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Synecdoche 1.1

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

It came upon a midnight clear

There have been periods of Agincourt history when its veterinarians were more skillful than its medical doctors. Outside the collective wisdom of Sissy Beddowes and old Doc Fahnstock, we were often in the hands of medical quacks and charlatans, promoters of patent medicines and electro-magnetic apparatus who passed through with no more than two or three years of residence. Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip posits that the strong continued their westward migration; the weak of body, mind and spirit or those with insufficient resources stayed behind. More accurately, perhaps, they were left behind—in the sense of Hal Lindsay.

Our livestock, on the other hand, luxuriated (though they couldn’t appreciate it).  At one point, one noble beast was in the care of world-renowned veterinarian Finlay Dun, for example, who invested little time here but left an enduring legacy of progressive procedures and innovative techniques passed on to local practitioners. In plain speech, he did good work and shared his knowledge before moving on.

Dun [1830-1897] was Scottish by birth and training, but spent considerable time in the U.S. as a land manager for the Close Brothers at Larchwood (not far from here), before moving on to Dakota Territory and then Wyoming as manager for the Swan Land & Cattle Co. His texts on veterinary medicines enjoyed multiple editions on both sides of the Atlantic and his book American Farming and Food lured more than a handful of Brits to this part of Iowa. It was serendipity that brought Finlay Dun’s train through Agincourt on a rainy night in 1883, almost precisely 130 years ago last Saturday. (I love anniversaries and the more obtuse, the better, don’t you agree?)

You think I make this up, don’t you.

SWNS_WHITE_CALF_130022038.jpg

The night of the albino calf

James McGinnis (an Irish name that also appears in western Scotland; it means “son of Angus”) bought land beyond Fahnstock near the county line and imported a few Highland cattle, thinking they’d thrive in our harsh wet winters. I suspect it also involved an element of national pride. One of his heifers was late with her first calf and one chilly spring night went into several hours of troubled labor. With luck, Finlay Dun was in town, changing trains on the way to Larchwood and checking out the local scene. McGinnis got wind of the renowned veterinarian’s presence and sought him out at the Hazzard House. “Dr Dun, I presume,” would have been an appropriate opening gambit. We can only guess.

McGinnis explained the circumstances, Dun checked the contents of his ever-ready medical bag, and the two of them set off by horse (one of them lent by Equus & Co) for the farm, about twenty miles west. Roads were muddy but passable in late spring, so we can only speculate about their conversation along the way and the anxious pace of the horses. It was well past supper when they arrived and Mrs McGinnisherself pregnant at the time—was waiting in the barn. Breach births are always difficult and Highland cattle may be more antsy than other breeds, so the three worked well through the night, with Margaret McGinnis shuttling between the barn and her stew, molten on the kitchen stove, until finally at 3 o’clock, after more than six hours of careful observation and cautious meddling in what ought to be an Act of God, the calf took its first faultering steps. A white albino calf loved all the more by its rusty mother for the trouble it had caused.

Dun stayed the night, ate a hearty breakfast the next morning, charitably refused payment for his expert services, rode slowly back to the Equus stables, and then regaled everyone at Hazzard’s dining room that night with stories of the Fennimore county’s White Calf. It made the Plantagenet‘s front page as Dun set out on the last leg of his interrupted journey to Larchwood.

Synecdoche 1.0

I love a happy ending.


2 Comments

  1. […] his complexion was so fair, so pale, as to be borderline albino. I’d heard the story of our albino calf—a long night in 1883 when a pure white Highland calf brought short-term fame to the McGinnis farm […]

  2. […] to weave veterinary threads into Agincourt’s fabric and build on the story of Finlay Dun and “The night of the albino calf” and Martha Tennant’s role in founding the community’s first animal welfare […]

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