Carl Sandburg’s First House

Hog Butcher for the World,

Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;

Stormy, husky, brawling,

City of the Big Shoulders . . .

There was a time when every child in a Chicago school learned those words. They are the opening lines of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago.”

Sandburg was born in Galesburg in 1878, the son of Swedish immigrants. As a young man he drifted through a series of jobs—milkman, bricklayer, fireman, soldier, hobo, political organizer for the Social Democratic Party. Then he got married.

Sandburg and his wife Lillian settled in Chicago in 1912. Carl became a reporter at a small newspaper, and rented an apartment at 4646 North Hermitage Avenue in Uptown. While living there he wrote “Chicago.” It was published in the March 1914 issue of Poetry magazine.

Soon after the poem appeared, Sandburg abandoned the city in favor of a suburb. He bought a small frame house at 616 South Eighth Avenue in Maywood. The purchase was facilitated by a $500 loan from a family friend.

Carl Sandburg’s Maywood house

The couple was thrilled to have a place of their own, where they could “start growing things in our own soil.” There was already a cherry tree in the backyard suitable for producing pies and preserves. They added beds of strawberries and gooseberries, and started a vegetable garden. Carl converted a second-floor bedroom overlooking the cherry tree into his study.

He’d been writing stories and poetry for years, with little success. Now that began to change. Sandburg’s collection Chicago Poems appeared in 1916. Then he landed a reporter’s job at a “real newspaper,” the Chicago Daily News. In 1919, now with three young daughters to raise, he moved to a larger house at 331 South York Street in Elmhurst

There were more poetry anthologies, and a book on the 1919 Chicago race riot, and a series of children’s books. Sandburg was gaining a national reputation. His publisher suggested he write a Lincoln biography for young people. In 1926 he emerged from his research with Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years. The children’s book had morphed into an adult book in two volumes.

The Lincoln book was a best-seller and ended Sandburg’s financial worries. The book also made him a literary lion. For the rest of his long life, he was as famous for being Carl Sandburg as for anything he wrote.

Sandburg moved from Elmhurst to Michigan in 1930, and eventually settled in the hill country of North Carolina. The Lincoln biography grew to a total of six volumes, with the publication of Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. He won three Pulitzer prizes, two for poetry and one for the Lincoln books. In 1959 he even won a Grammy for his narration of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait.

Though he lived elsewhere after 1930, Sandburg remained one of Chicago’s favorite sons. In 1960 his name was used on an urban renewal project designed to provide affordable rental units while stabilizing the west end of the Gold Coast—Sandburg Village. And he often returned to the city that made him famous. When suburban Orland Park named a high school in his honor, Sandburg came to the dedication and had a grand time, telling stories and singing ballads.

Sandburg and an admirer (1962)

He had been a workingman. He always cultivated the image of the people’s poet, with rumpled clothing and unkempt hair. A few years after the dedication, he decided to revisit “his” high school. By then a different principal was in charge. The new man thought Sandburg was a panhandler and threw him out.

Carl Sandburg died in 1967. Some years earlier he had summed up his philosophy this way: “What I need mainly is three things in life, possibly four—to be out of jail, to eat regular, to get what I write printed, and then a little love at home and a little outside.”

Sandburg’s first house still stands on Eighth Avenue in Maywood, a private residence. The Hermitage Avenue home in the city is recognized with an official “Chicago Tribute” marker, and is also a private residence. The house in Elmhurst was torn down many years ago.

—30—

This is just one of the 60 stories in my most recent book, Hidden Chicago Landmarks.  Available at local bookstores or on Amazon.

2 Responses to “Carl Sandburg’s First House”


  1. 1 Chris January 28, 2020 at 9:37 pm

    Mr. Schmidt, do you have books dedicated to all of your old photos from Portage Park and the NW side of Chicago? I love this blog and I am fascinated by old Chicago history, especially of the neighborhood in which I grew up. I truly wish I had thought to take photos of all the old haunts I grew up with in the ’90s, like Titan Sports and Just Games.

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt January 28, 2020 at 10:41 pm

      Chris–Thanks for writing. I have hundreds of old photos—in variable quality—that I’ve taken in different parts of the city over the past sixty years. Their commercial value is nil. But one of the nice things about having a blog is that I get to share those photos with other interested people. And now I’m also able to use some of them in my books about Chicago. So keep watching for them!
      –JRS


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