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Monthly Archives: July 2014

Émile Walters [1893-1977]


[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]

WALTERS, Émile [1893-1977]



oil on board / 8 inches x 10 inches

Identified on an accompanying label as “My first snow painting,” this early work by American artist Émile Walters may have recorded the homestead of Amos and Cissy Beddowes.

Slow day at the dark bar


Seems to be anything but “happy hour” here. No wonder, it’s so dark no one can find their way in.

The reality of alcohol in America requires a lot of sleuthing: except for Prohibition, I have little idea what Iowa’s drinking laws may have been since the middle of the 19th century. But I do know that, one way or another, thirst has been satisfied in Agincourt.

Father Farber

The way things work:

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” says the Queen of Hearts in Through the Looking Glass. As a designer, I am required to remember the future. It is my definition of design.


So when images like this appear on the radar, I simply can’t ignore them.

This vignette of a Roman Catholic priest on the steps of (presumably) his parish church is sufficiently generic to be almost anywhere. The writing on the back (in French, but not very readable) says it is in St. Johnsbury, Vermont; there is a church of Notre Dame des Victoires that is a likely candidate (the French name would seem to go with the French inscription, except there are more steps), but that’s beside my purpose. It’s enough to have a priest standing in the doorway of a 19th century Roman Catholic church.

I’ve written about this process before—moving from the specific to the general—but it’s not an exact parallel with the Deductive-Inductive pairing. Remember the Kohler faucet commercial, where the snooty upscale house-spouse whips a faucet from her purse and challenges the architect: “Design a home around this!” Generally, in architectural practice and the academic laboratory-studio, the specific design emerges from a decision tree that begins with large issues and progresses gradually to smaller and more intimate questions. But the Kohler challenge is a worthy one.

Suppose in ARCH 371 this fall I were to arrive with several sealed cartons, one for each student (and, perhaps, one for me, too) and issue the challenge: “Design a house or school or church or clinic or mortuary around whatever you find in the box. The hinge, floor lamp, door knob, paint chip, or sound recording of Marlene Dietrich singing “Falling in Love again” must be the seed of your design solution.” Tell me I should throw this idea away.

So, for my part, the priest in photo above has become Fr Emile Farber (he was either “Emile” or “Emil”, depending on the moment) and the door leads to the sanctuary of Saint Ahab’s, the Roman Catholic parish of Agincourt, Iowa. Neither exist, which is reason enough that they should.

Curiously, the present Catholic church in Agincourt—Christ the King, constructed in 1951—is the third church to serve the parish. I have an idea what the first church looked like; indeed I described it more than five years ago, though never put pencil to paper. But the second church, the one glimpsed in this picture, has never been clear to me until now.

Dining Out 1.1

This second installment of “Dining Out” may be both difficult to write and pointless. While it relates to the general theme of foodways in the Midwest and their evolution in the last 150 years, it’s also highly personal and obviously so. I told Peter parts of this story the other day and he thought it worth posting.

The Road House

The historical type called a “roadhouse” probably differs in meaning across the U.S., Canada and the rest of the English-speaking world. Likewise, it must also have varied from each generation to the next. I think of it as a steakhouse and bar on a major highway, sometimes offering accommodations and probably near a service station. At the edge of major cities they were convenient watering holes for travelers and also served as destinations for weekend automobile jaunts, as meeting points for business and social gatherings, and as venues for birthdays, anniversaries, wedding receptions (i.e., groomsmen’s dinners, bachelor’s parties, etc.). In some contexts, they also assumed a slightly disreputable connotation, but more about that in a minute.

I’ve always imagined a roadhouse in Agincourt or just outside the city where Highway 7 skims the northern edge of the original townsite. It may have had an earlier incarnation, but I see it thriving in the ’20s (dependent, of course, on Iowa’s liquor laws and prohibition), a resource answering many of those community needs noted above. The Greyhound bus would have stopped there on the regular run from Des Moines to Sioux City. A smokey steakhouse with martinis and slabs of meat, where the staff were disinclined to have very good memories about who said what to whom. Families were certainly welcome there—just perhaps not your family. Rent “Easy Rider” on netflix and call me.

Somewhat related to the roadhouse was the taxi dance, a uniquely American institution with a more sordid reputation. Anthropologically better defined, I’ve somehow managed to meld these two types in shards of childhood memory. Each day my past tessellates a little more; some day it will be a mosaic worthy of Mondrian. Now, an even more personal digression.

In the ’50s, the Tri-State Tollway offered the prospect of an important bypass around Chicago. A few miles from my dad’s gas station in Bedford Park, the massive interchange with Route 66 and Manheim Road (Routes 12, 20 and 45) gave Roy the chance to supplement our income. Among the stuff we sold was #1 Range Oil, an oily smelly petroleum product that burned like whale oil in lamps called “smudge pots”. Roy got the contract to line the temporary paths through the construction site with a hundred or so of these smudge pots every night, and he took me along on the nightly job. One thing you should know: my parents had divorced a year or so before but I never saw Marge again; odd for a father to have custody in the 1950s.

So most every night we’d load the truck with the pots that I’d just filled (yeah, I was about nine years old) and we’d head south on Archer (a.k.a. Illinois Route 4A) toward the construction site just this side of Willow Springs. The job then consisted of picking up yesterday’s pots and replacing them with these fresh ones. The task accomplished—it took no more than thirty or forty-five minutes I’d guess—we’d head home. It was usually about 11 o’clock. But then…


But then, about half way home on Archer, we’d pass what I only recall as The Taxi Dance, a tavern–dance hall in what I learned had been the old car barn for the Chicago & Joliet Electric Railway interurban line. The C&JE shut down in ’33, and the building had become this “entertainment venue” which I now understand played a colorful social role.

My recollections of the place center on ladies with big boobs in tight sequined dresses. I sat on their laps; they fed me 7-UP and popcorn; Roy had a beer and then, it’s just possible, disappeared for a while, leaving me in the buxom care of the taxi dancers. Any one of them could easily have been Tina Turner singing “Private Dancer” but it was enough that the ladies liked me and often bought me a burger. I look back on it sixty years ago and wonder why Child Protective Services didn’t knock on our door and take me away. If this was abuse, I’ll take it any day over the shit I see on cable TV or have fed to me on social media.

I’ve never spoken of this with Dr Bob but know him well enough to believe that he’d approve. And I learned a little about foodways in the Midwest.

Dining Out

Twenty years ago Barbie Yergens sent me a birthday card that we still have somewhere around the house. I guess you have to have eaten with Milton and Barbie (and Miss Molly and all our AFS rent-a-kids) as often as we have to understand the joke.

On the card’s front, a gingham-clad pioneer woman guides her ox-drawn conestoga across the inland sea of Great Plains grass. Inside the card, a hand-written entry from her journal reads: “Ate out again last night. It was good.” How many times a month do you dine out? We do at least twice, which begs the question: Why has it taken me so long to connect the dots between that frontier fireside experience and the Chinese buffet where we ate tonight?


For many years my favorite Fargo-Moorhead eatery was the Dutch Maid, a hole-in-the-wall burger and malt shop on Fargo’s South Eighth Street. Today the building houses Nichole’s Fine Pastry, though all things considered, I’d like to have the Dutch Maid back.

Memory doesn’t always serve me well these days. But I think there were a handful of booths in the 25-foot wide interior. The majority of seating was along a series of U-shaped counters, where the staff could serve patrons on each side, taking an order from one, while pouring a backhanded coffee to another 180 degrees away without the slightest misstep. My favorite waitperson was Betty Gervais, who knew my order before I had even sat down; there was rarely a need to look at the menu because we all knew it by heart and the weekly specials were cyclic. Our friends the VerDoorns operated a craft gallery across the street, so it was easy to call in an order of burgers and pick them up, hot and ready, within ten minutes. During the summer, the Maid’s ice cream counter was exceptionally popular, for hand-dipped cones, malts and shakes. Remember, the Island Park pool was just a block east.

One evening I found myself in need of fried liver—one of my guiltiest pleasures—which the Maid did in fine style, slathered in fried onions and served with thick toast. It was past the dinner hour and one of the patrons who had had a bit too much to drink was becoming unruly. After a word or two from Betty, I watched her step around the counter, administer an arm-lock to a man twice her size and escort him out the door in one graceful movement. It was ballet. He did not bother to re-enter the store, and Betty went back to her usual affable service. I don’t know what’s happened to Mrs Gervais or the family that owned and operated the Dutch Maid, but they are missed. It should come as little surprise that the place has been born again in my mind as Agincourt’s Bon Ton, the community’s longtime casual family restaurant—where the menu proudly affirms “Legendary Liver”—and Betty Gervais has similarly morphed into one the community’s cast of characters.

Another joint of local renown was Fran’s Restaurant in Moorhead on Main Avenue just west of Eighth Street. There’s a pizza place there now where you can only pick up, there being too little room for seating. I should ask Alan Dregseth, who may have loved Fran’s even more than I did, about the available seating: I think there were three booths for four persons each and a counter that held no more than five or six, if that. Fran’s was famous, nigh unto legendary, for its breakfasts. Indeed, breakfast was about all you could get, because it closed at 3:00 p.m. when the mid-afternoon coffee crowd had refueled for the final leg of the work day. The next best pancakes were forty-four miles west at the long-disappeared Tower City Truck Stop. That’s where we had to go when Fran decided to hang up her apron.

I have threatened several times to write the culinary history of Fennimore County—its best purveyors of regional food—and something tells me I’d better get a move on, before the memories that fuel my writing fade even farther into the fog that awaits me.

In the meantime, tell me about your own culinary explorations into the foodways of Middle America while I prepare “Dining Out 1.1”.