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History as Genealogy

One of the most valuable tools for my sort of research has been genealogy. So a subscription to ancestry.com had been a good investment for several years–until the annual fees got beyond my budget. Recently I’ve had to be content with the freebie NDSU library edition.

Genealogy is an odd activity for me, since my own family is so small, particularly in this part of the world where a half dozen children is average and the number of cousins can get well into double digits. Anyone who claims to be closely related to me is lying, though I can’t imagine why they’d want to. As the only child of an only child, I’m the last member of my line and reasonably content to be snuffing it out. So how does genealogy contribute to my research activities? 

One very long-range project has been identification of every architect active on the Great Plains before 1930. Just for grins, I’ve extended the project boundaries to include all states from Texas to North Dakota, as well as Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and the three Canadian “Prairie Provinces” of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Aside from city and regional directories, you’d be surprised how much information can be gleaned from genealogical sources. Much of this material is now available on-line. So the prospect of a name at a place during a period of time can now be fleshed out with tidbits about emigration, education, apprenticeship and other useful stuff. There are 2,400 names in my database that I’d love to share with you all.

When it came to imagining Anson Curtiss Tennant (1889-1915/1968), an isolated young man coming to architectural practice circa 1912 was simply not enough. He required parents and siblings; a support network of extended family; relationships through marriage that might prove useful in establishing a practice. Relationships are (I’ve been led to believe) a two-way street, so Anson’s connections would be a way to both give and receive. 


Anson’s family tree grew during a year or two and might grow again. You’ll find him just to the right of center in the fifth generation, with sisters Lucy, Mollie and Claire. 

In the spirit of “war brides” from yesterday’s blog, I recalled Anson’s niece Mary Grace Tabor. She was also Howard Tabor’s aunt (he writes today for the Daily Plantagenet) and the founder of a Montessori school circa 1951 (conceived by Agincourt contributors Vince and Carol Hatlen). While Mary Grace was studying Maria Montessori’s methods, she met Kurt Bernhard, a French refugee of sorts, a widower with a son by his first wife Clothilde Sobieski. The first Mrs Bernhard had been a civilian casualty during the German occupation of Paris. I’m guessing there’s a story here.

The whole Tennant-Tabor family have been fertile ground for community history–a vein that my friend Howard will never completely excavate.

War Brides

Themes can be valuable tools for sketching the history of any community. Agincourt is no exception. Some come immediately to mind–public health, the Great Depression, war and peace, for example. One that didn’t occur to me came from Mitch Dressel as we prepared the 2007 exhibit.

Mitch proposed to create Agincourt’s first pizza shop. He would design the twenty-five-foot store front on South Broad Street–certainly the remodeling of an existing building–but he wanted to go well beyond that, researching and crafting the menu (with appropriate 1950s prices); even the play list on the jukebox hadn’t escaped his attention. At the exhibit opening, the only thing missing was Mitch in a poodle skirt.

His back story, however, was inspired. This ’50s teen hangout was opened by a couple (whose names escape me; sorry, Mitch) barely out of their own teens. He was a local boy, but his wife was an Italian war bride whose family recipes for pizza and pasta came with her, directly from Napoli. Not incidentally, that exhibit opened my eyes to the breadth of our students’ experience and their ability to imagine lives well beyond their own.


I don’t know the number of Iowa men who served in the Italian campaign, but I’m guessing that more than a few did one or both of these things: 1) they left pregnant women behind, or 2) they brought brides home to surprised families and friends. Mitch’s story line was a typical “American Tale” acted out in communities across the country. In my own limited experience, there are two war brides of my acquaintance: Bill Burgett, who taught architectural history at the University of Oklahoma in the 1960s, was married to a beautiful woman from Italy; I was often a guest in their home. And at the local Sons of Norway lodge I’ve much more recently made the acquaintance of Gerda Johnson, a delightful Polish woman who married a Norwegian-American soldier from the Red River Valley. As a twenty-something I didn’t have the perspective to ask Mrs Burgett about her wartime experiences, but Gerda has been forthcoming with uncomfortable stories about the Russian treatment of young Polish girls–too grim to share with you here. Mrs Johnson’s reminiscences make me ashamed of my species.

Even Anson Tennant’s family sprouted a branch with wartime connections, but I’ll save that for another day. Suffice to say our nation of immigrants was further enriched this way.

Do you suppose there were war husbands? 


Just down Whitehall from London’s Trafalgar Square is the Banqueting Hall, first and, regrettably, only phase of Charles I’s proposed Palace at Whitehall. Charles was trying to keep up with the Joneses (read: French monarchy) and had commissioned his architect Inigo Jones to create a royal residence comparable with the Tuileries in Paris. As one of England’s earliest proponents of the Renaissance, Jones drew from a recent continental tour, especially his visit to the Veneto and the work of Andrea Palladio. What resulted was an elegantly appointed hall for royal entertainments. 


During your visit, don’t forget to look up, where Peter Paul Rubens–commissioned to decorate the ceilings with allegorical works reinforcing the Divine Right of Kings–breached the fine line between art and propaganda with a central panel titled “The Apotheosis of James I.” James was Charles’s father. 


Art is often called into public service. This was surely the case during our Great Depression when a mythologized America helped us through a difficult time. We could use a few constructive myths right now to accomplish the same thing.

Agincourt’s city hall was a WPA product of 1938, designed by an imagined architect but conceived by the very real Prof Steve Martens; Steve has recently completed a massive study of the WPA in North Dakota. Though he never mentioned specific examples of public art near, on or in the building, I have a feeling there’s a powerful mural surrounding the City Council Chamber. I have an even stronger feeling that it tells the chronological story our Civic Life–in the abstract (as myth) and the particular (as editorial). Now if I can just persuade some art students to undertake its realization.


WPA Mural by Henry Sternberg (1938); Lakeview Branch Post Office, Chicago, IL

Mappa Mundi (continued)

In The Island of Lost Maps, Miles Harvey recalls a game played with his parents on family trips. His father would wake him from a travel nap and quickly ask “Which direction are we driving?” Still fogged with half-sleep, Miles could reply “North” with assurance. “See?” father would say to mother, “I told you.” Young Harvey had (and still has, he believes) a built-in geo-positioning sense that rarely fails. It may just be a “guy thing”–never admitting to being lost–but I have a similar gift.

Maps simply become a part of my database. Feel free to test me some time.

Mental mapping can be a revealing exercise. Ask children to map their world and you’ll discover what matters in their lives: friends’ homes, playgrounds, school (maybe), landmarks of every sort that vary with gender and age. Our lives are regulated by a Tinker-Toy-like assemblage of nodes and links. I recall a speaker several years ago who had done some neighborhood planning that began with a 1960s-style workshop. On huge sheets of newsprint stretched across a gymnasium floor, neighbors drew the places that had personal meaning; negotiated their relative importance; and, in the process, learned a great deal more about one another, I suspect.

As I have watched the plan of Agincourt evolve, it’s easy to role play; to be a letter carrier, a school kid, a shopper–even a Jehovah’s Witness–as they go about their business. As I walk from home to the public library, what path will I take? What shortcut will save time? What detour will permit a stop at the candy store. And on the way, what will I discover that was lost or thrown away? What might I see that I shouldn’t? Who might I encounter that could alter the course of my day or, perhaps, even my life?

Agincourt’s Alleys

Agincourt’s original townsite came to me quickly–a last gasp of Enlightenment ideals tempered by mid-19th century railway pragmatism. There have since been two major changes to that plan: the replacement of numbered avenues with the names of New England authors (some very welcome civic meddling by the Ladies’ Literary Society) and the recognition that alleys can be at least as significant as streets.

Folk singer Pete Seeger wrote a song about “The House with the Queen Anne Front and the Mary Anne Behind.” Think of your hometown: recall easily who lived on either side of your own home, but I’ll bet the folks across the alley were more familiar than the people across the street. Twenty years ago, when I first moved into a downtown Fargo ghetto, my closest acquaintances were Minnie Rehnquist and Marcella Depute–garbage can buddies from just across the alley. Perhaps this is why I couldn’t live in the ‘burbs: no alleys.

The reconsideration of alleys became an opportunity to enrich the texture of neighborhoods. A block-long length of alley beside Adams Restaurant, for example, was named by petition to honor the passing of Mrs Maud Adams. The lane behind First Baptist Church became Roger Williams Alley as it morphed into a de facto retirement community. Carousel Alley grew from the city’s acquisition of a circus merry-go-round, installed on The Commons in the 1930s.

A half-block length of alley was created about 1900 from two ten-foot strips shaved from original lots. Developers of the Blenheim Hotel got a fourth side for rooms and Mrs Annabelle Miller received enough cash to build a whore house. It was a win-win scenario. 

So, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s map of Treasure Island, the developing plat of Agincourt has generated both characters and the narratives of their lives.


Mappa Mundi

I am a frequent traveler to the Land of Serendip.

At about 5:00 this morning I finished a book (reading, not writing it, sorry to say) and wandered to the shelves opposite my bed for something to tide me over until dawn. Two down from the top of an old pile was Miles Harvey’s The Island of Lost Maps, which I had read about eight or nine years ago. Architecture was not my first career choice: I had earlier wanted to be a cartographer.

What was the first map that I held? Our family didn’t subscribe to magazines, so National Geographic was right out. Much more likely were the freebie maps that gas stations once offered for the asking. We had a rack of them just inside the door of my dad’s Phillips 66 gas station (at 6455 South Archer Road, Bedford Park, Illinois; GLobe 8-9563; this was long before either ZIP or Area Codes). In fact, one of my earliest jobs was replenishing the rack from a supply behind the counter. Whatever the source, maps of all sorts filled some deep need within me. Hindsight suggests they did not represent escape so much as exploration. It’s that syzygetic pairing of boundaries and horizons: boundaries are an impediment; horizons an invitation. I am eternally expectant of the surprise that lies beyond the limits of my sight.

Wonderfully mired in Miles Harvey’s second chapter “Imaginary Creatures”—a rumination on maps, seasoned with quotes from various authors—I found a key to the emerging plat of Agincourt.


I thought about the meaning of plan, plat and map—each both noun and verb—and found comfort in Harvey’s observation that “a map provides no answers. It only suggests where to look.” Harvey also adds two revelatory quotes from Robert Louis Stevenson, whose Treasure Island was a map before it was a book.

As I pored upon my map of Treasure Island, the future characters of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods;…they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection….

It is my contention—my superstition, if you like—that he who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it, his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support…. The tale has a root there: it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words…. As he studies [the map], relations will appear that he had not thought upon.

Stevenson was right.


How do you suppose Agincourt spent the day?

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month a moment of silence ought to have been observed. But, after all, I was raised by a grandparent in her mid-twenties when The Great War ended. On more than one occasion I’ve even lapsed into old-speak and called it Armistice Day.

In an earlier blog I’ve admitted having little contact with war. Few male relatives and fewer yet in military service. No Rosie the Riveter, either, though my mother would have made a good one. Crossing a busy street in Rome is the closest I’ve been to harm’s way. But as an only child, a solitary and sedentary child, I ruminated–a lot. Retro- and introspection can be therapeutic. It works for us as individuals and as a society; that’s what today is about.


Do you suppose Maya Lin saw this image from the trenches of World War I? A gouge in the earth devoid of the living, death is also absent, though perhaps lurking around each corner. Evocative stories came from those trenches, as did poetry and art. Erich Mendelsohn produced some of his most dynamic ink drawings waiting for the Brits or the Americans to attack. He survived; millions didn’t.

Wars are fought for various reasons, but their immediate and long term effects are more or less the same. That’s what we recollect today.

Heresy, Apostacy, Blasphemy 1.2

Faith is a simple thing. Either you have it or you don’t. But the ABC World News last night offered an interesting kink to my oversimplification.

The teaser to last night’s report hinted at a number of pastors hiding something from their flocks, leaving us to stew during the commercial break what their secret might be. Clearly some denominatinos have more to hide than others–matters of sexual abuse, for example. But the revelation last night shouldn’t have surprised anyone: many ministers–who spend hours studying the Bible, scouring its text for sermons, counseling, etc.–have concluded that what we take for its richness is simple contradiction. They have lost their faith through the study of its principal source. Father Karcher must have sought consolation in those pages, shifting six times among four denominations during his lifetime and, perhaps, never finding peace from his study of The Book or its many interpretations. I can identify.

I cannot claim for the 19th century a range of spirituality broader than that in our own time. J. K. Karcher was hardly typical of his age, but his spiritual odyssey makes the point: people shifted between and among religions with frequency and conviction, if not with permanence or ease. In America, this was true for denominational change within Christianity, as it was for sectarian change between Christianity and other faiths. Today most of us would find the phrase “liberal religion” a contradiction in terms; I do not and neither would many during the 150-plus years that Agincourt has existed.

At times of stress and indecision, I too have searched for answers in religion. But even Unitarian-Universalism has left me stone cold sober and shaking my head in confirmed disbelief. So, while I can imagine a group who’ve elected to share that quest, and while I might also welcome such a client’s need to give form to that collective inquiry, I must also agree with Groucho Marx: “I won’t belong to any organization that would have me as a member.” And with Thomas Jefferson, who was the only member of a denomination of one.

For Agincourt, I’ve decided once again to borrow someone from my research files: Frank H. Irons, itinerant journalist and real estate agent, who was both an Episcopalian and a Unitarian during the years he lived in Fargo. The story of Frank and Susan Irons is doubly tragic–perhaps a decisive test of their faith–because they lost two children to a needless epidemic brought on by laissez faire city government disinterested in regulating Capitalist free enterprise within the Fargo corporate limits.

Though the story is not fully formed, I think Franklin Irons will be station agent for the Milwaukee Road, beneficiary of the bureaucratic snafu that delivers two water towers some time in the 1930s. The site: a twenty-five-foot square of junk real estate, on Carousel Alley behind Hradek’s shoe repair.

Stay tuned.

PS[12Jan2021]: Friends know that my attention span has yet to be exceeded. And so it is with the story of the five children lost by the Irons and Birge families here in Fargo in the Fall of 1882. Yesterday I related the outline of the story to some associates — I think they’d like that characterization — and today I went back to ancestry.com, since there are new databases added and old ones expanded every day. Here’s what I found:

  • Franklin Henry Irons [1846-1905] was resident in Fargo from at least 1882 until at least 1900; he died in Kansas City in’05.
  • Martha Susan (née Parrish) [1848-1910] appeared in most sources as Susan M. or M. Susan; she died in California, possibly Los Angeles.
  • She bore eleven children! Walter B. [1869-1875]; Robert Ingersoll [1871-]; Charles Frank [1875-1882]; Susan Mae [1876-1959]; Peretic [1878-1882]; Jennie [1880-?]; Victor Hugo [1883-1936]; Edward Darrow [1884-1964]; Blanche C. [1886-1958]; Stella B. [1887-1958]; William Henry [1889-1940]. Those in red died in Fargo of an unidentified fever; those in blue were born in Fargo and survived their residence here. Oh, and Peretic was a boy; hadn’t figured that out until today.

The reason the Irons and Birge families interest me in that they lost a total of five children from a mysterious fever contract in the neighborhood west of University and South of 12th Avenue in the Fall of 1882. What we call Co. Drain #3 — the soccer field near student housing — is labeled “Long Lake” on early maps, a flattering name, because it was actually a dumping ground for offal, all the “leftovers” from slaughter, because it was beyond city limits and civic control. Normal burial was impossible, because roads to the cemetery were impassible, so my friend Rev. B. F. Cooley permitted burial on Gethsemane church grounds, within city limits and in violation of city ordinance, for which he was fined $50, worth about $1200 today. I’m sure you appreciate the irony: the city did nothing about the likely cause of death, yet find Cooley for doing the human thing. Some things never change.

Now, here’s the weirdness: I used the Irons family to tell the story of the 1918 pandemic in Agincourt. And also as a way to write about crises of faith. I’m guessing you didn’t notice the link with atheism, or agnosticism at best: The second Irons child was Robert Ingersoll Irons, named for the most (in)famous atheist in 19th century America. I had not know about any of the children except those who had died here.

Road Trip

The weather in Chicago this past weekend was legendary–moderately windy and bright blue skies most of the day. There is just something about the screech of metal-against-metal as the L-trains round their tight curves that tells me I’m home. If I thought it even remotely possible to find work in Chicago, it would be hard to stay in North Dakota.

For reading matter on the bus and in the hotel room, I brought along The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan, long awaited product of the Richard Nickel Committee. Sullivan officianados/fans/freaks will recall that Richard Nickel undertook a documentation project as a student of photography at IIT, a project that literally ended his life in 1972 while recording the destruction of A&S’s Chicago Stock Exchange. Friends of Nickel collected his negatives and research material and have been completing his project for publication. Frankly I didn’t think I’d live to see it.

I mention Nickel for several reasons. First, if you’re looking for “stocking stuffers” this holiday season, find a big sock. The Complete Architecture weighs in at about twelve pounds. Much more important for me has been the insight the book has afforded.

Let’s face it: I was virtually ignorant of Louis Sullivan’s full career. There are so many projects from the Adler & Sullivan practice that I had known only by name–projects that stood during the 1950s while my head was still deeply up my teenage ass–that I now must face the task of virtual re-education. It has been the houses that are so astounding; Victorian, Frank-Furness-like piles that impress with such surprise. Nickel was somehow able to inspect during their last moments the interiors of these single-family homes for many of Dankmar Adler’s Jewish friends. The photos are a revelation. Reproduced in rich duo-tone, their sepia sadness only hightens the loss of so many structures from the city’s architectural heritage. I was either born too late or came to architectural awareness not soon enough.

For the Agincourt Project, this new book and its coincidence with a trip home have confirmed some of my decisions for the Agincourt Public Library, but they have also challenged many others. I welcome the chance to reflect and reconsider.

Heresy, Apostacy, Blasphemy 1.1

Reverend J. K. Karcher’s spiritual odyssey spanned the breadth of Christian belief–from popish orthodoxy to liberal latitude. So it shouldn’t surprise us that he spent three distinct periods in the Episcopal church, a pivotal place on that spectrum. Investigating his life, however, did open a window into the rise of Unitarian-Universalism during the 19th century. Except for the Transcendentalists, I hadn’t known much about them.

Unitarians and Universalists were two separate denominations through the 19th century, not joining forces until 1961. But it was the Unitarians who were more active in westward expansion. Recall that Frank Lloyd Wright was a Unitarian and architect for one of its most significant buildings.

There were Unitarians in both Fargo-Moorhead and Sioux Falls in the 1880s, groups so liberal that even free-thinkers were welcome at their gatherings. Really. I’m not kidding. Their 1892 Fargo church enjoyed an odyssey of its own: when they disbanded, the building became a mortuary and was later used by the Reformed LDS church, until it was eventually purchased by a reconstituted U-U congregation. Full circle in roughly a hundred years! I was anxious to imagine liberal belief–even UNbelief–in Agincourt, and, especially, to imagine what sort of building might satisfy their architectural needs.


Sleuthing the web one day for railroad-related structures, I ran across a complete set of working drawings for a water tower. The design was approved for the Chicago & Northwestern and was subsequently adopted for the Milwaukee Road, so I thought it was fair game for a trackside site on the south edge of town. And then a stroke of genius or perversion; you decide. These standardized structures arrived at their site on a flatcar, pieces numbered and ready for construction. Why couldn’t a bureaucratic snafu have accidentally ordered TWO water tower kits? The second redundant tower might languish for years on a siding and eventually be offered to a non-profit group as a charitable contribution; after all, who needs a second water tower. Voila! Agincourt’s freethinkers–its heretics, apostates, blasphemers and worse–would have a place to be unreligious! And it would be as unchurch-like as possible.

My challenge is simple: adapt this kit of parts to accommodate the intellectual home of Agincourt’s freethinkers.

Heresy, Apostacy, Blasphemy 1.0

Possibly the most interesting character I’ve encountered in the study of Episcopalians in Dakota Territory (and, of course, the churches they built) is John Keble Karcher. Born in Pennsylvania about 1835, his idiosyncratic life defies easy explanation.

Karcher was born in southeastern Pennsylvania, an area heavy with the Reformation. A name like Karcher (or Kaercher or Kärcher, other spellings I’ve found) suggests that his family were Lutheran or some other species in the German Reformed tradition. As a young man he attended Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, intent possibly on a career in the law, until the clerical life suggested itself. Scant records hint at ordination in the Lutheran denomination, but that didn’t last very long.

At Philadelphia he had shifted allegiance and become a Unitarian minister and, like any recent convert, was soon zealously organizing a second Philadelphia congregation of “Liberal” Christians. Having some skill as a public speaker, he went to Montreal (of all places) to raise money for this new endeavor, but it came to naught. Always on the move, Karcher and family relocated to Nantucket Island and took charge of the Unitarians there. This also didn’t last very long.

Without entangling you in a complicated timeline of geographic and denominational change, Karcher’s spiritual odyssey took him from eastern Pennsylvania to Quebec, Rhode Island, western Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Dakota Territory and finally back home to Philly. At the same time, he shifted his religious affiliation from Lutheran to Unitarian to Episcopal to Roman Catholic to Episcopal to Roman Catholic and back for a third time to the Episcopal church, where he remained until his death about 1915 (I think; my notes aren’t here in front of me). In Dakota Territory alone, he arrived and left as an Episcopal priest, but spent a few of those months back in the arms of Rome. Jason and the Argonauts had nothing on Karcher. I’d give anything for a long conversation with Mrs Karcher and the kids.

The bottom line here is that Dakota was a way station for many journeys of the mind and the flesh. John Keble Karcher may have been an extreme example, but his story is not isolated.

I’m surprised he didn’t make a pit stop in Iowa.

NB [27SEP2020]: As a foot note, I’ll be listing here Karcher’s parish connections, which are several and not always well dated:

  • 1870-1871 — Emmanuel, Allegheny City, PA
  • 1872 — St Paul’s, Wellsboro, PA
  • 1875 — Pittston, PA
  • 1876 — Atlantic City, NJ
  • 1877 — Portage, WI
  • 1878-1879-(1880) — Rochester, MN
  • 1880 — St James, Pittston, PA
  • 1881 — Appleton, MN
  • 1882 — Evansville, IN
  • 1883 — Grand Forks, DT
  • 1884-1885 — Larimore, DT
  • 1888-1889 -1890-1891-1892 — Grand Forks, DT/ND
  • 1893 — Philadelphia, PA (npa)
  • 1896 — Greenbush, NY
  • 1896 — MS (sep)
  • 1898 — Carlinville, IL (+chesterfield, IL)
  • 1901 — Died at Chicago, IL 1901

NB [19NOV 2022] Here are some land holding of Rev Karcher in the Grand Forks vicinity and their dates of purchase:

KARCHER ANNA CHRISTINA    05   152 N  055 W  032     160   272002  PA  7306 10/20/1884
KARCHER JOHN KEBLE        05   151 N  055 W  005      80   272002  PA  6763 10/20/1884
KARCHER JOHN KEBLE        05   151 N  055 W  005   40.36   272002  PA  6763 10/20/1884
KARCHER JOHN KEBLE        05   151 N  055 W  005   40.33   272002  PA  6763 10/20/1884

12DEC2022: The comment below comes from a current Lutheran clergyperson, though I can't say how he found this blog entry nor why he felt the need to add a comment. Ancestry.com and findagrave.com do, indeed, offer considerable information that helps us document Rev. Karcher's  movements. The latter adds this, which we had already known: "Civil War Union Army Chaplain. He was commissioned as Chaplain, Field and Staff, 114th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry on September 1, 1862.

"In March 1863 he was placed under arrest for being absent without leave, having returned to the regiment's encampment at Camp Pitcher, Virginia eight days after his official leave had expired. He was court-martialed, and plead guilty to the charge. He was sentenced to be dismissed from the service with loss of all pay and allowances, but he was allowed to resign his commission instead, which he did on April 3, 1863." [source: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/127056235/john-keble-karcher]