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Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Fennimore County Agricultural Association

Agincourt was platted in 1853, shortly after the formation of Fennimore county, and incorporated as a city four years later. The county seat (and presumably the site of the first county fairs) was at Muskrat City, south of Agincourt. But the flatland site and regular flooding there forced the commission to relocate to Agincourt. Such maneouvers are often more political than strategic, but that’s a tale for another day.

County agricultural societies often incorporated in tandem with county formation as agents for information, promotion and economic development. Like the county courthouse, the fairgrounds was a valuable asset for the city that possessed it. Since courthouse and fairgrounds aren’t always in the same city, Agincourt has been fortunate.

Fennimorecofair

So, as a point of departure, let’s set the process in motion, identify the site and pose some relevant questions.

  • The Fennimore county Agricultural Society is roughly contemporary with the establishment of Agincourt, circa 1853.
  • The fair site in the northeast quarter of the section adjacent to Agincourt measured slightly more than 100 acres on the west bank of the Muskrat river. The wiggle of the Agincourt Road right-of-way was also a minor factor.
  • At some point Agincourt Road was rerouted northwest toward the east-west route of State Highway #7, which cut off roughly one third of the fairgrounds. Therefore…
  • A trade was negotiated with the adjacent farm, that had likewise been cut apart. The resulting triangular fairgrounds extends seven-eighths of a mile west of the Muskrat and slightly less than a quarter mile along its bank.
  • It is likely that the original fair entrance had been near the Agincourt Road bridge (at the fairgrounds’ southeast corner) but was relocated to the north side along Highway #7 with the advent of the automobile.

When did all this happen?

In addition to the fair’s own internal evolution, there are a few peripheral factors likely to have influenced its growth:

  1. Some sort of county or state institution was established across the Muskrat in far northwestern Agincourt (the purple area on the map above). Unspecified at first (perhaps an orphanage, home for the aged or for Civil War veterans), it morphed about WWI into a normal school or state teacher training college. It seems likely the college athletic facilities expanded across the river onto fair property as shared resources.
  2. Since fair activities are often restricted to the late summer harvest season, what efforts were made to extend its “season” and expand its use for the community. A chautauqua grounds would be a compatible function.
  3. When the electric street railway opened circa 1898, it would have been natural to establish a seasonal line to the fairgrounds for passengers, as well as a route for occasional deliveries by rail.
  4. And finally, the Agincourt Archers is a Double-A baseball team. Would their playing field have been on the fairgrounds?

County fairs are a distincly American phenomenon, with a wide variety of types depening on location and age. I wonder what the interweb has to offer.

Improving the gene pool

The most memorable classroom presentation I ever witnessed was at UC-Berkeley in the spring of 1980. Notice I didn’t say “lecture.” That word can be off-putting.

I sat in on J.B. Jackson’s class on the American landscape. Jackson had invented the academic field of cultural landscape studies and was surely one of the most charismatic and effective teachers in the history of education. I’m told Vincent Scully at Yale was Jackson’s match.

The amphitheater might have held 200, but slightly less than half the seats were occupied that morning. Jackson spoke from stage right, near a laboratory table, and thralled us for about forty-five minutes without slides or any other illustration. Only at the end, the lecture safely concluded, did he append a half dozen grainy slides taken from a moving vehicle in a dust storm. But the immediacy of those frozen moments only reinforced what we had just heard. His words had conjured better images than a Kodak carousel would have feebly cast on any available flat surface.

Jackson’s topic that morning? The county fair. I think of it today as a friend reveals he has taken on the design of Fennimore county’s fairgrounds.

THE COUNTRY FAIR

The country fair–contrasted with city fetes and festivals–was a place to display our prowess in horticulture and husbandry. But, more important than blue ribbons and bragging rights, it was a marketplace for improved crops and livestock. Seed was traded and sold. Male animals were put to stud; females sold to the highest bidder. Knowledge, too, passed among the crowd: tips on planting, erosion and pest control. The result was a mixed blessing. The gene pool did indeed improve, but at the cost of biodiversity–a lesson we are learning at our peril in the 21st century.

The country fair was a social event as well. Paths crossed that otherwise would not. Conventional wisdom grew in volume and assurance. And human breeding stock improved along with cattle and sheep. In a pre-industrial society, the availability of mates was often limited to the social island of the farmstead and, at best, the parish church and village. Families intermarried in a complex genetic tartan plaid of ever tightening weave. So the dance and other social events enabled marriageable youth to improve their prospects and their progeny. This was as true for medieval England as it was in 19th century Agincourt.

The story of the Fennimore County Agricultural Society will be more complex and nuanced than that. But it is a beginning. And, as Princess Irulan observes at the opening of Dune, “A beginning is a very delicate thing.”

Ghosts of Christmas Past #16

I never met Hal Holt but by all accounts he mentored some of Agincourt’s most eccentric citizens. An engineer by training and practice, Holt was a right-brained engineer, a “poet-plumber” more inclined toward the big picture than to formulas and safety factors. Perhaps that’s why he retired from the profession and devoted his life to history. Howard wrote about Holt’s death in 2008, a paean to Holt-the-Historian, crotchety keeper of local lore and grandson of Malcolm Holt, founder of the county historical society. So it was natural that Holt would have known Abel Kane and, moreover, that he would have mid-wifed an introduction for Howard Tabor.

Harold Holt had been born in 1920, Kane in 1933, and Tabor in 1945, an interesting generational spread for that shifting conversation on a Saturday afternoon circa 1972. But Holt never said very much about Kane, I suspect, because it would have seemed an invasion of privacy, not to mention an evasion of his personal code of conduct as an historian.

And by the way, we haven’t heard the last word from Hal.

“A few figs from thistles…”

Howard A. Tabor

Abel Kane

Tottering-on-the-Brink was what every classroom should be: an open environment for unfettered exploration. I relished the two or three times a month we gathered for dinner and conversation—i.e., communion. Until last week, however, I had never read Plato’s Symposium (embarrassed to admit that), but now I understand.

ruggles_church

A typical gathering at the Brink? Each of them and none were typical.

I recall one that began with John Kirkpatrick’s pioneer recording of the Ives’ Second Sonata (the one called “Concord”), so multi-layered and poly-rhythmic that no other performer would risk it. (There are now, more than thirty years later, a half dozen fine interpretations. Times change; skills improve. We stand on the shoulders of our elders.) That notion of a work so technically challenging suggested a verbal parallel in The Magic of America, architect Marion Mahoney Griffin’s autobiography, itself multi-layered, poly-valent and comparably intimidating of interpretation. Leaps like that were common.

If you want to know someone, look at their books. One week in the 1990s, when Abel went to research at the Library of Congress, he asked me to keep an eye on the place and his cat Drusus, I happily packed a bag and camped out in the big room, surrounded by the county’s second biggest library, but certainly its most eclectic. My book-a-day goal included these:

  • The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody by Will Cuppy, American humorist who lived in the namesake Tottering-on-the-Brink;
  • Hadrian the Seventh, semi-autobiography of Frederick Rolfe, self-styled Baron Corvo, whose language was more wrought than writ;
  • The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges;
  • Douglas Adams’ Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy;
  • Technics and Architecture, a history of building materials and systems (elevators, lighting, etc.; hardly the stuff of cliff-hanging thrillers) by Cecil Elliott—technology humanized; and
  • James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games: a vision of life as play and possibility, a book that I have read a dozen times since

All authors I might not otherwise have met.

My experience with teachers is simple: the better among them never stopped being students. And a large number of those never knew they were teaching in the first place. Such was Abel Kane.

Abel Kane died July 5th, achieving his own independence. At his request I am executing Kane’s Last Will and Testament, which states in brief what he wanted most and modestly: 1) to have done little harm; 2) to have left a family of friends; 3) to have taught more by example than by words.

Harold Holt gave order to the history of Agincourt, Fennimore County and the Muskrat River Valley, the fourth generation of his family to fill that community role—whether the community wanted it or not. The practice of history is about discovery and interpretation, the telling of a community’s tale. Now and then, it is also about editing; some things are better left alone, unsaid. That category includes Abel Kane’s origins, which Hal Holt took to the grave.

I want

“I want what I want when I want it.”—Eric Cantor, in his high school yearbook

To want is not an evil thing. But wanting can seem less than admirable when it comes from the mouth of Rep. Eric Cantor (R—VA). I want many things, but none of them will come, I hope, at the expense of anyone else. Adding something to my list shouldn’t remove it from yours, nor diminish your chance of achieving it as well. Let me know when it does.

“A few figs from thistles…”

Howard A. Tabor

Tottering-on-the-Brink

Northeast of Agincourt, just over half way to Grou on the county road, you’ll pass the old Brinkman Township schoolhouse. The school closed about 1920 and mouldered until the early-50s when someone bought and converted the one-room school-teacherage into a home, then named it “Tottering-on-the-Brink.”

We hear a lot about the Founding Fathers these days—what they intended for a pre-industrial society that Tom Jefferson believed would never exceed three million people! A rare example of shortsightedness on Jefferson’s part. One thing is certain: the FFs meant us to be an educated people.

“Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good governance and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”—from the U.S. Land Ordinance of 1785

Unlike our British cousins, publicly-supported elementary education was built into America’s westward expansion. The Land Ordinance of 1785 established the system of range and section lines that define ninety percent of U.S. geography. Townships consist of thirty-six sections (numbered in boustrophedon fashion from the upper right corner back and forth across its six-mile square) and section #16 was dedicated to public education; no child would be more than three or four miles from a school. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 extended this into the country’s newly acquired territory, and the Louisiana Purchase took the principle into the trans-Mississippi West.

My great-aunt Margaret taught at Brinkman until the time of its closure, so it was with no little interest that I heard about the old school’s rebirth. Hal Holt told me about it—he introduced me to many ideas, including coffee—and arranged an afternoon of conversation with the school’s new owner.

ABEL KANE

Aptly named, it turned out.

I had only heard about Mr Kane. Few people saw him, except for his regular visits to the library, the post office and Perin’s Grocery. He wasn’t reclusive, just pre-occupied with project’s that thrive in solitude. Hal and I drove out one Saturday afternoon in the early 70s, when Kane had been in the converted Brinkman school about ten years. The former teacher’s quarters (kitchen, bed-sitting room and bath) displayed a spartan clutter: I imagined locating anything as a minor archaeological dig. The single school room, however—about twenty-five by forty feet—used every foot of shelving and begged again as much. Books were two deep in places and stalagmites of reading matter obstructed every likely path across the softly worn floor. A hasty survey suggested an intensely personal ordering system, perhaps with a mind to match.

Hal and I were invited to sit around an oak dining table, but one I suspected it had not seen a formal meal in at least a decade. Kane introduced himself as an historian of indeterminate stripe but with a hankering for material culture. Buildings generally seemed to interest him, but I learned about specific projects later in our acquaintance. I recall our first conversation—it was forty years ago—as a broad ramble about out-of-bounds creativity; eccentric Americans and worse whose modus operandi had been an exception to the rule. Abel Kane admired the artistic independence, for example, of American composer Charles Ives (who became an insurance executive so that his music could avoid the taint of Mammon); Ives’ “Concord Sonata” was thought to be unplayable at that time, until pianist John Kirkpatrick tackled the score. Like Ives, Kane was also steeped in the New England Transcedentalists, perhaps, I thought, a reason for his appearance at Agincourt, “the transcendental town.”

Abel Kane also spoke of Carl Ruggles, another American composer and contemporary of Ives, who composed on the floor of his own studio in Maine, drawing in crayon on huge sheets of butcher paper, the brightly colored notes allowing Ruggles to see the sounds in his mind’s ear. Kane evidenced a similar wholistic view, with notecards, sketches, photographs, diagrams, transcripts, and multiply-flagged books in a semicircle around the brocade cushion where he sat. Popular culture wasn’t talking about left brain versus right brain then, but we were all using our right sides that afternoon.

Throughout the next three decades, I was a regular at Tottering-on-the-Brink. Whether Saturday evenings on the porch Kane built along the west side for sunset watching or Sunday afternoons at an impromptu potluck buffet on that big round table, conversations ranged farther, wider and deeper than was my custom. I often felt along for the ride, but exciting, irreverent, unguarded rides they were. I learned much from Abel Kane, yet knew practically nothing about him. Until last month, that is, when I became executor of his estate. Only then did I learn what he wanted.

There’s more to this story….

Fathers (and sons)

Howard would be too modest to tell you about his immediate family–his father, for example. So let me say a few words about Warren Tabor, who died in 1995.

Tabor

Warren James Tabor [1917-1995] managed the local power company; a progressive sort who involved the corporation in various community projects. In 1990, for example (five years before he died), Tabor negotiated purchase of the old interurban depot as the power company headquarters and an important step in downtown revitalization. Yet he was a skittish, shy man who avoided photographers and any sort of limelight. So imagine Tabor, wife, and friends on a hot evening at the Fennimore County Fair circa 1980. How did they get him to hold still long enough for an unrecorded artist to do this quick portrait sketch?

Measuring about nine by six inches, this was sketched on a thick piece of cardboard in about twenty minutes. Having your portrait done is creepy, as the painter, friends and passers-by stop to stare at the artistic progress; the subject remains ignorant of what’s going on until the work is nearly complete. Tabor must not have liked it, because the painting remained hidden at home until after his death. Only then did it find its way into the Memorial Gallery in the old public library building, where it has hung discretely for the past fifteen years. Warren wouldn’t approve.

If you’d like to see this and other works in the Memorial Gallery collection, about forty pieces will be shown in the next Agincourt exhibit—Homecoming/Coming Home—in October 2012. Or if you just can’t wait until then, pester me and I’ll let you have a peak.

By the way, Howard doesn’t look a lot like his dad, favoring the Tennant side of the family instead. 

The Power of Ten

In any life, there are bound to be highs, optimal experiences, things that register as “10” on our personal Richter Scales: moments of supreme joy; the triumph of accomplishment; achieving a personal best. I was with my friend Richard when he had one of those intense encouters with self. Richard’s daughter Heather married a few years ago and he had to give a father-of-the-bride toast at the reception. We all understood its intensity. I have seen him nearly that emotional on only one other occasion.

At least as often, at the other end of the spectrum, our “tens” can be negative experiences: natural disasters over which we are powerless; onerous tasks that we’d prefer to avoid at almost any cost. These are the events that test mettle and confirm character. Howard phoned last night because there is one of those tasks on his horizon; I could hear it in his voice and wished that I could be a better friend. But if these were things someone else could undertake, they wouldn’t be a 10, would they.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

TEN

Personal scales of value have been on my mind a lot lately and they all seem to involve 10. Ten fingers. Ten toes. Ten Jews make a minyan (מִנְיָן‎ ). “Just ten minutes more, Mom!”

Technically, 10 isn’t the last of the first ten numbers; it’s the first of the next ten—thanks to the invention of zero (another number that might be worthy of our attention some other day). “Powers of Ten,” a film by Charles and Ray Eames, is one of the most elegant explorations of this deceptively simple idea; rent it some time on Netflix.

CHICAGO

Vexillology is the science of flags. Like heraldry, where every element, symbol and color bears meaning, flags, especially national flags, are rich with information. At a smaller geographic scale, I recall the municipal flag of Chicago which intrigued me when I worked there in the late 1960s.

On a rectangle of pure white (with few exceptions, flags are a 3:5 proportion), two horizontal blue bars define a row of four red stars. The bars represent the two branches of the Chicago River (and the three resulting white stripes, the north, west and south sides of the city) and each red star symbolizes a watershed event in the city’s history. That’s what Wikipedia says, but I recall a different, more satisfying explanation from my youth.

First there’s the issue of the Chicago River. It was certainly never blue; in fact, it’s purposely dyed green on St Patrick’s Day. Besides, shouldn’t the blue more accurately represent Lake Michigan. The lake was the life-giving source of drinking water; the river, of the city’s bouts with typhoid and worse.

Then there are those symbolic four stars. Who chose the events they represent? And what happens when the city encounters a new one? Will another star appear or will the original four change their affiliation? Will one event displace another? It was explained to me another way, which I offer here to make a point, rather than for its Truthiness.

It was explained to me as a contrast of defining moments—positives and negatives. Tens and minus tens, I suppose. The blue bars (I was told) represent Chicago’s crowning cultural achievements: the World’s Fairs of 1893 (the Columbian Exposition) and 1933 (the Century of Progress, celebrating Chicago’s incorporation in 1833). Between these, the four red stars—like Red Badges of Courage—are linked with tragedy, some would say odd references to be put on a public symbol of civic pride:

  • 1812—the Fort Dearborn Massacre
  • 1871—the Great Chicago Fire
  • 1933—the assassination of Mayor Anton Cermak
  • …and a fourth event that I either can’t recall or doesn’t exist because this interpretation of the flag is totally bogus.

I’m clearly drawn to a flag that represents extremes, the physical and emotional limits of our joy as well as our forebearance.

I also wonder if these scales of 10 are arithmetic or geometric. Is the line on the graph straight or curved? The Richter Scale is of the latter sort, where each number is ten times the previous value, rather than ten more. Adds new import to the difference between 1.0 and 8.5, doesn’t it!

HERE AND NOW

Today is one of those watershed days for me. Friendship that flowed between me and another is likely to take a different course. Some situations can be neither delegated nor diverted. And what transpires may well redefine what it means to be a 10.

Agincourt has been a 10 for me; the source for some of my greatest joy and contentment. Just ask Dr Bob. But it has also been—like any real place—frustrating, contentious, humbling, infuriating, and humiliating; a source for irritation, confrontation, and angst. Perhaps I should count that a measure of its success.

Bastille Day

Prise_de_la_bastille

Today is Bastille Day, celebrating the storming of the notorious Parisian jail on July 14th, 1789, and the beginning of the French Revolution. For a few years after that, it commemorated the fall of one tyranny and its replacement with another. Revolution, of necessity, had to become Revelation. Let’s hope for better luck for the Egyptians, Tunisians and others presently engaged in a similar process.

So, today, find someone French and give them a long deep kiss.

Oh, this is also the birthday of my friend James verDoorn. You can kiss him or not, as you see fit.