Ghosts of Christmas Past (#22): Fern Pirtle

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Fern Pirtle [1903-1978]

Growing up with an older sister as my only sibling, our dog Frank made life a little easier. Mixed breed — but mostly mutt — he came to live with us quite by accident. Explaining that will take a minute.

I was about nine or ten, growing up in a town that could have been the set for “Ozzie and Harriet”: still summer nights lit with fireflies, alive with the rhythm of cicadas; winter sledding behind passing cars; leaving my bike anywhere, with the expectation that it will be there when I come back. I was inclined to wander in those amniotic Eisenhower years.

Agincourt is a town of quadrants, each a mirror pattern of the adjacent sections but each, I was to learn, unique in its evolution. Plant the same seed in four different plots and watch the inevitable variation of organic life. The north-east quad, for example—Pill Hill—is the highest point in town, as are the salaries of its residents. The north-west, where the Tabors live, is home to the butcher, baker, candle-stick maker; the business men and women of Broad Street. South-east was the last section to populate, mostly after World War I. Later, Baby Boomers bought there because prices were low and the previous generation was heading to retirement in Arizona.

South-west Agincourt, the fourth quad where Crispin Creek meets the mighty Muskrat, has always been flood prone. Our earliest industries located there—the Syndicate Mill, the Krause foundry, and a short-lived brick-making operation—and so did the folks who filled those manufacturing jobs. Remember, “manus” is the Latin word for hand and these people worked with theirs.

The F-F-C Market at the corner of SW Fifth Street and Henry Avenue was one of my discoveries in the summer of ’54. A neighborhood institution, it served a two-block radius with a limited supply of a lot of things. When the proprietress Fern Pirtle wasn’t at the register, she was out back tending her chickens or harvesting produce from the most productive garden in town. Paving and plumbing didn’t reach that part of the city until the 1940s, so there was some speculation about “night soil” contributing to the quality of her cabbages.

Mrs. Pirtle was a widow; I think her husband Sam had died in a mill accident. Mom sent me to the F-F-C one afternoon to pick up a chicken she’d ordered—freshly killed, de-feathered and still warm, the freshest fowl in town. Mrs Pirtle’s chickens had flavor, too, probably because they enjoyed free range in the yard; they’d “scratched.” The same was true for eggs. There may have been an ordinance prohibiting livestock in city limits; but if there were, everyone looked the other way.

I liked Mrs Pirtle instantly. She had a large grandmotherly frame with, as they say, “ample bosom” and a smile I’d only seen on my great-grandmother, except Ms Pirtle was Black, complected like the tobacco in her ever-present corncob pipe.

During one of my regular visits to the F-F-C, I asked what those letters meant. “Full Faith and Credit,” she replied, “just like the U.S. government,” which meant, I learned, that very little cash changed hands. Bartering was common and she often waited until payday for folks to settle up. She was a living ledger, recalling accounts to the penny, and people knew better than short change her or contest her reckoning; a couple of her brawnier customers saw to that.

In the fall, Mrs Pirtle got news that her sister Reba had taken ill somewhere in southern Missouri. She left for a week or ten days with no one in charge, yet customers came and went; shelves were stocked; accounts kept on a yellow lined pad by the register. Pearl, her dog, was pregnant at the time, so I was asked to stop in now and then and keep an eye out. Sure enough, the day before Ms Pirtle returned on the Trailways bus, Pearl birthed five healthy pups. And the payment for my midwifery? She surprised me with one of the boys, who I promptly named Frank, for reasons I can’t now recall.

Fern Pirtle closed the store in 1973 but she still kept chickens. And the cabbages were bigger than ever,

Martin Coles Harman

Martin Coles Harman [1885-1954]

About twelve miles off the coast of Devon in the Bristol Channel lies the Island of Lundy, just over a thousand acres of rocky outcropping no more than fifty above high tide. The name — Lundy — derives from the Old Norse word for puffin, by far the island’s most numerous resident. It has been owned outright for most of the last several centuries, until acquired by the National Trust which operates it today as a bird sanctuary.

Lundy’s most colorful seigneur was English financier Martin Coles Harman. Often accused of shady dealings, Harman was bankrupt in 1932 and imprisoned for fraud in 1934-1935, but not before he was the self-titled King of Lundy, the island he had bought in 1924 for £16,000.

A virtual fiefdom, Harman ruled the island absolutely, presuming to mint his own coinage — the Puffin, in two denominations, 1 and ½ — for use only on the island. With values set to the equivalent English coins, the Puffin went into circulation in 1930, when the island had a population of just forty. This was a violation of British laws which prohibited private coinage, however, so Harman was tried a fined a nominal £15. There were bigger issues in his near future.

These coins have become collector’s items and were reproduced in 1965 from the original dies.¹ The Puffin is one of the oddities of 20th century coinage, inspiring American printer-publisher Henry Morris² to invent his own currency for the Republic of San Serriffe.

The Republic of San Serriffe

As an April Fool’s spoof in 1977, Britain’s Guardian newspaper published a seven-page hoax supplement as an elaborate tourist promotion for the recently independent Republic of San Serriffe. From its capital Bodoni to the largest harbor at Port Clarendon, pun after printer’s pun were missed by many (who took the place as real) but endearing to those in the fine printing trade, like Henry Morris, proprietor of the Bird & Bull Press. Examine the map carefully and identify all the puns.

Bird & Bull is renowned for publishing books on books, a niche market in fine printing occupied by few and most prominently by Morris until he closed its doors in 2013. But long before, in 1988, Morris had acquired several Harman coins; he also became fascinated with the San Serriffe hoax and set about minting his own commemorative coins and printing paper currency for the fictional republic that had fooled so many Britons.

Any time you’d like to see a Bird & Bull production, especially the coinage of San Serriffe, or hold one of Martin Coles Harman’s 1929 Puffins, let me know. All of this been fodder (i.e., subliminal inspiration), I think, for the fabrication of Agincourt, Iowa.

¹ The coins were struck again for Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 1977, and again in 2011 as collectibles.


² Not to be confused with Henry M. Morris (1918–2006), young earth creationist, hydrologist, scholar, apologist, and father of the creation science movement.


It’s interesting that pride as a noun represents something we take — I took pride in my daughter’s accomplishment (regardless whether I had anything to do with it)because we cannot bestow pride any more than we can grant dignity. Indeed, the active verbal form, to dignify something, has a quite negative connotation: in doing so, we give it a status it clearly doesn’t merit. So, surely we can find a better word for this weekend than “Pride”.

Beside being one of the Se7en Deadly Sins, even the dictionary doesn’t give “pride” an entirely clean bill of health: “a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.” The Church, by the way, often pairs the Seven Deadly Sins with the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell), sending a clear message that successful avoidance of the former will have implications for the latter.

Synonyms for pride run the gamut: from pleasure, joy, delight, gratification, fulfillment, satisfaction, a sense of achievement, self-esteem, dignity, honor, self-respect, self-worth, and self-regard to less desirable characteristics such as arrogance, vanity, self-importance, hubris, conceit, self-love, self-adulation, self-admiration, narcissism, egotism, superciliousness, haughtiness, or snobbishness. I might quibble with the placement of one or two — after forty years “on the couch,” I regard self-love as a potentially good thing, unless it’s carried into those terms that follow in the listing. Nevertheless, a mixed bag, if you ask me. An exceptionally minor encounter this morning is stuck in my craw and moves me to think about pride.

I stopped this morning on my way to my Sunday volunteer job to buy a coffee. As I pulled to the curb, opposite one of two favorite coffeehouses, two people sitting in the shade of a tree waved me on with “You can’t park here,” which of course I do every Sunday on the way to the same gig. Then it came to me: This is Pride Week and it is likely that a parade has been scheduled. I rolled down the passenger window and said that I would be there less than two minutes, that a latté was in my future, and the parade would be unimpeded, by me at least. The grimmer of the two gestured toward a temporary sign attached to the lamp post and reiterated “You can’t park here,” to which I repeated my promise to be gone in less time than we had already invested in the conversation, to which there was only glaring. “Is that going to work for you?” I inquired, not anticipating a reply any more satisfying than what we’d managed so far.

It briefly crossed my mind to share with them my growing hostility this morning had nothing to do with antipathy to prideful expressions by the Gay community and its supporters (among whom I count myself); that I was, myself, a member of that community; that, indeed, I and my husband were two of the litigants who helped achieve marriage equality in our state. So please do not take my insistence on parking for 120 seconds as hostility to the scheduled event; I was simply responding to their rudeness, thank you very much.

The angst of “coming out” rarely occurs to me because I don’t think I was ever “in.” Instead, I suspect I may have been neuter, a male in gender with no outward sexual orientation. For Millennials, that may be hard to grasp, but many of the 70-somethings of my acquaintance understand full well.

Another interesting aspect of LGBTQ community life is the eagerness of a few to step up to the camera or the microphone when comment from that community seems required. Every community has such spokespersons; I’ve known a few and wondered about their motivation. Finding someone who “speaks” for the Gay community is as likely as Donald Trump speaking for America. He does not and likely never will. He certainly never sought my opinion.

Now that the Supremes have given full legal status to same-sex marriage, I look in wonder at the current state of affairs. Those achievements were unthinkable even five years ago. Varying acceptance of this change is obvious in the cultural matrix of America: deeply Red states will continue to resist what may seem inevitable to some and rural communities may hold to the comforting illusion that this is an exclusively urban phenomenon. The current administration gives them hope.

“Wearing” your Gay-ness probably depends where you live but it is also affected by age. A few years ago I was at an event with a decidedly mixed audience: old and young, Gay and Straight, urban and small-town, religious and not-so-much. As an older Gay male, attending with his husband and our dog, I went through reams of “litmus” paper; each introduction, every encounter was a test of sorts. And with just one significant exception, the afternoon was a tremendous success.

That exception were the Gay 25-35 year-olds who made no effort to speak to us. In fact, they took no notice of our presence whatsoever; we were simply invisible. I can’t recall having been looked through quite so effectively. I could speculate but it would reflect more badly on me than on that generation or at least that representative sampling. I wonder if some interesting conversations were missed.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. // It is so ordered.”

I cannot imagine what is was like to have been young and alive and LGBTQ when Justice Kennedy this poetic legal opinion. But I will admit to taking more than a little pride in the moment.

What do you imagine is happening on Broad Street, The Square, and The Commons in Agincourt today. I’d give a lot to be there.

Donald Evans [1945-1977]

In a general sense, Donald Evans and I are contemporaries, both born in 1945. Coincidentally, we both studied architecture – he at Cornell, me at the more affordable University of Oklahoma – though he got somewhat farther along the path to licensure, working for some time in the NYC office of Richard Meier. I would never have made it that far, nor would I have survived in Meier’s employ. Apparently neither did Evans, for he moved to Amsterdam and lived the reclusive life of an artist, painting minute watercolors of postage stamps. He died in a hotel fire in 1977.

Evans has been mentioned here once before but I’m thinking of him again this afternoon, wondering where life’s trajectory might have taken him. What connects us, besides a year and professional path, is the odd desire to create imaginary places. Evans conceived more than forty countries — many of them island nations overlooked by all but cartographers of the imagination, dare I say it?, like myself. Oh, that we had one of his works in the Community Collection!

Do you suppose there is a monument to Evan in Amsterdam, that long-time haven for those who don’t fit elsewhere? I wonder today if there isn’t already a memorial on the steps of Agincourt’s post office, dropped on its way to the mailbox, eternally on its way and evading the “dead letter” box.

Would anyone like to design something in his memory?

Gabriel Spat [1890-1967]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

SPAT, Gabriel [1890-1967]

Three Women (obverse) / Gathering (reverse)

circa 1930

oil on wood panel / 4.75 inches by 8.25 inches

Peter and Clara Sobieski, parents of Kurt Bernhard’s first wife Clothilde, may have known artist Gabriel Spat during his Paris years. Spat painted a portrait of the Sobieski family: parents and three of their four children. This pair of studies on a wood panel was given to the Sobieskis by the artist, who had studio space at La Ruche, an artistic enclave in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, which includes the bohemian community of Montparnasse made famous in the film “Moulin Rouge.”

A catalogue for one of his post-war exhibitions includes a story about Spat’s use of scrap canvas from other more financially successful artists; in this case he has painted on both sides of a discarded cigar box lid.

WHW and B. F. Cooley

In the “Six degrees of separation” department, here are a few more words on the Rev Benjamin Franklin Cooley [1835-1913], born twenty years before Halsey Wood and outliving him by sixteen. I’ve invoked Fr Cooley here before, at a different blog and in the context of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Lisbon, Dakota Territory, a congregation he helped to found and whose church design he influenced.

From his base in Fargo, DT, Father Cooley became the Episcopal counterpart of a circuit rider, itinerant clergy who routinely service multiple congregations, usually on a cycle of visitation. Holding a normal Sunday service at Christ Church [later renamed Gethsemane], Cooley would board a train for the 25-50 mile journey to Mayville, Casselton, Buffalo, Lisbon, and other hamlets not large enough to support their own resident priest. Cooley was the right person in the right place at the right time: a “high church” Anglo-Catholic with a passion for ritual and its proper setting. He and his wife Ellen had come to Fargo in 1881 with the likely mission to establish the Episcopal denomination in an area already peppered with Methodist, Congregational, Presbyterian and the occasional Baptist churches. With Roman Catholics already firmly established, Episcopalians had to play catchup, and Cooley was soon joined by another ideal collaborator: emigrant architect George Hancock [1849-1924], educated in England and no doubt sporting a proper British accent in an essentially Yankee population.

The dynamic duo of Cooley and Hancock set about creating a de facto corporate image for the Protestant Episcopal church: Cooley organized a parish and found resources to build (materials and money) and Hancock served as architect — though that division of labor may be too absolute. They were able to work so closely because the bishop was situated hundreds of miles away in Omaha; Rt Rev Robert Harper Clarkson administered his own diocese of Nebraska, as well as the missionary jurisdiction of Dakota, incorporating the entire area of what would become North and South Dakota. Clarkson died in 1884, just 58 years old and already worn out by the magnitude of the task. Cooley and Hancock were joined by Rt Rev W. D. Walker, elected bishop of a newly established Missionary Diocese. The three-way division of labor allowed Cooley to focus on parish organization, Walker to raise funds [he spent more time out of the diocese than in; he was well connected in the East], and Hancock provided design serves and construction supervision. It may have been an ideal relationship, because the product is still scattered from Lisbon to Devils Lake.

Right now you may be asking yourself two questions: Who is this Cooley guy and what are his clerical and architectural credentials? And what circumstances might have crossed his path with that of William Halsey Wood? Fair enough.

In brief, B. F. Cooley was born in western Massachusetts in 1834. For the time being, let me summarize his life in a bulleted list:

  • Born into the modestly prosperous Cooley family of Granville, Massachusetts.
  • Made a deacon in 1861 in Connecticut.
  • Attended Nashotah Seminary in Wisconsin for a year some time in the early 1860s; Nashotah is renowned for its “high church” traditions. Cooley’s record there is slim: he was remembered as being “all music”.
  • Ordained in 1865 in Massachusetts by Bp Manton Eastburn who, it should be noted was decidedly not High Church. This eventually got him in trouble.
  • Married in January 1867 to Ellen Josephine Hodges, who plays heavily in the story much later. Rev and Mrs Cooley led a peripatetic life, as many clergy do, serving congregations in Connecticut, New York, and at multiple places in Massachusetts before being disciplined by Eastburn for the “Romish” quality of his service. About this time, Cooley was in charge of Christ Church, Medway, where he worked with architects to design their new church.
  • When things got too hot with Manton Eastburn, Cooley “hid out” in the handful of High Church parishes that existed in New England, chief among them St Anne’s, Lowell, and nearby Chelmsford. But in one case he left the region for several months and became head of music at the House of Prayer in Newark, New Jersey. Would it surprise you to learn that the choir director at the House of Prayer was one William Halsey Wood, budding architect and whose churchmanship equaled that of Cooley.
  • For reasons not yet known, Cooley accepted the call westward and came to Christ Church, Fargo, in Dakota Territory, a position he held from 1881 until being summarily dismissed for unspecified charges — though I suspect what they may have been.
  • After leaving Fargo in November 1885, Cooley went to parishes in Sycamore, IL, Milwaukee and Eau Claire, WI, and finally back to familiar turf in New England.
  • He died at the home of his mother in Westfield, MA on 07 August 1913 and was buried at Pine Hill Cemetery. His obituary called him a pioneer in the Oxford Movement (code words for High Church) but summarizes most of his life by saying that “he went West.”

So far, so good. Cooley has met Wood and no doubt found much to talk about.

The architecture of frontier churches was often put in the hands of itinerant carpenter–builders with little experience in the design of Episcopal churches for Anglo-Catholic services. What they often got were rude wood boxes without even proper liturgical orientation. So bishops like Robert Clarkson [remember him?] put out a call for eastern architects to volunteer their services in the interest of improving the quality of frontier architecture, the theory being one such church could serve as a model for others and raise the general quality of design. Bishop Clarkson did just that and employed Henry G. Harrison for the Gothic Revival cathedral at Omaha, Henry Rutgers Marshall for Bismarck, and Charles M. Burns for Sioux Falls. William Halsey Wood was also called into service, designing church in Kansas City, and the cathedral in Laramie, Wyoming, probably never visiting either site. There is evidence that Wood was also consulted on the cathedral in Boise, in addition to having designed St Margaret’s School for Girls there.

Fast forward to the 1890s. Dakota Territory had become two states but a sequence of bad winters and decimated both agricultural production and livestock. Those conditions were compounded by the Panic of 1893, one consequence being a downturn in population growth, so the construction of a proper cathedral in Fargo was delayed. In the meantime, however, Bishop Walker had consulted Halsey Wood on one of his eastern tours of fund raising. Wood provided a potential design — probably an unbuilt project for another client — but that was rejected for unknown reasons and, instead, a more conservative (and probably economical) design came from local architect George Hancock. Even that was beyond the budget, for Hancock’s original design in masonry was built in wood and painted red.

Gethsemane Cathedral (formerly Christ Church) Fargo, ND


B. F. Cooley and William Halsey are both linked with me and my interests. So it was reassuring to discover that they were linked with one another, despite me. And they are both implicated in the Agincourt Project:

  1. WHW designed the second Fennimore County court house in 1888.
  2. WHW designed a house in Orange, NJ for C. S. French, a house that served as the basis for a doll house Anson built for his sister Claire in 1905.
  3. WHW design the Episcopal church at Mantoloking, NJ, which Anson and his family visited in the summer of 1912. Anson returned home and crafted a set of building block based on that church.
  4. The peripatetic Father B. F. Cooley made a six-month stop at Saint-Joseph-the-Carpenter on his return eastward.

“The Forum, Rome” by P. Lacombe


[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

P. Lacombe (dates unknown)

The Forum, Rome


oil on panel /  13.5 inches by 10.5 inches (unframed)

Lacombe’s painting of the Forum in ancient Rome looks east toward the Colosseum, a view framed by the Arch of Septimus Severus. The columned fragment to the left of center is the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina.