Will Car­leton, 19th-century poet from Hillsdale, wrote “Farm Fes­tivals.” Amazon.

After repeated requests from his readers, William Car­leton, a 1869 graduate of Hillsdale College and inter­na­tionally-rec­og­nized poet, editor, and lec­turer, described the inspi­ration for his most well-known poem:

“Over there to the west, in Hillsdale, there stood in the old days a county poor­house,” he said. “Some­times, I used to visit the inmates there and hear their troubles. And some­times I used to see old people … who had out their property in the hands of their children, passing up the road on their way to the poor­house on the other side of the hill.”

The poem “Over the Hill to the Poor­house” exem­plifies the simple sto­ry­telling that would enthrall readers with the ballads and speeches of this Michigan native, a man who would make a career of speaking to and for rural people at the turn of the 20th century.

Pub­lished in June 1871, the poem has a setting that is right out of Carleton’s childhood as the son of a Hudson, Michigan, farmer. Car­leton enrolled at Hillsdale College in 1858 after being rejected by the Union Army at age 15, and then left college after a year when his sparse knowledge of the classics and his finances bot­tomed out.

But Car­leton wasn’t fin­ished. He became a teacher, earned money to pay for tuition, studied Greek and Latin in his off hours, and returned to Hillsdale a few years later. The second time around, the 19-year-old was a whirlwind: he com­posed essays in verse, joined lit­er­ature and forensics clubs, formed a brass band, and wrote for out-of-town news­papers for pocket change. For his grad­u­ation, he com­posed a poem entitled “Rifts in the Cloud,” and was sent off with a tri­umphant tribute when the pres­ident of the college threw a bouquet of flowers. According to his later retellings, the gesture caught him off guard and knocked him over.

Writing for news­papers tossed Car­leton into pol­itics, where he read his poem “Fax” at rallies during the vice-pres­i­dential cam­paign of a man named Schuyler Colfax. The 500-line poem warned voters to follow the “facts” and vote against the “Demo­c­ratic rascals.” The pam­phlet sold for 15 cents and paid for much of Carleton’s tuition for his senior year at Hillsdale.

But despite his early suc­cesses in pol­itics and oratory, it was his down-home voice that sold audi­ences on the young poet. When Harper’s Illus­trated Weekly — one of the country’s two biggest pub­li­ca­tions at the time — pub­lished “Over the Hill to the Poor­house” in 1871, Carleton’s readers were drawn to the story of a dig­nified farm wife who fell on hard times. The poem begins in Carleton’s sig­nature homey voice:

“Over the hill to the poor-house I’m trudgin’ my weary way — / I, a woman of seventy, and only a trifle gray — / I, who am smart an’ chipper, for all the years I’ve told, / As many another woman that’s only half as old.”

The poem’s use of ver­nacular dialects was somewhat unusual at the time; Car­leton told stories about proof­readers who tossed an early copy of one of his poetry sub­mis­sions in the trash bin, thinking it junk mail from an aspiring “poet” who couldn’t spell. But it is this country talk that made his work a hit. After the success of “Poor­house” and “Betsey and I Are Out,” Harper’s Illus­trated Weekly pub­lished Carleton’s second col­lection of poems — his first, with typical Car­letonian pluck, had been essen­tially self-pub­lished two years earlier — and sold 100,000 copies of the young poet’s “Farm Ballads.”

This was fol­lowed by “Farm Fes­tivals,” and then by “City Ballads” and “City Fes­tivals” when Car­leton moved to Boston, Mass­a­chu­setts, in 1878 and then to New York in 1882. The poet enjoyed happy endings that still reflected the lives of the people, and so “Poor­house” had a sequel called “On the Road from the Poor­house,” and Carleton’s stories fol­lowed the rural people as they migrated into the city, just as he had done.

In New York, Car­leton started a mag­azine called Every­where, and kept up a lecture schedule that nearly took him there, as he spoke and read his poetry in England, Canada, and throughout the United States. And it was as a lec­turer and sto­ry­teller that Car­leton shone; people came from farms, towns, and city neigh­bor­hoods to hear their poet tell stories that sounded much like their own lives.

And they read his mag­azine, too: though the pub­li­cation was no huge success, it did allow Car­leton to publish his own work, to travel, and to per­suade the likes of Andrew Carnegie to give money to various phil­an­thropic cam­paigns. His biog­rapher Jerome A. Fallon noted that Car­leton fronted a fundraiser for the hym­n­writer Fanny Crosby when he heard she had fallen on hard times in Brooklyn. There would be no poor­house for Crosby with Car­leton around. And when Car­leton returned to Hillsdale for a com­mencement address in 1892, the town over­flowed with admirers.

It is perhaps more this noto­riety than the merits of his verse that kept Carleton’s poetry in the spot­light. Fallon said Carleton’s poetry was anal­ogous to the popular but trite paintings of Norman Rockwell: “Some say that Will Car­leton was not a great poet, but a jour­nalist who wrote about the social issues of his time in poetic fashion. But Car­leton reached mil­lions of American minds and hearts, changing atti­tudes and behaviors in a way that few ‘great’ poets have ever done.”

And Car­leton himself spoke humbly of the poem that brought him success with its story of hardship: “Many a more elab­orate poem, with which was taken ten times the care, has failed to produce as much impression upon the public heart.”

Perhaps, but the heads of many loyal readers of “Farm Ballads” would have nodded in agreement with the obituary that ran in Harper’s Weekly after Carleton’s death in 1912: “There is hardly an English-speaking home in America … where ‘Over the Hill to the Poor­house’ and ‘Betsey and I Are Out’ are unknown … if he occupied a com­par­a­tively small space in the columns of the peri­odical press it was because he had been known so long that he had been accepted as an insti­tution.”