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Relativity

We live in the Age of Relativity.

Absolutes safely consigned to the scrapheap of my modernist past disolve before my eyes. Were they an illusion in the first place? I’m inclined to think that relatives, on the other hand, may be all that matter—especially to those of us without any.

As the only child of an only child, family fascinates, and that fact may account for an extensive family tree generated by the project’s first invention, Anson Tennant. To understand his character, the thrust and trajectory of his action, it seemd a family was required. And once that idea took hold, all bets were off.

Tennantgenealogy

Genealogical software is designed to follow a blood line from a single progenitor through multiple generations to the present day. Or they’re designed to follow bloodlines from a single person (such as myself) backward through generations of parents, grandparents, etc., as far as documents will carry us. In so many of my projects, the relationships of family and friendship are lateral, not linear, and so software programs and data sheets such as these have been useless. Instead, I craft large spreadsheets like this and cut-and-paste as opportunity permits and need requires. For others, this may offer all the excitement of bathroom tile. For me, it hits at the multi-dimensionality of narratives in the landscape: the palimpsest of stories that layer the land and help to explain the patterns of architecture and urban development that drive this project.

Let me tell you what I see:

  • Marie-Hélène Cachemaille would have been an auspicious beginning for any family tree. The Cachemailles are Huguenots, French Protestants driven to the Channel Islands and other tolerant lands during French religious persecution. Her daliance with someone named Tennant—Burke’s Landed Gentry lists five candidate families—and the consequent “inconvenience” of a pregnancy must have been bought off with a lump sum settlement; she never married. Despite that, Marie named her son Gaudeamus—”We are grateful”—and his bastard endowment made the family’s relocation to New Jersey possible shortly after the American Revolution.
  • Was Gaudeamus Tennant a better father because he had never known his own? His first wife Jemima Watrous, the daughter of his business partner, died birthing their third child; he then married his sister-in-law Sally, who raised the children as her own. 
  • Of the three boys—Pliny, Virgil and Horace—the youngest and oldest founded Agincourt in 1853 and transplanted the Tennant name to Iowa. (Virgil “went West” to the gold fields and disappeared.) Horace Tennant and his wife Euphemia Ball bore three children who lived: Augustus James, Sophie and Phoebe. I can make a few observations here: 1) giving birth was a hazardous occupation in the 19th century; 2) infant mortality was high; and 3) I’m obviously drawn to 19th century names we haven’t heard since the Civil War. Euphemia? Honestly.
  • Martha Curtiss Corwin was born near Mason City, Iowa and home-schooled. Of her own family, I know only that her father Curtiss Corwin was a recreational carpenter whose love for wood and its working influenced his grandson Anson; his carpenter’s square is preserved in the stained glass window to Anson’s old office. Martha married Augustus James “Jim” Tennant in 1888 and bore four children: Lucy, Anson, Molly and Claire. I have wanted to explore courtship in the 19th century—when marriage was as often a matter of identifying good breeding stock as it was a consequence of love—and I wonder now if their courtship letters have evaded history’s landfill. Do you think?
  • Of the four Tennant children, Lucy married businessman/industrialist Ben Tabor; Anson became the architect-hero of the Agincourt Project (designer of, among other things, the old public library building); Molly married her sweetheart Burton Lloyd (subsequently manager of the transit company) and little Claire avoided death from typhoid fever in 1905 to marry Mike Oliphant. Molly’s and Claire’s families need a lot of fleshing out. But here I should also apologize for the preponderance of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic names that play so large in U.S. history. Diversity will find its way, if you give me time.
  • For example, Lucy Tennant‘s daughter Mary Grace Tabor travelled east to study the teachings of Maria Montessori, where she met Kurt Eugene Bernhard, WWII refugee from France, widowed and raising a son. Here was an opportunity to link Agincourt with a world torn by war, enrichinbg the story of  GIs and Victory Gardens.
  • Artifacts continue to play their part, in this case an eBay acquisition, a painting by Gabriel Spat titled “Portrait une famille” (which I read as “A family portrait”, though the eBay seller called it “Portrait of my family”). Shown seated is a man, on his lap a child, and standing behind and beside him another child and his wife. The war had brought Bernhard to New York but taken this family from him: his in-laws the Sobieski’s, Piotr (Peter), Klara (Clara), and their three children Adam, Irena and Chlothilde, shown as the child in her father’s lap. French citizens of Polish ancestry are fairly common—remember Chopin was born Chopinowski and was himself a part of Poland’s “Great Emigration” during 1830-1870, the same emigration that brought my own Polish ancestors to America. I’m not a Sobieski (a noble family name in Polish history); merely a Markiewicz. But you’re going to love the Sobieski portrait.
  • Genealogies can grow unexpectedly. For the 2007 exhibition, the Larson sisters (with family connections to the Fargo Air Museum) wondered if there might be a pioneer aviatrix or two in the Agincourt story. Glancing at the blank space on the genealogy’s left, it was a simple matter to give Howard’s dad Warren a pair of older sisters, the “Pioneer Daughters of Flight” Phyllis and Ella Rose Tabor. I’m not sure what became of Ella Rose, but Howard’s Aunt Phyllis died just this year at the age of 100. I recall Howard writing about the election of 2008, an anxious evening he chose to drop by her house for some promised jars of green tomato chutney. Intimate asides of this sort are commonplace in the Agincourt narrative.
  • My friend Howard Tabor himself is writing a piece on his great-uncle Anson, one of the series “Ghosts of Christmas Past” which is hard for him, since writing about family seems so self-serving; some sort of justification or even boasting. I had originally killed off Anson Tennant, architect of the Agincourt Public Library, sending him to Europe on the strategically departing RMS Lusitania, until Dr Bob my shrink wondered “Does he have to die?” I have to admit saving Anson from what ought to have been certain death has been both humanitarian and fruitful for the story line, as it begged the question “Why had Anson chosen to become an architect?” and that answer has been a goldmine for both story and artifact. It also afforded the possibility that Anson had married. So he was rescued in the North Atlantic by a Basque fishing trawler (read Mark Kurlansky’s Basque History of the World if you think this is a stretch), taken to port and nursed back to health in a convent hospital. Amnesia and WWI kept him from rejoining his family in Iowa; in fact, they believed he’d been lost in the Lusitania sinking and acted accordingly. Nursed to health by Graxi Urrutia (her name means “foreigner” or “not from these parts”, by the way), thirteen years his junior, they had three children—Alize, Mikel and Aitor (that’s Alice, Michael and Hector to you)—before his memory returned at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. I’m anxious to imagine the family’s reaction to a telegram from the State Department revealing that Anson had been found and their discovery of four new additions to the extended Tennant clan. And what do you suppose twenty-one years of amnesia did to the now middle-aged Anson? In the Basque country—Euskadi, in the Basque language—he had become a carpenter, and I suspect that’s what he did on returning to Iowa.
  • Howard’s sister Catherine LaFarge lives with her husband Jim and their children (number and names to be determined) in rural Vermont, where they produce “Alouette” brand maple syrup. Look for it on your grocery shelves.

Mark Roelofs created his own Agincourt family, the van der Rijns who hailed from Holland and came to Agincourt to open a department store. Somewhere I have Mark’s van der Rijn tree. But I do recall that he needed to marry off one it its members, so we played yenta one afternoon and linked our two lines, so to speak. Damned if I can find that connection right now.


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