The River Rats
In this neck of the woods, many folks spend their summer months “at the lake.” No one that I know personally, mind you; it’s far too up-scale a thing for the likes of me. Considering the huge number of people who have property there, it must be a whopping big lake.
Actually, I misstate my case: we did own lake property about thirty years ago, but could never afford to build on it and ultimately sold the land when the market was down. So this idea of The Lake is bittersweet.
Agincourt’s place for summering is Sturm und Drang, though I don’t think it may have ever had the panache of a Sallie, Lizzie, Lida or certainly not Pelican. I’ve written about the resorts along its shores but not very much about the private lake homes to be found there—or the people who own them. There was an early alternative to The Lake, however, which deserves as much historical notice: the River Rats, an enclave of squatters on the west bank of the Mighty Muskrat, as a kind of common law colony serving an other audience.
Legally, the long narrow strip of land probably belongs to the Fennimore County Agricultural and Mechanical Exhibition Association, though that is disputed. Deed records conflict on whether the property extends to the mid-point of the river’s course or to the high water mark of its flood stage. The difference between the two is the contested strip, no more than about fifty feet wide, steep and covered with scrub and brush. Early settlers went there to fish and hunt, though the opportunity for fishing is offered these days more as an excuse than a reason. Besides being free, however, it has the real advantage of being a twenty-minute walk, at most, from anywhere in town, rather than a forty-five minute drive on roads that can be congested on peak weekends. There is not only a history here that I’d love to write, but also some imagery worth recording. Take, for example, this remarkable cabin that we’re borrowing from rural Michigan—delightfully identified as “Rough and Ready.”
I can’t look at this and not think “Ah, so this is what Mies was after!”
[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]
SCALIN, Noah [born 1972]
acrylic on wood panel / 4 inches x 4 inches
On June 4th, 2007 artist Noah Scalin began the “Skull-a-Day” project, producing the 366th two- or three-dimensional piece in the series on June 3rd, 2008—it was a Leap Year. The project developed an international cult following and yielded a book illustrating the first one hundred fifty pieces. This unsigned image (acrylic on unprimed wood panel) is identified only as “#83” on its reverse.
Scalin’s painting became part of a fund-raising effort in Seattle, Washington, to raise money for a cancer survivor whose insurance had rejected ongoing payment for his treatment. It was acquired from an on-line auction and donated anonymously to the Community Collection simply “In honor of Jonathan.” We do not know Jonathan but hope for his recovery and long life.
An excerpt from the 1938 Federal Writers Project volume, Iowa: a Guide to the Hawkeye State:
[At Fahnstock turn left off State Highway 7 onto County Road 7A and drive six miles to the rural community of Resort (population about 50; 1228 feet above sea level).]
As County Road 7A leaves Fahnstock, the relative flatness of the Muskrat Valley shifts subtly into rolling countryside and within two or three miles we are in the picturesque Lake District of western Fennimore County.
Receding glaciers from the last Ice Age left a few minor bodies of water, but the principal lakes are Sturm and Drang. At low water, a sandbar nearly divides them in two; when water levels are normal or high it is easy to motor between them and they become Sturm und Drang, a temperamental spring-fed lake whose surface can change from placid to turbulent in minutes.
Just thirteen miles west of Agincourt, Sturm und Drang became a place of resort as early as the 1880s, when isolated cabins sprang up along its eastern shores. Fishing was good and the hunting of seasonal waterfowl supplemented the 19th-century diet. Post-Civil War leisure pursuits popularized the lakes for other activities.
The first to take financial advantage may have been Smith’s Hotel, built in 1890 on Sturm’s east shore about a quarter mile from the Station-Store, a country emporium and rural post office. Moody’s Resort followed in about 1910, and finally Bagby’s or The Last resort on the west side of Lake Drang completed the group in the late ’20s. All are still in operation today.
The volume of summer residents encouraged Northwest Iowa Traction to extend a spur line in 1910 from Fahnstock to the Station-Store, which also provides motor launch access to distant points on the lakes. From the 1920s an artist colony has flourished and holds an annual exhibit in Agincourt.
[Return to Fahnstock on County Road 7A and turn left toward Storm Lake.]
The WPA Federal Writers Project produced a number of statewide guidebooks, many of them of exceptional quality and usefulness. Others, not so much. Each, however, has a literary style and that is what I’m trying here to match, with moderate success, so it will require a good deal of tweaking.
Like the Fargo-Moorhead community, Agincourt’s urban transit system dates from the first decade of the 20th century. The Northwest Iowa Traction Co. became a stock company in late 1908—local investors who saw the financial advantage in linking their town and hinterland with both central and far northwestern Iowa. The NITC line set out from Fort Dodge in a northwesterly direction, reaching Agincourt in about November 1909 and pushing its right-of-way farther toward Sioux City, until site acquisition ran into financial problems just beyond Fahnstock and the lake country. They struggled to achieve Storm Lake as an ultimate terminal point.
The power generation required by an interurban system was at peak on weekdays. Saturdays required much less, which, given the capital investment, required ideas to enhance ridership on such days. In larger metropolitan areas, this often involved the creation of an amusement park, whose roller coasters, carousels and other rides consumed excess power, in addition to riders to and from the park. Cemeteries were another weekend destination, particularly on Sundays and holidays like Memorial Day. Agincourt was unlikely to have either of those spin-offs. Two others were likely, however.
First, there was the weekend and holiday traffic to the lake district of Sturm und Drang (on which I’m still working). And there was also the adjunct system of a trolley line for Agincourt itself: ATL, or Agincourt Traction and Light. In the 2007 exhibit there was a spectacular station built to serve the major stop on ATL’s figure-eight route (other than the depot itself at South Broad and Louisa), Agincourt’s early concentration of manufacturing at a neighborhood called Industry. I wonder if anyone would like to take that on again for the next exhibit?
Everyone loves a circus—with the possible exception of the clowns, that is.
The Ruffini Brothers brought their circus to town in the pit of the Great Depression, pursued by some debt collections and spared by the compassion of Sheriff Pyne, a story told elsewhere. Do you suppose a traveling show like the Ruffinis would have had anything a cool as this? I hope so.