It’s been busy across the alley from our house: two older homes and a one-car garage have just been demolished. I miss one of them already–just because I was used to seeing it from the kitchen window–but the other couldn’t disappear soon enough. We knew it as “the crack house”, not because actual drug manufacture was going on, but because more domestic disputes than I can count spilled from its side door into the alley. And most of those seem to have been driven by altered consciousness of one sort or another.
I’ve lived in this neighborhood since about 1981–long before living downtown was trendy; in fact you couldn’t give property away down here in the 80s. So my neighbors were enthusiastic when I moved in and upped the owner-occupant ratio. The pattern hereabouts had been absentee landlords and rental occupancy, so I was bucking that trend. Not being one to ring doorbells and introduce myself, I met Marcella Depute and Minnie Renquist as many neighbors do, the old fashioned way: we became garbage can buddies on Tuesdays, commiserating about traffic, power lines and what was then a general disinterest in the welfare of inner city single-family homes like ours. I attended a public presentation once where someone from the City Planning office spoke of our neighborhood as “Oh, those are just some sub-standard houses we want to get rid of.” Happily, there’s been a change in staff since then.
Minnie and Marcella must have been Catholics, because I often ran into them at the former Hardee’s restaurant across from St Mary’s Cathedral, part of an after-Mass coffee klatch. Minnie’s house is still standing–temporarily–but Marcella’s has become splinters, as has her garage. The Crack House followed suit after the weekend. The Claw parked for a day or two, until the dust had settled, and then the foundations disappeared. As of Thursday, several new loads of black dirt have topped both lots. I wonder what will replace them, come spring.
I mention these neighborhood changes so that I can make a simple observation: my landscape (and yours I suspect, as well) is peppered associations. I can’t walk from here to there without memories bobbing to the surface. And most of those memories are not the stuff of Steven Spielberg movies. Marcella was a fine human being who did me no harm and was, no doubt, loved by her family and friends (I count myself only an acquaintance). But she never swam the English Channel or disappeared while flying across the Pacific or hid Jewish children in her attic during WWII. Yet each day that I brewed a pot of coffee and looked out my kitchen window, Marcella’s name invariably came to mind.
Last week I met with my friend AnneMarie Fitz. She works at Touchmark, a senior residence center in South Fargo. We’re strategizing an oral history project with her residents, asking them to reminisce and consider the narrative of their lives as it relates to that elusive “sense of place” we all desire. Just now, AnneMarie and I are exploring how to open those doors with them and get the stories flowing. You might be wondering what the hell this has to do with Agincourt.
Earlier in this blog, Howard wrote about a local history project sponsored by Toni Benedetti, CEO at Kraus Foundry (still known to most of us as Kraus Bridge & Iron). KB&I are celebrating their 125th anniversary and working with history students at the college to do a similar oral history project. Antonia’s idea (she’s the great-granddaughter of company founder Anton Kraus and, in a sense, bears his name) is to summarize these stories that link people and place and make them a semi-permanent part of the environment as manhole covers–footnotes. The city will be peppered with “footnotes”, making the stories of our lives place-specific.
When AnneMarie and I have gathered similar stories and edited them, we hope to turn art students loose on their interpretation. We won’t ask the students to cast 36″-wide disks of iron. Instead, we’ll shoot for 8″ maquettes. But imagine as part of the next Agincourt Exhibit (in the fall of 2013 at the Plains Art Museum) a display of a dozen or more collaborations. It will be interesting to invite the Touchmark residents, to have them meet their artistic interpreters and watch their reaction to being a part of the show.
Howard has a large extended family. I should know; I created it.
Through his job at the Plantagenet he knows a lot of people (some he would rather not, but that’s a number of other stories for other times). He was also the de facto foster son of Hal Holt, whose family have been the caretakers of local history for four generations. Through Hal, Howard had access to as much of that history as he could stomach—which was a lot. And through his own large, extended and widely distributed family and its connections with other lines prominent in community history, I’m hardpressed to imagine anyone better positioned to write about Agincourt. [If I could, I suppose I would. But Howard has become too close a friend for that to happen.]
Sometimes he surprises me. Like this letter to his sister Catherine, that none of us was supposed to read; I’ve deleted most personal names. Catherine LaFarge and her family live in Vermont.
Someone may have already told you that _______ died yesterday. I guess the phone or an e-mail would have been quicker, but I have a pen-and-paper fetish (you know me so well) and decided to scratch these words out with a new fountain pen on some laid paper I found at Mom’s. Loading the pen with ink and waiting until Rowan left to run some errands has given me time to recollect—I invest a lot of time in that these days anyway, So focussing on _______ was welcome diversion, especially during this bloody fiscal cliff debate. “‘When will it be done?’ he asked plaintively.”
I saw _______ a couple weeks ago. We ran into each other at the meat counter in Dykeman’s—Rowan and I were having the “Monday Night Irregulars” over and I wanted to try a new chicken recipe. _______ looked well enough, certainly not someone who’d be dead in a fortnight. Looks deceive. They surely had for _______—he’d be the first to admit.
All things considered, I’m surprised he spoke to me, despite being related somehow—through one of great-grandmother Tennant’s older sisters. [I’ve misplaced the family tree and wonder if you have a copy. Aunt Phyllis could have sorted things out.] _______ had some axe to grind about disinheritance or some nonsense. G-g Martha received something his branch of the family should have got. What really got under his skin was simple: she did things with the money—gave it away to causes and projects and such; invested it in human capital. Mother never saw any of it—much to her relief.
In my view, _______ grasped for everything that came within reach and clutched it close to his chest thereafter. The Ghost of Xmas Past could have visited our “cousin” to good effect. It’ll be interesting to see who’s mentioned in the LW&T: certainly none of us. You know how he felt about me: an “incomplete human being” in his own words.
The obituary in Monday’s paper will be short, business-like, low key. I should know: I wrote it this morning. Some folks will think I’m sweeping family dirt ‘neath an already lumpy carpet. You’ll be a better judge than I, so I’m enclosing a copy of the final draft.
Will you, Jim and the kids be here for Xmas? I’ve reserved a “room at the inn.” Rowan sends his love, as do I.
Messages are often unclear—poorly sent or half received; stories remain incomplete. Even Truth can be half-told. So here is an obituary notice from the Monday Plantagenet which may—or may not—be the topic of his letter to Catherine:
BUXTON, Alfred—Died at his home in Agincourt, Alfred Buxton passed from life in the company of friends and family. He was fifty-two years old. Buxton was born at Nimby on November 11th 1960 and attended local schools, graduating from Fennimore County High School in 1978. He joined Byrne & Co. as an accountant and rose through the company’s management.
Buxton was active in the Presbyterian church. An uncompromising conservate, he served as treasurer of the Fennimore County Central Committee of the Republican Party for the past four years. He is survived by his brother Craig and sister Lucille Bancroft and several nieces and nephews. He was unmarried.
Don’t tell Howard I shared this. I suspect there is more to the story.
Robert Preston’s portrayal of Harold Hill in “Music Man” didn’t do the image of traveling salesmen any favors. But by the movie’s release in 1962, there weren’t all that many of them plying the back roads of America.
At the turn of the last century, traveling salesmen (there were only a handful of women in the business) might better and more appropriately have been called “commercial travelers”. Whether hawking personal grooming and household tools (the “Fuller Brush Man”), spices (the “Watkins Man”), home remedies, insurance, encyclopedias, or brass instruments for the high school band, men like Harold Hill–well, not actually like Harold Hill, because he was a shyster–were a common sight in small-town business life.
Arriving by train (or interurban, in Agincourt’s case, after 1909), they had already annouced their arrival by mail to local businesses. What the weary commercial traveler required was an inexpensive bed and a room to lay out their sample cases, where retailers would inspect the goods and place an order. In Hill’s case, that order would never be fulfilled, which is one reason the United Commercial Travelers organized at Columbus, Ohio in 1888. The UCT badge was an assurance of business integrity, and the organization also provided its members with affordable insurance and a widows and orphans fund to compensate families before the social safety net of the Roosevelt years.
Even before they were identified as a “UCT Hotel”, some hostelries had already served as the most likely base of operations for this fraternity of commerce. And throughout the 90s, new hotels were purpose-built to serve this growing clientele. So when the Northwest Iowa Traction Co. incorporated in 1909, it was very likely that a UCT-oriented facility would be part of their package.
I don’t know what may have been on the South Broad Street lots the company acquired for their headquarters. That’s the interesting thing about inventing a community; you can always go back and “fix” that. But what I did envision was a multi-purpose facility to balance the risk of their investment: 1) a ticket office and waiting room for the NITC trains and the local trolley system that spun off from it; 2) a cafe (the “Bon-Ton”) to capitalize on the departing passenger or the people waiting for their arrival; 3) rental shops on valuable street frontage; and 4) a UCT hotel.
Set circa 1910, the design was likely to be influenced by recent innovations in building construction–steel or iron frames clad with brick or terracotta–and a progressive style drawn from both historical precedent and the more recent Arts & Crafts imagery of the Edwardian Age. These are those pesky elevations I’ve mentioned before. But organizationally, the building took shape in my mind in about a half hour watching CSI re-runs one night. I hope you might approve my solution, at least to this point.
By the way, on the plans, north is to the right.