Howard began the sesquicentennial series on a Wednesday morning walk in October 2006. He decided to challenge the familiarity of his environment; to see the ordinary and the everyday with fresh eyes.
Taking a circuitous route from home to work—from his apartment* near the Darrow School to the Plantagenet offices on Broad Street, which should have been four blocks and no more than ten minutes—he left home at 7 o’clock and arrived at his desk about 10:30. Sure there was a breakfast at the Koffee Kup and a half dozen brief conversations with friends along the way. All told, it was a productive morning.
He walked southwest toward the Krause Foundry and Syndicate Mills; past Luke, the Physician (our hospital), the old interurban depot (now the power company headquarters) and Adam’s Restaurant (resolving to return for rhubarb pie at 3:00); past his grandparents’ old home and the Episcopal and Catholic churches on the way to the cemeteries. Making mental notes along the way, Howard outlined the first few articles and arranged to have lunch with Hal Holt, family friend and head of the local historical society.
I’d love to have been sitting at the next table. Few people had a greater command of local history than Harold Holt, who died in 2008. So by press time on Frinday afternoon, Howard had a sense how the series would proceed, and his first column appeared the following Saturday morning.
In it, not incidentally, there was mention of a cat.
Mrs Schoenfeld’s Cat
Somewhere between the Christian Science church and the synagogue, Howard was startled by the sudden appearance of Clara, an American short-hair cat belonging to Agnes (Mrs Seymour) Schoenfeld, an acquaintance of Howard’s aunt Phyllis. What he didn’t notice, though—bending over to stroke the cat behind its ears and breaking his stride for a minute or so—was the near collision a block ahead between a UPS truck and the very nearsighted eccentric Forrest Fahnstock, whose license should have been suspended years ago. Without that unplanned interruption, Howard would have been in the thick of it and might easily have become a pedestrian casualty. Howard believes in God and the prospect of Divine Intervention (one of the many differences between us), while I’m far more inclined to credit the cat.
Other than the occasional watchdog at my dad’s gas station—like Ol’ 66 that I wrote about some months ago—I didn’t have pets as a child. We call them “animal companions” now, but my grandmother would have had nothing to do with them in her house. She did have canaries before I arrived on the scene and a parakeet or two while I was very young. Four-footed critters, on the other had, were forbidden; it never occurred to me to ask why.
In the last twenty-five years, however, I’ve made up for lost time: five dogs and two cats, all of them refugees from the pound. Not to mention my friends’ pets: Eddie and Kya and Alfie and Gunnar. One thing I’ve learned is that animals have senses we humans lack: more than intuition and a hair’s breadth shy of second sight. They see things we don’t. They smell things we can’t. They hear things in a range beyond human ability. They experience the world directly, a world in which they could be our intermediaries, if we would but let them.
So what about Clara the Cat? Do you see her on the stair landing? I think she may have intervened in many more lives than Howard’s.
*Since then Howard and his partner Rowan Oakes have moved to the old Wasserman Hardware store on Broad Street and James (northwest corner). The rest of the second floor is a bed and breakfast, while the ground floor houses The Periodic Table, Agincourt’s newest eatery.
There are documented cases of identical twins developing a private language, a rare phenomenon called idioglossia or cryptophasia. The Folsom twins—Bernadette and Henrietta—developed a coded language of their own, graphic, unspoken, but equally impenetrable.
Bernie and Etta, as we knew them, worked at their family business—the Hemphill-Folsom Mortuary—for more than fifty years, where they reduced the complex lives of clients to an abstract overlay of signs and symbols on 5-by-7 note cards. There’s an exhibit of their work at the Public Library this week, more art than biography and unreadable since the sisters died in the 1970s.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Maya glyphs have been readable since the 1980s.
Though the Etruscan language succumbed to Latin and hasn’t been spoken in nineteen hundred years, it too can now be read.
Even the Mycenaeans’ “Linear B” has begun to yield the secrets of their crop reports and tax rolls. Perhaps the international cadre of scholars who deciphered these and other mysterious scripts should turn their considerable talents to the private language of Agincourt’s Folsom twins, Bernadette and Henrietta. But first a little backstory.
THE HEMPHILL-FOLSOM MORTUARY
Moses Hemphill’s name hasn’t been heard in these parts since the Spanish American War. Hemphill came to Agincourt shortly after 1870 in the dual role of casket-builder and mortician (a frequent pairing in the nineteenth century) and served as the community’s undertaker until 1898 when he became a client for his own services.
A few years earlier, Moses’ daughter Clara had married Jeremiah Folsom and the business hyphenated as the Hemphill-Folsom Mortuary (though the family no longer own a majority interest). It still operates at 20 N.E. Agincourt Avenue, a community institution used by many of my own extended family. Clara and Jeremiah Folsom lost their only son to typhus, but the twin girls Bernadette and Henrietta carried on until their deaths in the 1970s.
Bernie and Etta handled most public aspects of business—client relations, working with clergy, arranging the service, writing the obituary—and apparently had little interest in the darker side of embalming, the slabbing and stabbing stuff in the back room. Who can blame them. Instead, they were inerrantly empathic, especially as chroniclers of their clients’ lives. And that’s what is on display at the Agincourt Public Library this week.
Charles Demuth and Jasper Johns explored the discipline of ordering systems like A-through-Z and 0-through-9 as Art. But Etta and Bernie anticipated their abstractions by at least a decade—though the purity of Art was hardly their intention. As the gentle public face of their not indelicate business, the sisters gathered biographical information on our local citizens, often long before a visit from the Grim Reaper. Like any good newspaper, they anticipated their clients before they became clients.
On stiff sheets of card stock, five-by-seven inches, they used rubber stamps and colored inks now faded with age, dulled and smudged and worn with constant fingering, to summarize our lives. Layered like vermeil in a grid of shifting squares, B & E recorded work and play, service and family, in a graphic language all their own. Without a word, we believe (since the good sisters left no intructions to decipher their code) they concentrated a single life in thirty-five square inches. On the reverse, of course, they did record names and dates and places: birth and marriage and the orderly arrival of children—the stuff of databases. But it is the beauty of their code that draws us in, not its information.
Even when we know the identity of someone represented in those subtly tranparent numbers and letters, the cards defy all but the most rudimentary decoding. Place it next to the published obituary notice and we understand a fraction of what they recorded but only they could read. It’s apropos that the Folsom sisters were born into the Arts & Crafts era, for their cards echo the intentions of Elbert Hubbard and Gustav Stickley: to create an Art that is Life.
Samples from the Hemphill-Folson Archives are on display this month at the Fennimore County Library.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the little courtesies of life—all those niceties that used to lubricate human interactions, like holding a door open for someone with their arms full or who is disabled or older than you; like expressing gratitude for a favor or a gift; or reciprocating, when possible and appropriate, the kindnesses extended to us by others. Not because they’re required but because they aren’t.
Excusing a burp. “Blessing” a sneeze. All these little courtesies are fewer and farther between than they once were; gone the way of penmanship and the subjunctive, I suppose, into the burgeoning museum of the curious and the quaint. I expect there’s a room there reserved for me. So you can credit (or blame; you decide) Clara Frances Markiewicz Ramsey, my grandmother, for whatever social skills of the antedelivian sort still cling to me.
Following my parents’ divorce in 1953, I essentially became the ward of my grandmother—a woman born in 1891, the third oldest of thirteen children in a working-class immigrant family from the very small town of Lemont, Illinois, where you were either Polish and Catholic or Swedish and Lutheran. I imagine the cultural cleft in that community extended to what car you drove: either a Ford or a Chevy. Shades of Lake Wobegon.
[There is, by the way, another fictional community near Lake Wobegon that I may write about some day. Imagine the citizenry of Lake Ilbegotten and all their eccentricities. I can.]
Clara tutored me in ways that were already antique when I learned them: saying “please” and “thank you” and being defferential to my elders. Well, now I am one of those elders and feel pretty odd when I hold that door open for “older” people.
Even Agincourt isn’t immune from the 21st century’s erosion of social skills. Though “erosion” may be too strong a word; perhaps they are simply morphing into twitterable bits and bites below my radar. I am after all a computer nitwit; a novice in the ways of the interweb, barely distinguishable from Dubyah. My friend Howard is more adept on that score than I, but he seems as distraught at the passing of civilized life as we knew it.
How this is manifest in Agincourt, I haven’t yet heard…but it has something to do with this picture.
Sturm and Drang have been popular summer destinations for local folk since the 1880s. Or should I say “has been,” since technically they are one lake—until late summer sun lowers the water level, exposing a sandbar and dividing it in two unequal parts. After 1910, access by Northwest Iowa Traction Company interurban cars attracted a larger audience from farther afield. Hal Holt’s book Summer People: a century at the shore tells the lake country story until 1980, perhaps the twilight of Sturm and Drang as a way of life. Hal was working on an update when he died in 2008.
A little over half way from Agincourt to Resort*, the road wiggles to avoid a sharp bend in the Muskrat River, a favorite swimming spot called McElligot’s Hole—a Norman Rockwellian gathering place unknown to the outside world until Theodor Geisel spent the summer of ’42 at Bagby’s Last Resort.
Oh, by the way, you probably know Ted Geisel as Dr Seuss.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor (channeling Ted Geisel)
A few miles from Fahnstock, the road to the lake / makes a series of turns that are shaped like a snake;
Where accidents happen and cars lose their way / at twilight or dawn; in the heat of the day.
The reason it wiggles, the cause of its course / is a bend in the river, an elbow of sorts;
The result of erosion, geology’s might / (unless Bishop Ussher’s calculations are right).
But the Muskrat ain’t mighty, despite what you’ve heard. / I mention this feature (no obligation incurred),
So you’ll think about stopping the next time you’re near / ’cause McElligot’s Hole is a place we hold dear.
I’ve been there myself, taken more than a dip, / (in swin trunks or nekkid), in mid-winter’s grip,
Though the summer’s far better for the shape of the hole / to concentrate coolness in its comforting bowl.
And the reason for going by night or by day? / The benefit got, going miles from your way?
It’s communion with Nature in a place free from junk, / from the making of dollars, or the hawking of bunk.
But McElligot ‘s more than a haven from stress. / It’s got history, mystery; a gateway no less;
A connection to time when we humans arrived; / a glimpse of our world when the animals thrived.
The whole of the hole? Well it hadn’t been seen / for thousands of years since the late Pleistocene,
Until someone noticed, when the water is low, / when the river is slack and there’s no undertow,
That the mouth of a cave can be seen ‘neath the glint. / That the short swim inside reveals drawings and flint
And bones from the dinners of diners and dogs, / the best they could do, lacking twitter and blogs.
It’s been said that on full moons, when stars stir our soul, / odd things bob to the surface at McElligot’s Hole.
With sincere apologies to Ted Geisel, an American Original.
*Resort is the name of a seasonal stop on the NITC route, also called “Station-Store” for the country general store that served the surrounding community.