During the past few weeks, Howard has made furtive references to two Agincourt characters who influenced community affairs at the turn of the 20th century: Edmund Fitzgerald Flynn (one-term Agincourt major during the 90s) and his widow Amity Burroughs Flynn (maven of the visual arts until her death twenty-five years later). Seems he’d like to tell us more about them.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Shinn, rhymes with “Flynn”
During the early 1950s while Mason City native Meredith Willson travelled the backroads of Iowa researching the book for “Music Man,” his car broke down in Agincourt. It was Friday noon and Cliff Pherson didn’t have a starter in stock for Willson’s car. So while he waited for the part to be bused from Omaha, Willson checked in to the Blenheim and hung out at the Koffee Kup, “rumor central” in 1950’s Agincourt.
Folks wondered why he was so interested in local history.
In those days, the Koffee Kup was usually packed with pie aficionados on weekends, the only days they baked our apples using the legendary Borogrove Sister’s pie recipe—a lucky accident for Willson. And by another happy coincidence, Hal Holt happened to be on the premises that particular Saturday.
Hal told me they spent three or four hours in a back booth doing what he did best: regaling an audience of one or 100 with his encyclopedic command of local lore. While other old timers stopped by to fill gaps or spar with Holt about a detail recalled differently, Willson took notes on napkins, placemats, bank deposit slips, whatever scrap was handy. Only two or three years later did Hal figure out Willson was writing the script for “Music Man,” which premiered on Broadway in 1957.
Hal’s name never appeared in the musical’s credits. He was never the sort to look, so I did.
Amity Burroughs Flynn
Everyone knows the plot of “Music Man”: shyster salesman bilks small town into buying musical instruments; scheme backfires when perp falls for local librarian. The success of Willson’s musical comes from his uncanny ability to tap the American character, but two of those characters may have been drawn from Agincourt citizens: Mr and Mrs Ed Flynn.
Mayor George Shinn, played with doofy endearing pomposity by Paul Ford in the 1962 film, echoes the stories still told locally about one of Agincourt’s own mayors of the 1890s, Ed Flynn (whose story I’ll share next week). But Hermione Gingold’s portrayal of Mayor Shinn’s wife strikes even closer to home: Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn must have seemed eerily familiar to those who remembered our own Amity Burroughs Flynn.
Mrs Flynn’s role in community arts can still get grundies in a bundle. The timeliness of Ed’s passing is still hotly contested, but he left Amity well enough off to dabble in things that interested her—i.e., satisfied her vanity, which was considerable. Used to dabbling in the arts, she ruled the Arts Section at the Fennimore County Fair and exerted undue influence at the Memorial Gallery. Some folks couldn’t wallpaper their living room without Amity’s approval. I can’t watch “Music Man” without a special chuckle.
Self-righteous to the end but slightly impoverished, Amity Burroughs Flynn left us not as elegantly as Ed had done twenty-five years before. But a Greek chorus of her acolytes surrounded the open casket in near-flagelation, mourning the loss of their muse. She joined Ed in their mausoleum, still the only one at The Shades and barely seen behind unkempt forsythia she herself had planted.