I’m jumping the gun a little bit—writing about Thanksgiving—but I ran across an envelope of very old Agincourt articles and wanted to share this one with you.
A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A Tabor
My sister Catherine and her husband Jim LaFarge were home for the holidays. They brought a generous supply of the maple syrup they manufacture in the woody thickets of rural Vermont. Business is precarious right now, there as everywhere, so I’ll put in a plug for their brand name “Allouette” and hope you find some on store shelves in your neck of the woods. There’s love in those jars.
Thanksgiving dinner was lively. We had eighteen family members, plus friends and strays for a ginormous feast that won’t be repeated soon. Conversation turned, as it inevitably does in a strange and unwieldy family such as ours, to absent guests—all those members of the extended Tennant clan who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be here: where they are, what they’re doing, how they got there. It is astounding to think how far-flung the family has become; what distant shores have welcomed weary emigrants from this lonely spot in northwestern Iowa. But it also caused me to recollect the diverse and disparate souls who have wound up here in Agincourt during the last hundred and fifty years. Some fairly impressive flotsam, not the least of whom was a modest Hungarian tailor.
At dinner Thursday I happened to be wearing a pair of my dad’s pants. When he died in ’95, mother resisted having a garage sale. She kept most of Warren’s things exactly where he’d left them but allowed me to have the pick of the wardrobe. I chose, among other well-crafted things, the pants I wore at Thanksgiving dinner. Pants he had worn for thirty-five years. Pants that will be part of my own estate sale when that time comes. Pants from the legendary Agincourt tailor Sandor Szolnay. What right did we have to the considerable talents of such a man as Szolnay?
Hungarians reverse the order of their names, putting the surname first. So it was Szolnay Sandor who arrived here in 1920, a forty-year-old custom tailor from the recently collapsed Hapsburg Empire. He almost immediately became Sollie Sander, a nickname that stuck through a forty-year presence in our community. Szolnay was widowed and had a twelve year-old-daughter Erszebet in tow. They spoke practically no English. Erszebet became a friend of my mother.
The folks at deBijenkorf needed a tailor in their men’s department and had advertised in Chicago and elsewhere, hoping to lure the best, as they did in all things. Sandor Szolnay came with credentials beyond their hopes. He’d been born in Pecs, Hungary, in 1880, at the height of Hapsburg power. At eighteen, Sandor became a tailor’s apprentice in Budapest (technically on the newer Pest side of the Danube) and subsequently moved upstream to the Imperial capital Vienna and the auspicious haberdashery of Knize & Co. Who can say that he didn’t accompany his tutors to the Palace in 1913 and record the metric length of His Imperial Majesty’s inseam and whether the Jewels of Empire hung left or right. [In the 19th century, a man’s most intimate experiences might have been with his tailor.] But that twilight could not last. A world war and cousins in Chicago brought him to America, and deBijenkorf brought him to Iowa. Europe’s loss was Iowa’s gain.
deBijenkorf’s management team knew they had snagged a treasure. At forty, his hair already grey at the temples, Szolnay brought the cosmopolitan to the American hinterlands. His talents would have been wasted on cuffs and collars. They encouraged him to double the men’s department, using his Old World connections to bring us quality that surpassed what even Des Moines and Omaha could offer. But those halcyon days of haberdashery were also not to last. The portent of “Better living through chemostry” in the 1950s must have saddened him, as wool, leather, cotton and silk became nylon, rayon and vinyl. We no longer clother our bodies so much as upholstered them. When Sandor Szolnay reired in 1960, another era had ended. But his pants live on and that may be the finest revenge of all.
Szolnay died in 1968, the same year that my great-uncle Anson Tennant left us wanting more of them both. And Warren Tabor, my dad, was one of six pallbearers—each of them clad in a Szolnay suit—who carried our tailor legend to his grave at St. Ahab’s Cemetery.
There’s love in those pants, just as there is in my sister’s maple syrup.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Seven Days in May
After our good friend Hal Holt died in 2008 and we scattered his ashes at Gnostic Grove, I wrote here about the Grove’s eclectic past. Few places in Fennimore county have seen such diverse use; none is so richly infused with the geist of so many zeits. A vein of irony flows beneath the fields of Fennimore County and intensifies in the Grove’s vicinity.
It has been the scene of 19th century religious revival, Crispin Creek standing in for the River Jordan. More glossolalic flames have appeared above the heads of revivalists there than practically anywhere in a hundred mile radius. More sin, washed away by its crystal waters. For decades following the Second Great Awakening, it was a holy place.
Flash forward to the early years of the sexual revolution—Elvis, Rock & Roll, and worse. By the 1940s, the Grove had become Agincourt’s favorite make-out spot: late-night campfires; demon rum, especially during Prohibition; sticky fumblings in its shady nooks and crannies. It has (as I wrote a couple years ago) always struck me more than coincidental that any place could be so closely associated with the cleansing of Original Sin, as well as its enthusiastic practice. But first things first.
THE GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT
The Holy Spirit visits from time to time and decides, now and then, to take up residence. We call the intensity of its 19th century presence the Second Great Awakening. By the early 1840s two generations of Americans had been “burned over” with revival and transformed the American religious landscape. Even today, whiffs of it cloud the current political rhetoric.
October 22nd, 1844, might have been the Awakening’s greatest moment, but disappointment rose with the sun on the 23rd: Jesus had failed to return. William Miller and his Millerite followers felt the disappointment more keenly than most, as they returned to family and friends; to growing old; to disease, death and whatever awaits us. Some of Miller’s disciples carried the message forward, unphased by his miscalculation. One of them brought its faintly glowing embers to Agincourt.
Eliphalet Davidson, one of William Miller’s lieutenants, was also the great-grandson of Eliphalet Adams, 18th century New England divine. Traveling westward with his wife Elizabeth, the Davidsons’ camp meetings leap-frogged across Ohio, Indiana and Illinois to Fennimore county, Iowa, in the spring of Agincourt’s founding year, 1853. Drawn, perhaps, by the Wester tragedy, and hoping—again, perhaps—to heal its still fresh wound, the Davidsons pitched their revival tent at Gnostic Grove.
Camp Meeting began Sunday afternoon, May 15th with a handful of locals but swelled for the next seven days until a climactic service on Sunday the 22nd. Estimates vary—The Plantagenet hadn’t begun publishing then—but even conservative figures tell of hundreds drawn in waves from the surrounding countryside, from at least a fifty miles radius, as souls burned for Christ, exhortations slew the spirit, and Crispin Creek cleansed the slain, as lives were changed. So much Original Sin swept downstream that they ought to have filed an “Environmental Impact” statement, warning to other settlements in its course.
Amos Beddowes and his wife Sissy were there; his diary mentions it. And a good thing, too, for Sissy, the Sac and Fox medicine woman, was called upon to soothe a rash, set a broken bone, and even to midwife a premature birth, as the enthusiasm spread and intensified. Amos helped build the tent.
Elizabeth Davidson, the revivalist’s wife, was apparently a formidable ally and helpmete. It was Lizzy who planned the tent city that sprang upon the creek’s sunny north bank. And she who multiplied the loaves and fishes that fed the assembled throng, while the men dug privy pits and fed the stock. Davidson’s revivals were legends of efficiency and organization. Only the saved know their own names, though, salvation being one of life’s most intimate acts.
The deed safely done, God’s work accomplished, the Davidson’s moved on to Nebraska and Kansas, where Eliphalet died of typhoid and his widow returned to the East. But a pattern had been set: revivals, camp meetings, full-immersion baptism continued at Crispin Creek for another eighty years into the Pentacostal movement of the 1920s.
The legacy of those seven May days lives on.
On a boulder near the Council Ring a palindrome in Latin bears this inscription: “In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni” —whose translation seems appropriate for what must have happened around those campfires in 1853: “We enter the circle of the night and are consumed by fire.”