Susan and Frank Steele and their children Laura, Jack and Miles are the composite Agincourt family I’ve drawn from the Birge and Irons story told a few blogs ago. Frank Steele will be the railroad employee, “freethinker” and builder of the their water tower meeting place. Steele’s character requires a crisis of faith, such as that experienced by the Irons and Birge families. I can’t say with certainty that Frank Irons had such a crisis, but he did leave the Episcopal church (where his deceased son had sung in the choir) and joined the Unitarians–about as close to “freethinking” as Fargoans were likely to get in the 1880s.
Here is a first draft of Frank Steele’s story, set in the pandemic of 1918.
Iowa reported its first cases of Spanish Flu on October 5th, at Des Moines and Dodge City; soldiers at Fort Dodge may have been the source. Doc Fahnstock diagnosed Agincourt’s first victims by mid-month, and on November 1st a dozen patients moved to the unused dormitory wing of the old Bishop Kemper Academy. Luke, the Physician (Agincourt’s hospital) was unable to accommodate their numbers and unwilling to risk the level of contagion.
Young adults (25 to 35) constituted the majority of community cases, but a handful of youngsters succumbed, including two of the Steele children, aged 7 and 8. How the boys were exposed remains a mystery, but they shared a bedroom and had probably infected one another. Of seventy-seven documented cases in Agincourt, there were twelve deaths, including little Miles and Jack. Their parents, Frank and Susan Steele (unprepared for the children’s passing or their own, for that matter) hadn’t bought a cemetery plot; hadn’t thought it necessary at their age.
The Shades opened a special section for influenza victims–quarantined in death as they’d been in life. Several of the graves were so fresh and muddy that cold December afternoon, in fact, that planks had been laid across them; umbrellas congealed into a thick black canopy overhead. The Steeles, their daughter Laura, other family members and friends stood throughout the service, as Pastor Grant droned on about inscrutability and release from this vale of tears. Frank wondered about other answers.
Dulled, numbed and muffled, wrapped in sorrow, Frank momentarily left his body.
He soared through time and space, saw a small child born to loving parents, welcomed by siblings, nurtured by community, but soon enough cast into poverty by the father’s loss of a limb in a factory accident; working conditions driven by profit at any cost, a cost borne by theft, theft punished by transport to another side of the world, a world of pain; pain dulled by drugs from half a world away again, a place of natural beauty perverted; perversion multiplied in houses of indenture where humans buy their kind, buyers leading double lives of dark and light; only one face seen by the world, faces mouthing words of faith, hollow words; domino after domino falling against the next until it brought a germ to the lips of an American soldier, who coughed on a drinking fountain in a public square where a child would drink, a child whose only self-confessed sin had been taking one shiny coin from a dresser top barely within reach.
Good intentions fail. Bad people prosper. Harm comes to the innocent and the guilty with indifference. Not even love is perfect. Frank committed himself to understanding why.
Frank returned from that very long moment in space-time; broke from his chrysalis of grief and rejoined the graveside company–changed.
He could imagine an omniscient god, one who might have set in motion a freight train of events such as these to test his faith. He could also imagine a clockwork deity aloof from human affairs. What he could not imagine, however, was that the first god was worthy of worship or that the second would want it. In that moment his old faith evaporated–so much smoke and shadow in the dawn–and cleared a space for simpler belief in the interconnectedness of all things. He saw that heaven and hell were here and now. The choice is ours.
Forty-five minutes is a long time to walk ten blocks. When they got home, Susan brewed a pot of Earl Grey. Frank began to take down the Christmas tree.
On Fargo’s west side–in the general vicinity of 15th or 18th streets, depending on where you are–there is a swath of unbuilt land with an open concrete trough at its bottom. A century ago that was Long Lake, a seasonal body of water that defined the city’s western edge. On maps today, it’s called County Drain #3 and serves the inner city as valuable open space for soccer or just walking the dog.
In the 1880s Long Lake often held enough water to be fished and attracted wildlife as a supplement to the boomtown diet. Lest you think it was an unqualified urban amenity, however, let me tell you a story–a true one–about its consequences for two Fargo families living near its edge.
Ten years or so into its urban life, Fargo had grown steadily westward along the NP right-of-way. Just west of Long Lake on Seventh Avenue, a wheel manufactory had opened and other industries were the topic of speculation in a decade that may have been our most speculative. In this boomtown mentality, speculators bought property at breakfast, sold it at lunch, and bought it back again during dinner–all at a profit. I suppose the real estate bubble burst, eventually, but with less disastrous results than our own recent meltdown. Little stood in the way of unbridled exploitation.
Between Thirteenth Street (now University Drive) and Long Lake, William Bruce Douglas developed six blocks as “Douglasville,” a neighborhood with a wide range of residents, from railway trainmen and butchers to attorneys and self-identified “Capitalists.” Among them were Frank and Susan Irons and their neighbors Richard and Emma Birge. In the Fargo of 1882, everyone was from somewhere else: Frank Irons was born in Illinois; Richard Birge hailed from Connecticut. Both arrived with wives and children–quite a lot of the latter, until the fall of that year, that is. In the meantime….
The city had no organized program for waste removal. So getting rid of stuff was open season on the environment, not a good thing when you consider all transport was poop-powered (horses, oxen, etc), livestock were permissible within city limits (cows, chickens, etc.), and slaughtering was a daily necessity for a rapidly expanding population without refrigeration. All that offal and shit had to go somewhere. By late summer, Long Lake was a bubbling morass of decomposing animal waste of every sort.
The Fargo Argus noted in late October and again in early December the outbreak of an unexplained fever in the vicinity of Douglasville. The Birge and Irons families lost five children; Mrs Birge nearly joined them. But it was an early winter and the cemetery was inaccessible, so Rev B. F. Cooley offered the site of Gethsemane Episcopal church at Third Avenue and South Ninth Street as a burial place for Charles and Peretic Irons and Fred, Ward and Vesta Birge. They were all under ten; Fred had sung in the Gethsemane choir. By definition, life is ironic, so it will come as little surprise that: #1) no one was fined for dumping in Long Lake; “germ theory” still being in its formative stages, no one connected the stench of Long Lake with the presence of disease along its shore; and #2) Father Cooley was fined $50, quite a penalty in 1882, for the illegal interment of five innocents on his church property.
The children’s eternal rest has been intermittent. Construction of Gethsemane Cathedral in 1892 and of a social hall in the 1950s disturbed their sleep. And they moved once again in 1991 when the church sold its center-city property for a courthouse parking lot. The Irons and Birge families had long since left these parts (by about 1900), one imagines with mixed emotions about what and who they had to leave behind.
There’s a story here that’s real and plenty of inspiration for one that won’t be.
The vast majority of the public record is written by “them”; surely not by us. I have yet to set foot in the scriptorium–knowingly, that is–nor have I met even one of the scribes who labor there by candlelight. It may be a mistake to think this way (that I live my life, while others record it), so let me reconsider. In one small way, however, I have played in that sandbox, if only briefly and with more enthusiasm than skill: I have written nominations to the National Register of Historic Places.
The National Register is a growing public record of who we are as a nation, seen through remnants of our built environment; representative sites and structures that evidence broad themes of American history.
It may be a place where George Washington slept, the scene of a Civil War battle, or the site of our first controlled nuclear reaction (though Washington must have been a narcoleptic to have slept in all the places that claim he bedded down there). Nominations may also propose a type that is either unique in our experience or so endemic that everyone will have seen at least one at some point in our lives: New England meetinghouses, one-room schoolhouses, railroad roundhouses, and Reno whorehouses come to mind.
I have written nominations to the Register, though not recently nor very well. It’s embarrassing to admit, in fact, that I botched a chance three years ago to make a major contribution to the history of architecture in North Dakota, so at 65 years and counting, I’d better get my ass in gear to make amends; the clock is ticking. But that’s a blog for another day. In the meantime, I’ve had an idea.
We have imagined buildings in Agincourt; we’ve imagined the lives of people who designed, built, owned, used and blew them up. Now I’m going to nominate one of them to the National Register of Historic Places–not really–and in the process, merge these two streams of thought: material culture and historical narrative. Three years ago, Howard Tabor threatened to prepare a nomination for Christ the King Catholic Church (I still think that’s a good Idea) but in the next couple weeks I’ll try my hand at nominating a meeting place built in the pit of the Great Depression by Agincourt’s “freethinkers” (read as a euphemism for atheists, heretics and blasphemers, some of my favorite people).
Several blogs ago, I suggested that the community’s irreligionists had built a meeting place on a 25-foot square of land along Carousel Alley behind Hradek’s Shoe Repair. Specific enough for you? The trick is that they adapted a surplus railroad water tower mistakenly delivered by the Milwaukee Road and named it after Robert Ingersoll, America’s foremost 19th century atheist.
Imagine the Pantheon as a rain barrel. Kinky.