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The Obelisk

In the year preceding the 2007 Agincourt Sesqui-Centennial, Howard Tabor wrote fifty-two columns exploring a miscellany of community-related topics: people, places and events that stood out in his sense of local history. His column in The Daily Plantagenet of Saturday, October 21st, 2006 was the first of that series.

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

The Obelisk

Change is a fact of life. It’s certain and may be the primal urge to wake up and face the new day, each sunrise impossibly like another, each sunset unique as a snowflake. Like all things pervasive, change is also subtle. Ask me what was different today along my usual path to the office and I’ll fall back on easy observations: the weather, a new pain in my left hip, the sudden startling appearance of Mrs Schoenfeld’s cat.

All too often the physical world is a simple stage set for our lives. So, I scoured the town Wednesday afternoon with wider eyes, wondering how much of this visual background noise could vanish without notice. What do I take for granted that, if it disappeared tomorrow, would create an indefinable, unsettling void? During the next weeks, as we gear up for the sesquicentennial, I’m going to make some nominations and invite our readers to do the same. Today’s candidate is The Obelisk.

newman obelisk.jpg

Driving toward Agincourt from Fahnstock, there are signs of imminent arrival: the quick right turn on Route 7 a mile west of twon, the wiggle where it crosses the Muskrat River, the gentle left curve that realigns us with the urban grid. And, then, there it is! A soft grey vertical, silhouetted in the gap between the Fennimore county buildings. I hadn’t ever wondered about the Obelisk until Wednesday afternoon. How could anything so pointy be so obviously pointless?

Unlike its distant relative in the nation’s capital, our obelisk commemorates nothing; no person, no event that anyone can recall. Twice struck by lightening and once again when a team of horses was spooked by swarming hornets, the Obelisk (why do so many of us feel obliged to say it with capital letters?) should have vanished with everything else that lacks purpose. Yet there it is, an exclamation point on the way into town from the west.

How many of us have given it more than a passing glance? Walk up to is sometime–though the county fathers haven’t made that very easy, offering no paved surface within twenty-five yards!–and discover an object that rewards each step with revelation.

Up close and personal, the Obelisk proves to be more tactile than you’d expect. It is surfaced with diagonal scales of cement asbestos siding–the type popular for houses in the 1940s. There is one small opening on the east side. Sticking my head in, it took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the dim light filtered through the cracks. To my surprise, its origins became suddenly clear: the Obelisk is built on the carcass of an old windmill!

Curiosity drove me to call Hal Holt at the Fennimore County Historical Society and confirm my suspicion. Indeed, Hall says there are early photos of the first wood-frame courthouse showing a windmill on the very same spot, and next to it a trough for watering livestock. Apparently in the decades before municipal water, the county erected the mill to provide its courthouse and jail with water, a reward for those driving to town on business, refreshment for their teams on dusty summer afternoons.

Hal couldn’t immediately say when the windmill made its transition from public utility to civic monument, but it must have happened before 1888 when courthouse No.2 was built. Architect William Halsey Wood used its pristine whiteness as a foil for his own crusty grey and red Romanesque pile. And courthouse No.3 brought the axis through the site, across The Square and into The commons. The tension between Obelisk and Academy clock tower is palpable.

The Obelisk also defines the centerline of Second Street West, and 45-degree axes connect it with the entries of both Asbury United Methodist and First Baptist churches. What a powerful but under-appreciated presence in our midst. How do simple things attain such power? I, for one, have been won over and will defend it from anything short of natural disaster.

Will anyone with information on the Obelisk please write me (htabor@dailyplantagenet.com)? I’ll share it with Hal Holt and our readers.

So began Howard’s four-year-long series of local human interest columns.


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