Carl Sandburg: Traveling Salesman

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Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on Carl Sandberg.. The second story will appear in the Thursday, April 21, edition of the Bureau County Republican.

In the summer of 1900, an enterprising young man from Galesburg bicycled around Bureau County selling a popular form of home entertainment at the time: Underwood & Underwood stereographic photographs. The 22 year old was eager for the opportunity. As he wrote in a posthumously published autobiography:  “... for the first time in my life I was assigned territory, all of Bureau County, Illinois, where no other Underwood and Underwood salesmen could sell what I was selling ... It was exclusive” (Ever the Winds of Chance, University of Illinois Press, 1983).

The name of the young man was Charles Sandburg. Several years later he would reclaim his given Swedish first name, and by 1920 become widely known as the poet Carl Sandburg. The son of a Swedish immigrant railroad worker, Sandburg had been a laborer in Galesburg from his early teens. In 1897 he’d ridden the rails west in search of work, and in 1898 he’d spent two months in Puerto Rico, as part of an Illinois regiment in the Spanish-American War.

Although Sandburg had quit school after eighth grade, he enrolled in Galesburg’s Lombard College, and as a veteran, attended for free. A good friend introduced Sandburg to the business of selling stereo photos, which turned out to be a pretty cush summer job for a college student.

“In the second week of June I got on my bicycle, suitcase in a front wire basket, rode out of Galesburg, through the village of Wataga, the towns of Oneida and Galva, the city of Kewanee, and a few miles on to the village of Neponset,” wrote Sandburg. He registered in one of the town’s three hotels where his room cost him $3 a week, and he could get meals for 25 cents each.

Sandburg’s summer in Bureau County seems to have agreed with him. He found an affinity with hard-working rural and town people alike.

“I learned that with most common folks it was better to say ‘views,’ which sounded easier and more sensible.” He would show them photos of President McKinley or William Jennings Bryan or pictures of Paris, Rome, Cairo or Jerusalem, places they could travel to in their imaginations. If people hesitated, he would read from his order book “the names of the Neponset prominent citizens and any well-to-do farmers who had stereoscopes.”

Sandburg frequently gave families a discount on their purchase in exchange for dinner. Sometimes a family would give him lodging, supper and breakfast, for which Sandburg paid them in “views.” He enjoyed breaking bread with “farmer, wife, hired man, children.“ Fifty years later, he described these times as “some of the most pleasant dinner hours I have ever had.”

After Neponset, Sandburg went on to sell his wares in other parts of the county, mentioning in his autobiography Sheffield and Tiskilwa in particular. In August he rode his bicycle back to Galesburg, having made something more than $100. For a time afterwards, while he was developing his skills as an orator and poet, he would occasionally resume selling “views.”

Sandburg’s time in Neponset inspired at least one poem about the town. Titled “Pods,” it appears in “Smoke and Steel,” a book of his poetry published in 1920. Reading the poem today, one can easily picture a young Carl Sandburg on a warm summer night a century ago listening to the trains rumble through Neponset – just as they still do.


By Carl Sandburg

Pea pods cling to stems.

Neponset, the village,

Clings to the Burlington railway main line.

Terrible midnight limiteds roar through

Hauling sleepers to the Rockies and Sierras.

The Earth is slightly shaken.

And Neponset trembles slightly in its sleep.