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Backstory and plans

Plans are effectively patterns, and my brain is wired to detect and draw from those patterns that surround me. So finding prototypes of early 20th century inter-urban depots was no sweat. And synthesizing what I found and adapting it for a corner site in Agincourt a block south of The Square was relatively quick.

Imagining the NITC (Northwest Iowa Traction Co.) happened very naturally, since the pattern of similar formations has been beautifully set out in George Hilton and John Due’s exemplary treatment The Electric Interurban Railways in America. If you look on page 364 of their book (in my alternate universe, that is) you’ll find the following:


When the Milwaukee Road threatened reduction of passenger service on it’s Agincourt branch in late 1908, the Northwest Iowa Traction Co. quickly incorporated and projected an ambitious route from Fort Dodge to Sioux City, a distance of 131 miles that would link the city with the largest regional rail hubs. Building westward from Fort Dodge (where the Ft Dodge, Des Moines & Southern had established a terminus in 1906¹), the line reached Agincourt by fall and Storm Lake the following spring. Hourly service began in November 1909. When right-of-way beyond Cherokee proved too costly, the extension to Sioux City never materialized.

A syndicate of Agincourt investors held more than fifty percent of company stock, and several of its board also served as directors of the local electric utility, the line’s major power source. NITC operated on city streets in Agincourt to reach the station-headquarters at Broad Street and First Avenue South (later Louisa Avenue). The company also operated a commercial hotel and restaurant adjacent to the station. A short branch seasonally served the Fennimore County Fair and Chautauqua Grounds northwest of the city; another, the resort communities at lakes Sturm und Drang.

Connection with the Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern Railway at Fort Dodge provided transfer service to the capital and other points in central Iowa, including the Iowa State College at Ames. NITC sometimes used combination cars to carry passengers and freight, a profitable sideline during the 1920s. Passenger traffic stabilized through the Depression and improved somewhat during World War II. Operations ceased in 1948; the seventy-six-mile right-of-way was abandoned and the rolling stock sold to the Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern, which itself survived only six more years.


Scattered around these preliminary drawings for the depot’s first and second floors, there are several news clippings from The Plantagenet that document the building’s emergence from April 1909 until March of the following year. Who said my high school journalism class wouldn’t pay off!

But plans are easy. It’s elevations that freak me out.

¹ See: Ames History

Waitin’ for the “A” train

In the spring of 1909, ten or twelve leaders in Agincourt’s business community gathered at the Farmers, Mechanics & Merchants board room to discuss a new venture: an inter-urban line connecting Fort Dodge with Sioux City or Council Bluffs. Either route would link central Iowa with the Missouri River Valley and become a valuable asset to communities along the way. Today we’d call it “light rail”.

Messrs Hilton and Due may have written the definitive study of inter-urban railways in the United States. I forget the title, but there’s a copy on my office shelf (and has been since the 70s; I’ve always been fascinated by inter-urbans). If construction of the crosstown line of the Twin City light rail sets your heart atwitter, the network of inter-urbans in the first years of the 20th century would make you weep. Its construction was a feat of American business enterprise; its consolidation by the evil Sam Insull, a feat of American greed and corruption; and its loss, a blanket condemnation of the Robber Barons who necessitated the nation’s anti-trust legislation of the early 20th century. Don’t get me started.


In the roll call of states, Indiana tops the list with the highest mileage of inter-urban railways (and the highest number of libraries funded by Andrew Carnegie). Ohio and Illinois are in the top five (if memory serves) and Iowa is certainly among the top ten. Chroniclers Hilton and Due highlight the inter-connectedness of the inter-urban systems, contesting that it was possible to ride from Chicago to New York by inter-urban—though it would have taken days and been more costly than the New York Central. But their point is significant: the US once possessed an infrastructure of public transit that was both cheap and efficient. We allowed it to be taken away by a conspiracy among the auto, rubber and petroleum industries. But that’s a story for another day.

It was self-evident that Agincourt would become a link in the web of Midwestern inter-urbans. And Hilton and Due helped me craft that scenario, allowing me to piggy-back on the line connecting Fort Dodge with Des Moines, Ames and other central Iowa points. Rather than ask Howard to tell the tale of the Northwest Iowa Traction Co., I wrote a series of news items in The Plantagenet that outlined its organization and progress until the maiden run in the fall of 1909. 

Traction companies often parleyed their investment into spin-off enterprises like amusement parks, cemeteries and municipal trolley systems, So it was natural that Agincourt would eventually gain a modest streetcar operation, a lop-sided figure eight with two loops—the smaller to the southwest of the CBD, connecting the courthouse with factories near the river and with the Milwaukee Road depot at the south end of Broad Street; the larger loop making a broad swing to the northern and eastern extremities of town, to the teacher college and the cluster of cemeteries on east Agincourt Avenue. A seasonal branch ran to the Fennimore county fairgrounds and even the cemeteries had a short spur.


The NITC system itself began construction at Fort Doge and reached Agincourt within two months. Then it built westward through Fahnstock and Storm Lake on its way toward Sioux City—though either money or enthusiasm ran out and it failed to reach the Missouri Valley. Another seasonal line looped through the resorts near lakes Sturm and Drang, which I’ve tried to document in other devious ways—like a postcard and its mysterious cryptic message from Smith’s Hotel and a travel poster promoting “The Last Resort” on the farther west shore of Lake Sturm. But the heart of the system and the element I’ve delayed until now has been the NITC headquarters at the southwest corner of Broad and Louisa—a 1909 steel-and-terracotta whimsy that I can’t put off any longer. 

Plans are easy. The elevations will part the wheat from the chaff.


Medical Arts


The arts of medicine in Agincourt and vicinity are at least partially delineated in the lives of early practitioners like Doc Fahnstock (our answer to Doc Adams from “Gunsmoke”) and Sissy Beddowes, the Sac and Fox medicine woman whose knowledge of herbs and roots got her a gig at the College of Homeopathy in Chicago.The larger picture of orthodox medicine, however, is yet to be told. For me, the obvious beginning is to imagine a building.

Our earliest hospital was called “Luke, the Physician.” [Strange name for a hospital, but you should also know that I was born in a suburban Chicago facility named The Little Company of Mary. So back off.] Luke’s origins are murky at present. But the project for a Depression era replacement occurred when Luke moved beyond the original townsite to Broad Street north of Highway 7. The architecture of the Great Depression intrigues me, so this is as good a time as any to engage the odd criteria for solving architectural problems circa 1936.

Designing the Medical Arts Building will put me in the era of Art Deco and the Moderne, neither of which I understand in practice. Yes, I can recognize one when I see it, but making one is another story. Any suggestions?

Insofar as programme is concerned, I’ll have to understand the number of medical practitioners in a town of Agincourt’s size in the 1930s and how broadly based they might have been. Would there have been a homeopath in their numbers? Would dentists have been welcome tenants? And just how large was Agincourt’s service area? The Fahnstock clan was still around (Howard had a brush with Death when Forrest Fahnstock caused a car wreck five or so years ago), though I’ll bet the second and third generations of that family have frittered away their social capital and become little more than eccentrics and hangers on. There’s certainly a story there but not the one I want to tell at present.

Incidentally, I hope you enjoy the two-page spread from my sketchbook (volume 4).

We are not numb3rs.

For one hour each day in fifth grade I answered to the name of Roy.

Miss Veronica Piper [1895–1967] taught mathematics at John Walsh Elementary School in Summit, Illinois, one of three schools where I was bussed long before bussing became a dirty word. Miss Piper was also just one of the many unmarried teachers in the pubilc school system of the 50s and 60s. A gaunt woman who might have been sculpted by Alberto Giacometti, Miss Piper had taught my father, so for an hour each day I became Roy Ramsey her pupil of nearly thirty years previous. I’ve wanted for some time to weave her into the Agincourt story, since Miss Piper had played a pivotal role in my own education. Look for her—or someone very like her or someone even you might have known—in one of Howard’s brief series “Ghosts of Christmas Past.”

It was eighth grade before I encountered a male teacher and prior to that time only a handful of the women had been married. The vast majority were what I call “secular nuns”—women forced to choose between marriage or career. They might have become teachers or nurses or secretaries or salesgirls—or wives and mothers; the latter precluded and of the former. Those of Veronica’s generation strode in long black dresses and the sensible shoes worn by nuns. Giacometti sketched her a hundred times without setting foot in America.


Mathematics was so much more than a “subject” in Miss Piper’s classroom; it was a world view. Under her tutelage, I came to know the discipline of numbers; their impartial, unprejudiced behaviour, so unlike the teenager I might have become.

Formulae (pardon the proper Latin plural) flowed from the tip of her chalk. Solutions solicited; hands raised; names called—mine, of course, was Roy—and answers acknowledged, without shame and embarrassment, which were unwelcome in her classroom. One can nurture beyond the bounds of motherhood. Now, these forty-five years later, I credit Miss Piper with anything approximating mental discipline in my problem-solving repertoire. 

We may not be numbers. Patrick McGoohan’s character in “The Prisoner” passionately resisted being labeled as “Number Three.” But there are moments when I envy the order of numbers; the way they behave. Numbers, shapes, patterns of all sorts are the stuff of my life. Seeing them—everywhere—has been one of my greatest gifts. Yes, those abilities were in place long before I sat in her classroom, but one of the greatest teachers in my experience helped bring them to the fore.

Depressives like me tend toward early awakening; fitfull sleep in bouts of an hour or so, interrupted with SuDoKu, at least a half dozen each night. And the successful completion of any, especially those labeled “fiendish,” brings Veronica Piper to mind. I can only hope the Great Clockmaker of the Universe has put her to keeping it in good working order.

On Common Ground

The recent campaign tells me that we’re weary of war.  

Lots of sabre rattling was heard from the Right. So I hope we can read the presidential margin as a vote against inviting conflict with other nations—excepting, of course, those countries with the technical ability to create nuclear weapons and the childlike naïvete to think they can resist the temptation to use them. There is a difference betwixt a readiness for war and the wanton craving to start one. 

As our troops come home from Afghanistan and other theaters, I wonder how they will be welcomed home. Better, I hope than the veterans of Vietnam who suffer yet from the long-term consequences the follow from killing. Agincourt will, I know, welcome home her sons and daughters with open arms and thankful hearts. And will also have, in the meantime, cared for their families at home during their sacrifice. Such was not always the case, however. 

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (P.L. 78-346, 58 Stat. 284m) helped the “greatest generation” rejoin the post-war peacetime economy and adjust to the world that they, in effect, had made. All service men and women since have enjoyed those benefits. (Or at least they should have. In the present recession, I wonder how secure those benefits will remain.) But what of earlier generations?

How, I wondered, would Agincourt have acknowledged the personal sacrifices of soldiers and sailors in World War I, the Great War, the war to end war, the war they wrote songs about. Howard has been writing this piece for several years and it is still unfinished. But I can tell you this much: Agincourt’s citizens collectively honored their doughboys (and girls) with a substantial reward.

The Commercial Club took the lead, forming a “Veteran’s Committee” which created a stock company. Shareholders received one point below current interest rates (a comparable sacrifice on the home front) to build housing for returning servicemen. A block in the southeast quadrant, with few existing houses, was purchased and replatted. Twelve lots became twenty-seven, and thirteen duplex homes were constructed in the 1919-1921 building seasons. Veterans were able to purchase these homes at below-market rates. The modest lot sizes were balanced by shared garden space in the center, a place for family activity and a safe haven for children; a place to build community. A small grocery at the corner of Fifth and Alcott served the surrounding neighborhood and also became a trolley stop for the NITC cars.

Howard has been trying to interview families who settled there, especially children who had grown to maturity in such a nurturing environment. Perhaps I can nudge him to get the piece written at last. 



The Epworth League Effect

Any Methodists in the room will know the Epworth League, the youth component among followers of John and Charles Wesley. Somewhere in every Methodist church building—at least the ones I’ve visited—there is a room used by the League for its meetings, and prominent in that room will be (or, tragically, will have been) a stained glass window showing Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He kneels in prayer at a boulder, as a brilliant beam of light bears witness to Jesus’ conversation with his Father. Even non-Christians (and Christians who’ve been raised in a cave) will understand the strong message presented here.


Am I wrong to think that each of us has had such moments—not necessarily any direct communcation from the Big Guy, though as an atheist I’m cautious to admit that I’ve had one of those myself. No, I mean other occasions when we feel intimately aware that something is going on around us, something special and, perhaps, even unique, that others in the vicinity seem not to see or understand as intensely as we do.

I remember, for example, exactly where I was (in a shower in my freshman dorm) and what I was doing (waking up after an all-night studio project at the University of Oklahoma) when someone down the hall shouted something muffled. I turned off the water, said “What?” and heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination.

I remember the evening that Victor Christ-Janer spoke in the lobby of the School of Architecture at OU, opening his remarks with the news that Rev Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated in Memphis.

I remember Neil Armstrong’s walk on the Moon and also the death of Frank Lloyd Wright (I was fourteen). And I remember being told in third grade to add the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, something that seemed curiously wrong to an eight-year-old and which I have never said.

I remember being given by my father one of his pithiest and most pointed lessons: “The world” my father said, “is full of assholes. You should try not to be one of them.” I also remember the phone call telling me he had died. He, by the way, had not been an asshole, while I, on the other hand, cannot make that claim for myself.

I remember having drinks one evening with Cecil Elliott at the old Northern Exposure when conversation turned to degrees and levels of “success” and being given one of the meatiest pieces of wisdom ever bestowed on me or anyone else, I suspect. “Success?” Elliott intoned. “Success is not being recognized as an absolute failure by too many people you’re not married to.” Somewhere in my files, there is a signed and dated cocktail napkin attesting to this event.

In each of these cases, the metaphorical clouds parted, a ray of light shone down around me and I understood that these were moments of witness. And now I can add another moment to those vivid memories: 10:12 p.m. EDT when MSNBC announced that President Obama had been declared the winner of the ugliest electoral campaign in my recollection. I will savor that moment forever.

Howard needs to write something about this ability—this responsibilityto bear witness and what that might mean for Agincourt.

Election Eve…2008

Four years ago on election eve, Howard couldn’t stand the suspense. I can identify. So I thought you might enjoy the column he wrote for the Saturday following, November 8th, 2008.

A few figs froms thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

It’s the little things

Early Tuesday evening (election night) my dog Digger and I took a walk. Aunt Phyllis had set aside some of her renowned green tomato chutney, and I couldn’t pass up her generosity. It was a crisp autumn night. Someone was burning leaves (in clear violation of city ordinance #71-028, but who among us is prepared to cast the first stone). On the way home, digger detoures toward The Commons (he has some favorite spots near the Carousel), a route that brought me near the Episcopal church.

St. Joseph-the-Carpenter is an attractive Gothic Revival building under ordinary circumstances, but Tuesday night it was especially beautiful. Burning leaves tinged the air. Twilight muted the already mossy grey-brown shingles. The stained glass windows were open and glowing. And the sound of choir rehearsal drew me through the door and into a back pew. Gerry Leiden was working the boy choir for our new Christmastime tradition, the Festival of Lessons and Carols.



Great buildings are always better than they appear; they insinuate themseles into our being through more than a single sense. That night, reinforced with distinctive sights, sounds and scents, I came to a newer, better understanding of a building I’d known since childhood.

The Episcopal church of St. Joseph-the-Carpenter was built in 1878 and dedicated late that year. Earlier, Episcopalians had worshipped in the chapel of Bishop Kemper Academy, and afterward the school and parish shared a priest as a matter of economic necessity.

Priests were hard to keep in the early years of parish life; the church might as well have had a revolving door. But Rev. B. F. Cooley of Massachusetts loomed large in building the new church here, despite only six months’ residency. He had attended Nashotah Seminary in Wisconsin; was steeped in music and ritual there; and appears to have been acquainted with eastern architects, which accounts for Henry Dudley becoming ours.

Dudley reinterpreted the Gothic Revival style for us, using heavy wood timbers, beaded siding and cedar shingles rather than stone or brick. Proudfoot & Bird’s enlargements of 1898 only enhanced those qualities. Gerry Leiden’s choir rehearsal Tuesday evening confirmed something we’ve all known about St. Joe’s: its accoustics are nearly perfect. If Stradivarius had built churches, instead of violins, they might have looked and sounded like St. Joe’s—rich, resonant, mellow and smokey, like the air outside—because virtually every surface is unpainted wood. Leiden’s oratorio “Shananditti” premiered here last April, and recording companies from Des Moines have used the church auditorium several times—a welcome source of income when the offering plate is thin.

Long, low and liturgical, St. Joe’s out-ritualized the Romans across the street, but it was a friendly rivalry and communicants at one were always welcome at the other—despite official positions taken by their administrative leadership. The two church choirs—St. Joe’s and St. Ahab’s—often joined forces for Christmas and Easter, and the priests “covered” for one another on occasion. In the midst of the 1898 remodelling, Fr Kemp even co-officiated at the funeral of his papist friend Rev. Manning. Apparently, ecuminsm has been alive and well in Agincourt for more than a century.

Digger and I sat in the church for nearly an hour as Dr. Leiden put the choir to work. I don’t think they ever realized we were there, the group was so focused on its task. Sight, sound, smell and touch (gee, that cedar has worn smooth in the last 130 years) wrapped me in a spiritual blanket; rare respite from the stress of a sagging economy and a War on Terror that none of us wanted. I took an hour of comfort with my friend Digger beside me and then headed home to watch television returns with newfound hope.

My advice to you: Find comfort where you can and offer it where required. I found some Tuesday night at St. Joe’s

Proverbs 11:29

This week I saw something on the web that—almost—made me want to pass it along. It was one of those inspirational quotes, the “feel good” sort that show up as posters on bulletin boards and open-office landscape partitions. The thrust of it was upbeat: limiting the negativity in our lives, surrounding ourselves with love and support, avoiding the drama queens (and kings) because life is short and the dessert course and coffee can’t come any too soon.

If it could only be that tidy. 

I’m writing this with the TV as background. It’s five days before the election and every channel is crabbed with campaign spots that defy logic and challenge credulity. My eyes and ears are assaulted by infomercials that make shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater tantamount to clearing your throat. In years past, I have withdrawn from the world, posturing as the inoffensive eccentric academic. My public pronouncements have been limited to the obscure, the obtuse, the quaint; I have lived on life’s periphery—and barely there. With time running out, however, there is still enough to change my course.

Yes, I enjoy the company of a handful (meaning ten or fewer) friends. Facebook implies otherwise, but you and I know better. I had an exchange yesterday afternoon with someone who is closer to friend than acquaintance—I thought; a conversation about our candidates for the presidency. And I was shocked at the narrowness of his vision, his centeredness on self, a bottom line drawn just above the total of his tax liabilities. Arguments on nation-building, on social welfare, on “them” and “us” in addition to “me” were lost on him. Or, perhaps, more correctly, they delineated the gap between our views of the world. He, no doubt, did not appreciate what must have seemed my confrontational negativity. Though I will say this: if there is a barrier between us, it is one he has built. It is, I hope, still possible to disagree without being disagreeable.

A favorite author James P. Carse writes about the binary pair theater/drama, and there is certainly much of that afoot these days. In my view, one of our would-be presidents is being a candidate—dramatically—while the other is simply playing the theatrical part and, at that, appears to have flubbed his lines more than once. His script is in constant re-write for an off-Broadway production that may never see the Great White Way. At least I hope so.

I write this as prelude to a piece Howard has in the works: a trial that took place in a Fennimore County court room in the very hot summer of 1925; a trial primed but overshadowed by another courtroom confrontation of ideas in Dayton, Tennessee that same week



“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Proverbs 11:29

One hundred years ago tonight a child was born a dozen miles southeast of Agincourt—closer to Nimby, actually, which may account for the ripples that spread from that small event. Cable Gaines began his midwifed life, the second of three boys born to Sarah and Abijah Gaines, on a rural farm of fading fertility. Under other circumstances, we would note Cable’s name for nothing other than it’s curiosity: a misprint for Caleb, never corrected. Public records have a way of institutionalizing accident.

I can’t speak with authority on Cable’s early years. The two-room schoolhouse at Nimby. Church in a Pentacostal congregation at the intersection of two unpaved country roads. The rhythm of plowing, planting, harvest and hibernation until it beging again. A world designed by “Nature and Nature’s God.” Thomas Jefferson’s world—with the significant absence of Jefferson himself.

Events conspired to change that world dramatically. Following her third pregnancy, Sarah Gaines went to an asylum, a victim of hysteria, that 19th century catch-all invented by men to label the women they chose not to understand. The Gaines’s third son died before his first month. The first son was crushed in an agricultural accident. No wonder farm families were large. That rhythm might have gone on, uninterrupted, until Cable’s death. Or until the summer of 1925.

An unexceptional, ordinary globe filled the corner of his seventh-grade classroom. But to young Gaines it was heresy. His world of rectangular fields stretched to the horizon, to the four corners of the Earth, the Pillars of Hercules. How could such a pattern wrap a sphere? It defied common sense—and the Bible. Emboldened by the Scopes trial, Abijah Gaines filed suit against school authorities on his son’s behalf.

A Biblical Earth was flat. Everyone knew that. But our “Creationist” trial drew little attention and only local, at that. Without Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan; without the notorious ACLU; without the carnival depicted in “Inherit the Wind,” Judge Eaton dismissed the suit while our attention was diverted to Tennessee. He’d have no circus here.

The consequences for Cable? Who knows. He inherited the farm (if not the wind) but never married. He never flew in an airplane. He never owned a television. There is no record that he exercised his franchise. He rarely left the county.

In 1964 Cable Gaines died; he was fifty-two. A quilted counterpane barely contoured the wasting body in his deathbed; was it wasted, as well? The quilted rectangles of faded fabric stretched to the bed’s horizon and draped into an abyss where Columbus and Magellan should have plummeted.

This is gonna cost me.