetry goat for the kids.

We declined the docent’s offer to walk next door and unlock the boyhood home for us, but we appreciated the gesture. We did spend some time walking around the backyard, where Sandburg’s ashes were buried under one Remembrance Rock after his death in 1967.

Carl Sandburg's Remembrance Rock.

The inscription on Remembrance Rock reads, “…for it could be a place to come and remember.”

Carl Sandburg bunny rabbit!

Also in the backyard: bunny rabbit!

Before we left, I bought myself a souvenir: a copy of the 2000 collection The Movies Are: Carl Sandburg’s Film Reviews and Essays, 1920-1928. Among his many duties for the Chicago Daily News, for a time he wrote film reviews. Most were only a few paragraphs long, a succinct pittance compared to the bloviation of today (present company included). As a value-added bonus that sold me on it, the introduction is by the late Roger Ebert. I’m seventy pages into it and so far we’ve covered Sandburg’s thoughts on:

  • His favorite performers of the era such as Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix, and Mix’s horse, Tony the Wonder Horse
  • Middling reviews for two Will Rogers flicks amid a glut of them, including one with Rogers as a Swedish sailor and silent-era title cards written in a wretched fake Swedish accent that was abhorrent to Sandburg, the son of two Swedish immigrants
  • His disdain for jingoistic “anti-bolshevist” films released under “the auspices of the Americanization committee of the motion picture industry”
  • The part where he was a big D.W. Griffith fan
  • His admiration for thespians left behind such as Olive Thomas, Pola Negri, and Fatty Arbuckle
  • Thumbs-up for a Lon Chaney film he super-loved about faith-healing called The Miracle Man that’s lost to the ages (only about three minutes of it exist to this day)
  • Articles about innovations in the works such as color cinema (which he presumed would be the wave of the future, but as of 1920 was far too expensive to be in common use) and 3-D films (one inventor’s attempt thirty years too soon was a $4 million fiasco)
  • His expressed preference for the films of William C. De Mille over those of his hack brother Cecil B.
  • Notes on a studio exec who decried how the glut of war films released after World War I largely bombed, blamed the audience and claimed their non-attendance was actually a form of censorship, then in a separate breath would complain about “too much sex stuff in the movies”
  • A few films I’ve actually heard of — The Kid, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro, a very familiar name to old Batman comics fans

…and I’m not even one-fourth of the way into the book. More to come, more to learn. At least I’m trying to learn, unlike some Ryans we know.

To be continued!

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email sign-up for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my faint signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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