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Science & Industry


I grew up in a “company town” on the southwest side of Chicago. Bedford Park was established as a working-class suburb exclusively for employees at the Argo plant of the Corn Products Co. Those are the folks who bring you mazola, karo syrup and many other products derived from corn.

argo corn starch

The village consisted of four streets three blocks long, all of them dead ends. Cathedral-like streets lined with maple and elm (before Dutch Elm), lined with narrow story-and-a-half houses on 35′ by 108′ lots. There was a time when I could name everyone who lived on the three blocks of West 65th Place, but those names are going like snow on water. By 1950 many of the original residents of Bedford Park were retired from CPR (Corn Products Refining) or dead—Roy used to call it “Widow-burg.” My grandfather, also a Roy, was still living; he died in 1951 when I was six. For I don’t know how many years, he’d been weigh master at the plant, accounting for every kernel that arrived for processing.

On the other side of Archer Avenue (State Route 4-A) the plant covered a couple hundred acres with multi-story reinforced concrete buildings for the processing of corn, freight trains full of the stuff, which was shipped out the same way. “The Plant,” as we knew it, governed every aspect of local life. Shift changes at 7:30 and 4:30 clogged Archer for twenty minutes or so. Lunch was heralded with a factory whistle at noon—you could set your watch by it—but when the whistle blew at any other time, you knew disaster had struck and the fire department was on its way. Corn dust is volatile. It also stank to high heaven and coated everything: tree leaves and parked cars already slathered with generous deposits of sap and in all likelihood my lungs. When you’re born into that stench, you scarcely notice, but people passing through just gagged. I recall pumping gas one day at my dad’s station: as the customer rolled down the window to pay me, he inquired “How in hell do you stand the smell?” In all honesty, I replied “What smell?”

The basis of Agincourt’s economy shifted dramatically through its 160 years, but a large portion must have involved industrial activities of various sorts. Value-added products, for example, might have been canned, pickled, dried or smoked for preservation and their trip to the consumer. Other raw materials, like straw or clay may have been processed as building materials for local consumption or export to distant markets. Eventually there may have been factories for production of more sophisticated things: furniture, metal- and glassware. Mark Barnhouse has imagined the production of scientific glassware. Milt Yergens conceived the diversified company connected with the Tabor branch of Anson Tennant’s family. Aidan Archer managed a plant that produced enamel cookware. And all of these ignore smaller cottage industries, such as cheese production, brewing and distilling (when it was legal), and printing. You might be surprised to learn that many of these activities also involved patents and trademark registration. The years between the Civil and First World wars were fruitful.

We know where these activities took place; we can interpolate what they manufactured. I, of course, am preoccupied with the buildings they required for safe and economical production.


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