Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Home » 2011 » July (Page 2)

Monthly Archives: July 2011

July 27th, a footnote

Spinning around the TV dial one night several years ago, the phrase “…Willow Springs, Illinois…” caught my ear. Willow Springs is near my childhood home in Beford Park, the only home I had known until leaving for college in 1963, so I paused to learn more.

The program happened to be “FBI Files,” a thirty-minute dramatization of its cases. This story touched me, so many years and miles away.

Willow Springs, rest stop on the Road to Perdition

The mayor of Willow Springs operated a private club with gambling and prostitution on its menu of activities, those illegalities made easier with the cooperation of village chief of police Michael Corbitt. Because credit card charges at the club appeared on monthly statements as “charitable contributions,” the FBI had become interested.

Not incidentally, the mayor’s wife was also romantically involved with a faculty member at the local community college. But, using the credit card scam as leverage to obtain a divorce, Mrs Mayor had seriously miscalculated her husband’s loyalties. I watched the recreated scene of her demise:

Two cars drive to the bank of the Sanitary & Ship Canal that defines the western edge of Willow Springs; one of them is a police cruiser. The other driver pops the trunk of a late model sedan and the police officer then pumps several bullets into the bound body within. They push the sedan into the canal and drive away in the cruiser. Fade to black.

The police officer was Mike Corbitt; his co-conspirator, the mayor. The sedan trunk held the mayor’s wife, now redundantly drugged, shot and drowned. All of which would have been only mildly interesting if I hadn’t known Mike Corbitt.

Michael Jerome Corbitt [1944-2004] was born on St. Patrick’s Day into a Chicago Irish-Catholic family. Read his brief Wikipedia entry for more information than I had known about him. What the Wiki page, the “FBI Files” episode, and “Deadly Matrimony,” a Lifetime made-for-TV movie, won’t reveal is that Mike beat the shit out of me during recess in the sixth grade. Two weeks of pounding someone who refused to fight back must have bored him, though, for Mike soon found others more deserving and responsive to such attentions. Shall I count this my brush with greatness?

Tried, convicted, imprisoned, released, removed to Florida*, Mike died on July 27th, in 2004. He left a large and loving family. Searching for a picture of him to include here, I learned the funeral had been conducted by the same mortician that buried my grandmother and father. A requiem Mass was followed by interment at the Catholic cemetery in, of all places, Justice, Illinois. For those of you who may have been in doubt, yes, there is Justice–it’s about twenty-five miles southwest of Chicago.

At the end of such a full and extraordinary life, I doubt that Mike would have remembered me. Today, I remember him and wonder what might have avoided such a tragedy.

*Florida is, in my estimation, like being tried, convicted and imprisoned all over again, but that’s a value judgment.


Cross Section (1885)

Iowa didn’t license the practice of architecture until the late 1920s, which means that the post-Civil War period of professionalization was regulated solely by the marketplace. Many called themselves “architect” but only a handful provided services we would recognize today. Some succeeded; others moved on to fresh pickins.

Those states and territories bordering the 100th Prime Meridian (a widely accepted boundary between the tall grass prairies of the Midwest and the short grass prairies of the Great Plains) settled rapidly after 1865, thanks to the Morrill Act, and publishers appeared almost overnight to tell us who was here and how to find one another. The Iowa State Gazetteer and Business Directory of 1884-1885 listed businesses by both city and type; its statewide listing of “Architects and Superintendents” appears on pages 1040 and 1043 and offers a cross section of their distribution:

  • BOONE—1
  • DUNHAM—2
  • GREENE—2
  • HARLAN—1
  • KEOKUK—1
  • McGREGOR—1


Give me a day or two to add some population figures to these cities and we’ll have a relatively firm basis for understanding how Agincourt satisfied its need for architectural services.

Joachim & Perlmutter (NITC 2.3)

When did Agincourt earn its first architect? 

There may have been hybrid architect-builders in the growing city, especially during its boom times, to satisfy the needs of a burgeoning population. Remember that America’s first professional program for the education of architects was opened shortly after the Civil War and before that there were few real distinctions between those who designed buildings and those who constructed them. Some day I’m going to flesh out that part of community history. In the meantime, absent a resident professional, architectural services would have come from larger nearby communities for some buildings and potentially even farther afield for a handful of others. (More about that latter group another time.)

Reed Malm has a wonderful cabinet photograph of two architects in their office; he’s christened them Hans und Franz and allowed me to “borrow” them. For the present, they’ve become recent Austrian immigrants Hans Joachim and Franz Perlmutter, architects and engineers from Sioux City. I’ve given them two commissions in Agincourt thus far: Wasserman’s Hardware (for a fellow countryman) and the new Northwest Iowa Traction Co. depot—the present case in point.


The depot program has four parts:

  • Office and passenger ticketing and waiting room for NITC
  • A restaurant to accommodate the relocated Bon Ton Cafe
  • Ground-level rental space for small retail stores
  • A modest hotel oriented toward what we used to call commercial travelers

Placing the ticket/waiting room at the street corner of Broad Street and Louisa, the Bon Ton and hotel lobby can be tucked discretely behind. Retail stores extend westward. And above all this is the 22-room UCT Hotel (the United Commercial Travelers was a fraternal organization for traveling salesmen, where they could both stay and display their wares). The second floor plan in yesterday’s blog gives an idea of how the interurban trains actually plow through the building at a 45-degree angle, a two-story glass-roofed arcade for which there’s plenty of precedent in architectural history. Trust me. I don’t make this shit up.


Planning this building has been a cake walk. A construction date in 1908-1909 allows the structure to be hybrid: some traditional masonry bearing walls and a cast iron frame fireproofed with terra cotta. But it’s the details that scare the crap out of me: remember I’m a modernist and ornament is anathema to us, like sunlight to vampires. I may disappear in the puff of vapor.

All things old are new again (Paper Trail 2.2)

When Diane Ackerman’s book Deep Play appeared about ten years ago, I purchased several copies and gave them to students, colleagues and friends (not that I draw fine lines of distinction between those groups). Ackerman’s contention is that notions of work and play are not antipodes on a straight-line spectrum; opposites, antitheses. Instead, she bends that axis into a circle; permitting the extreme intensity and involvement of work to recognize its natural counterpart in play. The degree of our engagement with either work or play — our creativity — draws us inexorably to the blurred conjunction of the pair.

Ask any child of six to put away the game, to disengage from the puzzle. “Just five more minutes, Mom.” Whatever the task at hand, their focus is so intense that play has become work and vice versa. Work-Play are conjoined at the nexus of Space-Time, excluding all else. Children know this instinctively. So, what has our child-rearing and educational system done to suppress it in most adults? Good question, for which I have no easy answer. What Ackerman delineates so well is also, I think, at the heart of Richard Florida’s Creative Class.

Blithe admissions that I “play in the past” acknowledge Diane Ackerman’s presence in Agincourt. It will hardly surprise me to find that she’s received an honorary degree from Northwest Iowa Normal and planted the notion of work-as-play at one of its recent commencement exercises. I’ll bet Howard was there.

Today I think of (and thank) Ms Ackerman as the NITC depot takes form.

Paper Trail 2.2

The benefit of a long life (and there are detriments, by the way, but that’s another story) is that I’ve been around long enough to witness patterns as cycles; the patterns that some ideas represent are born again or, just as likely, have simply refused to die. Light rail is one of them.

In the early years of the 20th century, the U.S. enjoyed one of the world’s great networks of light rail, then known as interurbans: heavier duty than street railways (trollies); lighter than passenger trains. Interurbans filled both gap and need, serving a regional audience when travel by auto was expensive and ill-served by state and national networks of paved roads.

The Northwest Iowa Traction Co. connected logically at Fort Dodge with another system. That was the beauty of interurbans: independent companies saw the non-competitive inter-linking of their lines as an advantage to ridership. At one point in the 1920s it would have been possible (though lunatic) to travel by multiple independent but interconnected systems from Chicago to New York. It might have taken three days but it was nonetheless possible. We will never see such a system again (nor should we) but shards of it are being reborn across America.


The NITC depot in Agincourt — hub and headquarters of its seventy-six mile line — has existed in sketch form since 2007. But it must evolve in the next month for two reasons: 1) it is something I simply need to do (fulfilling my lust for playing in the past) and more importantly 2) David Crutchfield has volunteered to redevelop this 1909 building for its own mini-centennial in 2009 as the energy-conserving headquarters of the local Fennimore County power company.

Who am I to deny another’s need to play in the sandbox that is Agincourt.

Ghosts of Christmas Past (#3)

“A few figs from thistles…”

Howard A Tabor

Christmas Postponed

I know. It’s the Fourth of July.

It’s sultry and the air reeks of gunpowder. But that didn’t stop one of the Ghosts of Christmas Past from visiting me last night.


Chicago’s near north side was a neighborhood in transition during the 1960s. Urban renewal in full bloom, Carl Sandberg Village was under construction and the used bookstore where I worked part time was about to be bulldozed into oblivion.

I had lived in the neighborhood for only three months and was looking forward to the train ride home for Christmas. My sister Catherine was bringing her fiance Jim LaFarge for family introductions and a gaggle of cousins were coordinating a mass migration. It was a great disappointment, then, when a crisis at the newspaper (my day job) forced me to cancel. I’d made a few friends, but most of them seemed on their way somewhere else. So I celebrated with a last-minute rush ticket to “Messiah,” Handel’s oratorio performed annually by the Apollo Musical Club.

That winter was particularly cold and wet; the rhythms of spring and new life couldn’t come soon enough. Work at the paper and my part-time bookstore position filled the days, but evenings and weekends were an invitation to explore a city of ethnic neighborhoods, especially for someone who’d grown up in the relative homogeneity of small-town Iowa.

One late Saturday afternoon found me in “Little Italy,” an enclave holding out against the new University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. There, amid battling pasta sauces, colorful costume—more enthusiastic than authentic—and a degree of Catholicity I hardly imagined, I admired a display of wood carving and fell into conversation of heated agreement with a woman probably in her early 40s. She was Marilla Thurston Missbach, there with her daughter Leah. We shared a gelato, exchanged numbers and parted in opposite directions.

Some weeks later Marilla phoned to say that there was a Ukrainian festival next weekend. Would I like to join her? Absolutely! And we became friends until her death in 1996.


Marilla lived in a suburb west of Midway Airport, a short walk from her secretarial position at the Corn Products Co., the folks who bring us Mazola. Soon my preferred route for getting to her home—sans car—was CTA #22 downtown and #67 (the Archer Express, apropos of someone from Agincourt!) to the end of the line, followed by a mile-and-a-half walk through modest working-class neighborhoods. I picked a different path each time and came to know the Village of Summit very well.

Her home was just that: a home. The house itself had been her mother’s but Marilla “camped” there, her base of far-flung engagement with the World. From her I had already learned that Chicago could be enjoyed on a budget—a secretary’s modest salary—if one focused on the freebies: ethnic and folk festivals, discount and standby tickets; connections. It was an education to ride on her petticoat tails.

We held many things in common: food, art, an appreciation of architecture. In fact she was a member of Unity Temple, the congregation in Oak Park burdened with an early Frank Lloyd Wright building. We laughed when I discovered she was a contralto in the Apollo Musical Club: I had been less than a hundred feet from her at that “Messiah” concert in December, my substitute for the holiday with home and family.

The Fourth of July in 1969 was more than I could have imagined. We met—Marilla, me and a few other friends—at Grant Park for the free music, food vendors, etc. that led up to a massive fireworks display over Lake Michigan. I had expected to go home but Marilla asked us out to her place for an extended celebration. When we arrived, I found the house fully decked out for Christmas: lights, wreaths, a tree (living and later transplanted into her survival-of-the-fittest garden), and a buffet of eggnog and other very out-of-season treats. There was only one gift—for me: a bus stop sign for the CTA #67 Archer Express, the bus that I took home later that night or early Saturday morning.

Marilla’s gifts were modest but always heartfelt and carefully considered. Yet the greatest thing she gave me was her time, a commodity we have in limited supply and diminishing with every moment.

Happy Fourth of July. Oh, and Merry Christmas, too.