Cast your vote:

A Plebiscite

A post office and federal office building is often the most prominent building in any community. It’s always been assumed that Agincourt would build one some time between 1900 and the 1920s. The office of Supervising Architect of the Treasury was responsible all these projects and during those years the office was run by James Knox Taylor, Oscar Wenderoth, and James A. Wetmore any one of them a huge improvement over the patronage-ridden years before 1900. There would have been some sort of facility before then, though it could easily have been rented space.

The easiest way to handle this, it seems to me, is to choose one of the several designs that came out of the S.A.T. office and were built multiple times. The former post office in Moorhead (that many of you will recall is now the Rourke Art Museum) in a good example: Drive to Livingston, Montana and you’ll find its near twin. So, I’ve surveyed Iowa’s post offices for those years, 1900-1920, and narrowed the field to these six examples (the eight cards above).

I have my favorites but any one of these can be photoshopped to work on the 140-foot by 150-foot site, situated next to the 1895 Richardsonian Romanesque opera house and across the street from the similarly Richardsonian county courthouse. So, I’m posting these here and on FaceBook for some outside opinion.

Cast your vote for one of these six (or nominate your own suggestion):

  • Clarinda
  • Creston
  • Marshalltown
  • Mason City
  • Oskaloosa
  • Webster City

Don’t worry about entrance location—corner, short side, long side—they can all be made to work.


Moms—the women of Agincourt

Parenthood may be among our higher aspirations. Not being one—a parent, that is, though my humanity also comes into question—I have to content myself being a pseudo-surrogate parent: i.e., a teacher.

“Mom” and “Dad” aren’t words that trip lightly from my tongue or my keyboard, but has anyone noticed that they’re both palindromes and that “mom” is also “wow” upside down? I’m just asking.

Howard hasn’t written much lately. Perhaps Mother’s Day will bring him out of semi-retirement.


A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

“Mothers and Others”

Our calendar is rife with Days, Weeks, and Months devoted to some topic, status, cause, or condition, long-term or du jour. We’ve just enjoyed National Teacher Day and Star Wars Day (“May the Fourth be with you.”). Some are blatantly commercial or have become so; promoted by florists and greeting card companies. A few mature into national holidays (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day). But just a handful are fundamental to being civilized, Mother’s Day among them.

On this day of reflection on motherhood, I’m drawn to the broader topic of women in Agincourt’s history; our mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts and cousins; even the unrelated women who’ve taught and healed and clerked and served us throughout our lives. For the moment, let my recollection stimulate your own.

A few women of Agincourt

Women who came to maturity before the 19th Amendment—before their ability to vote or even own property in their own name—women from the first years of our community’s history, often found other avenues to power.

<still working on this entry. please be patient.>

Fresh Blood

I’m old. Some days I’m especially tired. And on some of those days I’m ready to pack it in. Happily, they pass and life goes on—at least mine does for at least a little longer. Today was an especially good one and I need to set it down here as a reminder when things turn south.

Matthew Kirkwood asked if the faculty would speak to the ENVD 101 class, our introduction to environment design taken by prospective students in architecture and landscape architecture, as well as university-wide seekers of an off beat elective. I may be the only faculty who “bit” and wanted to record the experience here, just in case one of the “audience” should happen by.

I could have presented any one of three current research interests — William Halsey Wood; Building the Social Gospel (a.k.a. the Akron-Auditorium Plan); or Tangent Lives, the story of Dakota’s early Episcopal church buildings — but why burden them with more arcane information on the forgotten buildings of second-string practitioners. I fear any of those topics would have induced “nap time” at a wholesale level. So, as you might guess, Agincourt was my preferred topic, for which I updated, edited and otherwise improved a power point presentation for the seventy-five minute window of opportunity Matthew afforded me.

You may think this is pessimistic but I believe, based on forty-plus years of classroom experience, that on any one day, I’m speaking to a small percentage of those present—but I don’t always know who they are: faces aren’t always a good gauge of interest. Of the 200+ students in ENVD 101, the response was heartening. So, with time running out, I stopped reluctantly, hesitated to leave the room, and was warmed by the number who cornered me on the way out to smile and wish me well. Those are the moments we treasure in teaching and they come (for me, at least) too infrequently. [And they come, in the wake of my failed attempt at promotion, as Balm from Gilead.]

There may never be another Agincourt exhibit. Yet today’s experience makes me wonder if there aren’t a few folks out there who’ll accept my invitation to join us in the sandbox just for the learning experience.

Fire Patrol

Agincourt’s First Fire Patrol

Agincourt Fire Patrol / Broad Street at Henry (SW corner)

Fire brigades were among the earliest collective civic functions underwritten by any community. This was especially true before the laying of municipal water lines. But before I could locate the city’s first firehouse, I had to assess several issues: 1) Where were the city’s greatest fire threats? 2) Was it likely to be public or private? professional or volunteer? 3) Who was calling the shots?

In a townsite as bi-axially symmetrical as Agincourt, a “one-horse” fire department would inevitably take sides. Fortunately, the CBD was centered and compact. Two other things are true: housing in the more prosperous parts of the city was widely spaced; the houses were large, but so were the sites. It was unlikely that a fire would move like dominos, leaping from one to the next. Working class neighborhoods, on the other hand, were more dense; the construction less fire resistant, and families lived in closer quarters.

Besides businesses that were fire-prone (hardware stores selling turpentine; candy manufacturers and bakeries), there were also commercial operations at the city’s fringe (lumber yards, for example, blacksmiths, and Agincourt’s foundry; steam-powered locomotives). So, I settled on the south side, where a stray spark from a Milwaukee Road engine could easily ignite an unsupervised pile of lumber or coal. Horse-drawn wagons could still reach the north side, so a Broad Street site at Henry or David avenue would have garnered public support. You can’t please everyone.

The firehouse in this unidentified postcard seems appropriate in size and construction and my site choice is defensible. So be it.

Four Generations

The range of flea market finds has shifted considerably in even the last ten years. Postcards were once a mainstay and keep me occupied for hours, but most of that trade has shifted to the on-line auction site that shall be nameless. It is still possible to find boxes of portraits, usually staged in the photographer’s studio. They can be stiff and as uncomfortable for the viewer as they were for the subject. They can also tell a story, as this family portrait of four generations demonstrates.

I don’t need an inscription on the reverse to know that great-grandmother is holding her great-granddaughter, with the two intermediate generations standing nearby. What continues to mystify me is how and/or why such family treasures find their way into bins at a flea market.

There are scarce few “family” photographs of my relatives and so many are unidentified that they won’t be of much use to future generations. Have I just answered my own question?

This one was two bucks, by the way, and may be the seed for an Agincourt story.

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 pups, 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 prohibiting 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.