Before he was one of the country’s most beloved writers, Carl Sandburg was a young Milwaukeean with big dreams.
There have been few American poets who reached the level of fame and celebrity of Carl Sandburg. Of course, Sandburg was much more than just a poet. He wrote novels and children’s stories, recorded folk music and published an exhaustive six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. Later in life, he appeared regularly on television and became the first white man to ever receive the NAACP’s Silver Plaque Award for his work for the Civil Rights Movement.
But before Sandburg was a household name, he was a man of many trades from Illinois, a veteran of the Spanish-American war and a college drop-out who found himself drawn to Milwaukee by an idealist’s optimism in the city’s burgeoning Socialist movement. Arriving in the city in 1907 as age 31, he got a job as a reporter with the Milwaukee Journal and spent his free moments organizing for the Socialists. In 1908, he married Lillian Steichen, a dark-haired young woman from Menomonee Falls that he had met at a Socialist gathering. The first of the couple’s three daughters was born two years later.
In 1910, when Emil Seidel was elected Milwaukee’s first Socialist mayor, Sandburg left the Journal to take a job as Seidel’s secretary. He had high ambitions for the post, but later recalled the somewhat less-than-glamorous realities of his job. His very first official act in the new administration was to handle a citizen’s complaint about a dead dog in an alleyway. Sandburg spent only one year working for Seidel, but formed a tight friendship with the mayor, even sharing with him some of his yet-unpublished poetry.
After leaving the mayor’s office, Sandburg went back to work as a reporter, working the City Hall beat for the Milwaukee Sentinel and later writing for the Milwaukee Leader, the city’s socialist newspaper. The Sandburgs left the city in 1911, eventually settling in Chicago where Carl worked as an editor for the Chicago Daily-News. In 1919, he won his first of three Pulitzer Prizes and in 1926, he published the first volumes of his Lincoln biography.
Although Sandburg grew to consider Chicago to be his most beloved American city, he always spoke glowingly of Milwaukee and returned to the city many times after his rise to fame. “This town was good to me. I’m sentimental about this town,” he later said. “There’s a conscience operating in the politics of Wisconsin and Milwaukee that’s a little more interesting than any state in the Union.”
Sandburg died in 1967. Four years later, when the first residence halls at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus opened, the complex was named in his honor.