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The Old Urbanism (1.4)

The beat goes on and on and will when I am gone. Agincourt continues to emerge from the shadows, as well, in interesting ways.


The ethnic mix of Fennimore county has always been hazy. Possibly the most exotic short-term resident was Kropotkin, the knife-man, a refugee from the first Russian revolution of 1905. Kropotkin was a mysterious figure who sharpened knives and then, just as mysteriously, disappeared from town when the Pinkerton detectives began to ask questions. 

Dominic said very early in the process that he intended to create a larger and more permanent Eastern European presence and I can say from our conversation this afternoon that he’s done an admirable job. The story is tight and concise, the characters delineated with care, and the physical evidence of their presence well conceived and toughtfully detailed—including a place for Orthodox services.


There is also a brewery (with a convincing timeline outlining its evolution from 1917 to the present) and a suggestion where the several families had lived. I mentioned that Milt Yergens would be a source for some of the sociology involved: What happens to a small tight-knit community, defined by its religion, language and customs from the majority of the population. How do second- and third-generation family members integrate—or not? These may become a part of the story—or not. What is important is the integrity of Dominic’s story thusfar.

William Halsey Wood

Among my several spastic blogs, the two most active have been those devoted to Agincourt and William Halsey Wood. But like “Ghostbusters”, who warned what could happen when their energy streams cross, I knew in my heart that something of the sort would happen here one day.

That day has come.

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

The County Courthouse—Act II

Fennimore’s first purpose-built courthouse — a two-story Italianate cube whose cupola blew off in the same storm that gave us Saint Ahab — served the county’s needs until 1888. Growth can be a good thing, but it had also stressed the buiding’s court rooms and vaults well beyond capacity. Change was afoot.

In the spring of 1888 the commissioners decided to seek funding for a new courthouse. And to save time, they trolled for architectural interest, which brought, of course, the usual regional suspects, Agincourt having no resident practitioner at the time. Luckily, Father Cooley was serving a stint at Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter and he suggested an architect of his acquaintance in the East — William Halsey Wood — who had proposed the design for a new Saint Joe’s. By the time a bond issue passed, Wood had the commission and Agincourt was about to receive its own Great Pyramid.



I recall the second courthouse very well, a pile of masonry unlike any I had seen before or known since. I applied for my first driver’s license there; I cast my first presidential ballot there in 1960 (for JFK, I’m proud to admit). And I renewed my fishing license there each year until the summer of 1966 when lightening reduced its burly majesty to romantic ruin. I hadn’t actually known much about the building, though, until last Tuesday night when Professor Ron Ramsay, a friend from Fargo, North Dakota, lectured on his passion for William Halsey Wood at the old public library.

Born in 1855 but dead at the age of forty-one. That’s incredibly sad.

William Halsey Wood designed almost sixty religious buildings in his brief career, including an unbuilt design for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. But with churches aplenty and a bundle of handsome homes, public buildings constituted the architect’s smallest category. So our courthouse of 1888-1889 may be his only government building. I wonder which building committee would be more difficult: the elect(ed) or the righteous? These days it’s difficult to tell the difference.

The architect’s compact mass of brick, granite and limestone can still be seen as an outlined plaza on the courthouse square. Six cylinders bulged from a one-hundred-fifty-foot square, like so much clay oozing between the fingers of a clenched fist. At its heart, though, a 3-D cast iron grid laced with stairs paid homage to Piranesi. I remember climbing them at the age of twelve when dad got called for jury duty and brought me along for a civics lesson.

Windows cut deep into the masonry walls only emphasized their thickness. Some were colored and leaded in the style of Tiffany, but from cheaper suppliers in Chicago or Saint Louis, I suspect. Transoms carried light far into the interior, though I remember it as a dim echo chamber of hard surfaces and creaking floors. The walls themselves seemed woven in red, orange, black, pink, grey and tan like an old Indian basket. As Professor Ramsay spoke Tuesday evening, I genuinely missed its crusty charm — like a well-dressed bachelor uncle with a potty mouth.

Several dormers punctured the massive pyramidal roof but there must have been enough room left under its grey-green slates to house a dozen families. And the final flourish? A wrought iron weather vane masquerading as mediaeval archer. Shades of Arthur Mächen.

Wood’s career thrived at a time when architects related to the building industry in a fundamentally different way. He could specify a rich palette of materials in remarkable variety; forms and colors suiting his sense of hue and texture. Today we are ever more limited to what suppliers are willing to make and only then in economical quantities that fit tight budgets in a flagging economy. Also, new materials and new ways of building challenge builders to bid on the side of caution to cover their inexperience.

It’s no wonder we admire architects and builders of Halsey Wood’s generation. Their design and craftsmanship are irreplaceable.

William Halsey Wood is real, though his contribution to Agincourt is convenient fiction. In this case, however, I’ve carried the fiction another step by also inventing my lecture to the Fennimore County Historical Society. Forgive me for entering my own fictional world. It’s comfy there.

Inside the Ivory Tower

Tuesday was a good day—at least until lunch.

Tuesday was a good day; Wednesday was not and it just got worse through the end of the week..


Academe has been much on my mind this month. As the end of my so-called career rapidly approaches, there was bound to be more than a little reflection on whatever water-bourn flotsam has passed beneath the bridge. And, somehow, set theory seems to fit the general scheme of things. There are, it occurs to me, intellects, scholars and teachers cowering here in the Ivory Tower, and sundry others of varying academic stripe. And, of course, enumerators (which is to say, administrators), who are in actual control. Generally, we’re not a very colorful lot. 

At this point I’m interested in the relationshiup between teachers and scholars, since Tuesday was one of those days when I actually taught–on purpose; with intent and, I might add, mystified satisfaction. Those days come rarely and without warning. There are certainly many here at Beinzahn U for whom such days are legion–just another day. And others (I’m not one of them) who work like Hell to make it happen.

And then there are scholars (among whom I am also not worthy to count myself) from whom peer-reviewed papers and collegially-applauded conference presentations flow with the regularity of Old Faithful. What interests me–when I am able to step aside and observe with a measure of objectivity–is this relationship among intellectuals, teachers and scholars. One might imagine them neatly nested within one another, scholars being the rarest of the lot. But among the latter two–teachers and scholars–I’ve observed colleagues in one category who are not in the other. I am, in fact, a case in point. There may be overlap between those categories, but there is also mutual exclusivity.

The question du jour has been simple: which would I rather be? All things considered, I am content to have been a good teacher on Tuesday morning.

Body, Mind, Spirit—a footnote

Howard’s piece a week or so ago elicited a few phone calls about the possible consequences of releasing Dr Kölb’s notebooks. It had been presumed that all of his patients had passed on but, apparently, such was not the case. To whit:

St Paul, Minnesota, Tuesday, March 3rd

To the Plantagenet‘s readers: The “Figs from thistles…” columns on Saturdays have been regular reading for several years. I once had family—grandparents—in Agincourt and visited often during summers and on holidays. So, it came with some surprise when I read about Dr Reinhold Kölb last week. At eighty-seven, I may be one of the good doctor’s last surviving “clients.”

My parents had divorced when I was eight years old—old enough to take responsibility for their action but too young to know that it had nothing to do with me. My grandparent’s were friendly with the Wasserman family [Kölb‘s in-laws (Ed.)] and arranged for me to have a daily chat at Walden. I didn’t live at “The Retreat,” as it was called then, but stayed with my grandparents, which, I suspect, made it more affordable.

I suppose you’d say I was an “outpatient” for six or seven weeks, during which we talked about many things. Few of them seemed to have much to do with the divorce, however. He told me stories, mostly; Greek mythology, I later learned, and we made stories up. One of them I remember acting out with puppets I had made from strips of cloth and lengths of string. I remember painting on their faces and naming them. I performed it for him and some others introduced to me as friends.


Dr Kölb was a kind man, who may have been the age of my grandfather, though everyone seemed old at that point in my young life. And it may be there is an entry about me in the doctor’s notebook, though I can’t recall that he gave me a code name. During our conversations, however, he did call me “Rascal,” which is how I will sign this letter.

Next time I am in your area, I will put a flower on the good doctor’s grave.

Rascal [name withheld at the writer’s request]

Die Welt

“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” —Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818

Bainbridge Island is a prosperous piece of real estate in Puget Sound, a forty-five minute ferry ride from Seattle. I visited there about thirty years ago for three or four days—not nearly enough time to explore Sea-Tac or the Olympic Peninsula, let alone both, but when is there ever enough time. Remind me to tell you about C. Northcote Parkinson.

As an inveterate collector of old postcards, I’m also fond of sending them. So, dutifully one day, I walked to the village center near the ferry terminal in search of the post office. I was having a wonderful time, so why not let a few people know I wished they’d been there to share the experience. Cards carefully chosen and delibertely assigned; messages personalized and postage firmly affixed, I found two slots for mailing in the post office lobby. One was simply labelled “Island” to reach those residents fortunate to afford real estate that has only become more dear in the subsequent thirty years. The other slot—I will never forget slipping my cards one at a time into its pursed lips—was just as simply and succinctly labelled “The World.” 

As our culture grows ever more global, that insular perspective may have lost some of its charm; tarnished by intollerance of “others”; xenophobia even narrower than the slit in that post office wall. When we travel now, is it to explore, experience and learn from “the other”? Or is it merely an excuse to encounter another way of being in The World and come away confirmed in the superiority of what lies waiting at home. I encountered that attitude first hand on a trip to Egypt with my friend Richard Kenyon (a.k.a. Crazy Richard).

The Nubians

We were part of a tour organized by Richard’s cousin Dave, senior faculty member at a Missouri Synod Lutheran seminary; a tour for movers and shakers in that conservative denomination who would otherwise have little opportunity and even less inclination to hang with the likes of card-carrying Liberals like Richard and me. It could go without saying that we hung out at the back of the bus. But, there, I said it.

The tour moved gradually up the Nile toward Luxor and ultimately the Aswan High Dam. Certainly one of the unexpected pleasures was a boat ride across the Nile to a Nubian village, those darkest Egyptians akin to the Sudanese who own the Nile’s actual source. The sailboat and its sailing technique were unchanged since the Pharoahs. We took tea in a Nubian home. We attended a Nubian grade school and saw the children’s lessons chalked on a board. We avoided donkey dung in the street. Some of us (though not me) opted for a camel ride as part of the return trip to Aswan.


On the street, walking from our refreshments to the school, I had a chance to chat with Cousin Dave. I remarked on my astonishment at the Nubian house, whose traditional ways were as old as Egypt itself. Though the outside temperature was well beyond 100 degrees fahrenheit, the interior, opened on two sides without benefit of door or window closure, was easily fifteen degrees cooler. “There’s certainly a lot to be learned here,” I observed to Dave. And Dave’s knee-jerk response left me, for one of those rare moments in my life, utterly dumbfounded. “Yes,” he intoned, “there is so much we could teach them, but where will we find the time or the opportunity!” I staggered to a halt as Dave strode into the ignorance of his afternoon, smugly superior to the pleasant people who had opened themselves to our group.

Very soon Richard caught up with me and I shared my recent conversation. “I’m not surprised,” Richard said. “Dave’s an asshole. We think he’s adopted.”

I learned much that afternoon from the Nubians and from Cousin Dave.

What might this have to do with Agincourt? I suspect Howard is working on a piece hinting at all those Agincourt natives who’ve left the place, gone to greatness or ignominy, and forgotten the role it might have played in their willingness to engage Die Welt.

In the meantime, must we not aspire to become greater than our nature will allow? However great the risk?

Agincourt Archetypes (1.0)

I ain’t no Jung, that’s for sure. But Carl Jung has been at my shoulder for the six years of the Agincourt Project.


It’s impossible to imagine a community, physically, and not populate it with characters drawn from both personal experience and general archetypes such as those identified by Jung and extrapolated endlessly by so many others in the spirit of the New Age. You can not only read about them in the scholarly and popular press; it’s now possible to identify your own architype through on-line testing. I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours.

Recent experience drew my attention to other adjunct psychological and character traits and suggested that I should get back to Jungiana as a source for enriching the community’s story.


An encounter with a friend who is more rigidly organized than I could ever hope to be caused me to reflect on that psychological catch phrase “anal retentive.” I understood the request that was being made of me and only briefly took umbrage at the way the subject was broached; it could have been so much more parental and perfunctory. Judgmental. Further reflection actually brought a moment of Zen enlightenment, for I, too, am anal. But my sphincter-driven behavior is at the other end (no pun intended) of the alimentary spectrum: I am not anal retentive, I am anal explosive. Many of you will have seen my office, which is ample evidence for this embarrassing but no less factual claim.


So with New Age archetypal charts and other paraphernalia at hand, a review of the full range of Agincourt’s residents will occupy some of my Spring Break.

I’ll get back to you.

Body, Mind & Spirit

Dr Bob, my therapist, will retire one day. We haven’t discussed it but it’s inevitable. Counseling is only part of his professional life, however; Dr Bob is also a faculty member in a psychology department hereabouts. When he retires, I’ll probably go it alone. But I wonder what will become of all his office notes. Will they be preserved for a time to suit some “statute of limitations” and then go to one of those record destruction facilities? I have more faith in him than in them. 

This question comes to mind in connection with my friend Howard’s piece on Agincourt’s private psychiatric clinic, Walden Retreat, opened in 1925 and operated until about 1953, when it morphed into a retirement home following its founder’s death.

Some month’s ago Howard wrote about a cache of paintings done by one of the clinic patients as part of Dr Reinhold Kölb’s innovative art therapy program. The paintings had been discovered in a walled-up closet during routine plumbing repair and given to the community’s memorial art collection in the old public library. [A selection are to be included in a loan exhibit at the next Agincourt exhibition, by the way, now tentatively scheduled for 1913 at the Plains Art Museum.] Several of the paintings are signed, but the clinic’s records had long ago been destroyed and the identity of the artist remains a mystery. In the same box, however, there was also a notebook, presumably written in Kölb’s own hand—the nearly unreadable script used in both Germany and Austria before World War II—notes on the progress of his clients on their path to better mental health.

Kölb used code names for those who had come to heal at Walden. One of them he called Endymion.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor





“Endymion” by George Frederick Watts, c1872

Endymion was the son of Zeus from his daliance with a human; he was a handsome lad who attracted the attention of Selene, goddess of the Moon. So smitten had she become with him that Selene asked Zeus to make the boy immortal. But it was Endymion asleep that had captured Selene’s love, so she sought both eternal youth for him and eternal sleep! Zeus met her halfway: Endymion would sleep while Selene ruled the night, but he would wake during the day. In that sleeping state, Endymion fathered fifty daughters, the Menae, who ruled the lunar months of the Greek calendar. Sweet dreams!

Endymion is also the code name of a patient at the Walden Retreat, which I wrote about several weeks ago.

Repairing a leaky pipe at the retirement home that occupied Walden’s former buildings revealed two dozen paintings from the clinic’s art therapy program. But the water-damaged box also included a small leather-bound notebook filled with crabbed penmanship that proved difficult to read, until we realized it was German and written in a graphic style developed by Ludwig Sütterlin, a 19th century Berlin typographer. Once a part of traditional German education, Sütterlin’s calligraphy was abandoned following WWII for several reasons, not the least of which was its association with National Socialism. Reinhold  Kölb was a product of that educational system.



Here is what his journal reveals about one of Walden’s residents:

“ENDYMION / #67 / Male / married with two children / aged 53 years businessman / admitted 17 February 1930 // Patient believes he possesses the body of another; that he impersonates the other being while the body is awake. Consciousness alternates between the sleeping <name obliterated> and the waking Endymion.” Notes follow on diet and exercise, as well as cryptic, perhaps coded comments on diagnosis and therapy, only some of which can be translated. Endymion left in October 1930, returned to his family and work, fully functioning. It speaks to Kölb’s professional ethics that he made follow-through inquiries six months and one year after release.

Kölb’s notebook, preserved at the Fennimore County History Center, has recently been released from its “Restricted” status and opened for research, since his patients are now presumed to be deceased. Access to such documents has been controversial. But the glimpse it gives into that period of our community’s history seems worth the risk.

I’m curious what Dr Bob has put in my file.


The way things work

…as if you didn’t already know.

Postcards like the Smith bungalow (posted yesterday) can easily become elements in the Agincourt landscape. The trick is weaving them into the narrative. But it can also work the other way: some overarching narrative—say the Second Great Awakening—would clearly have been felt in northwestern Iowa. The trick here is deciding what sort of artifact, what piece of material culture, would remain as evidence that the idea had once been in the neighborhood. I don’t always do this very well (or explain it very clearly) but that’s never stopped me from trying.

And so it is with Anita Willets Burnham (1880-1957), Chicago artist and daughter-in-law of the great Daniel Hudson Burnham. Remember him? “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood….”


This painting by Willets-Burnham dates from 1909 when her family lived on Oakenwald Avenue along the south shore of Lake Michigan. A handwritten note mentions the apartment rooftop as a pleasant retreat on hot summer nights and spectacular vantage point as the city’s lights came on. I couldn’t resist its modest opening bid on you-know-where. Seven days later the work became an Agincourt artifact.

The wheels are already turning and I suspect that its date—1909—will enable Anson Tennant to have bought it during his student days in Chicago. A quick search for information on the artist herself tells me that he needs to have actually met Anita Willets Burnham, artist, author, lecturer, who famously said “Doing what can’t be done is the glory of living.” They’d have got along famously.

This is the way things work.

Found on eBay

Postmarked “Resort P.O. (Sturm & Drang) Iowa” and dated July 19, 1910, at 7 p.m., this postcard is addressed to Mr Joseph Finney, 1712 9th Street, Des Moines, Iowa.


In accomplished penmanship (there’s a word you don’t hear much these days) the message reads: “Just a view of Smith’s Hotel where ‘the ducks swim in the water + the geese sit on the balcony above.’ No other guests this week so I’ve had the place to myself and written more in 3 days than a month in the city. You’re such a distraction! On Friday take the trolley west from Agincourt to “Resort” and I’ll meet you at the station-store. Kat”

Let’s hope the weather was agreeable and that Joe and Kat had a good time. Do you suppose he distracted her?

The Old Urbanism (1.3)

Some of us are smart. Others have to be satisfied being clever. Saying I’m in the latter category isn’t false modesty; for better (and sometimes for worse), it’s just the way things are.

I am smart enough, however, to know my limitations; to realize—sometimes with humility, often with embarrassment—that there are some things I can do and many others that I should relegate to folks blessed with talents, abilities, inclinations and insights I can only admire. And so it is in Agincourt.

The story of any community is written by its members—all its members. Similarly, one person might hope to write that story, but it’s very likely to be two-dimensional at best. The Agincourt story ran that risk, until that first seminar, when a couple dozen students strode boldly into the quagmire of inventing history; the three- and even four-dimensional relationship between narrative and material culture. As a confirmed, card-carrying geek, sport may be the topic most alien to me. So I breathed a heavy sigh of relief when someone, literally, stepped up to the plate.


David asked very early whether Agincourt had a professional sports team. I told him that one had been discussed in only general terms—The Archers, a Double-A club in the Missouri River watershed cluster of Iowa teams—and that I welcomed his offer to flesh out that theme. The team name has changed and its story enriched with characters I’d actually pay to watch. First comes the team; then follows the gangly wooden bleachers and clubhouse straight out of the WPA. But here’s the twist: David’s team is about to be painted in encaustic.

Joyce, an NDSU graduate working in Baltimore, had shown one of her paintings at the Student Union gallery a year or so ago, something so well crafted in a difficult medium (encaustic), that I asked her to do something for Agincourt. Not wanting to call the shots, but simply to be the widwife in her choice, I gave Joyce carte blanche and she came back with an unexpected proposition: a dynamic moment as one of Agincourt’s baseball players glides safely, if uncomfortably, across home plate. It now remains only for David and Joyce to coordinate their efforts and for the rest of us to await the result with a lump in our throat.


Excuse me if I get verklemt.