In the summer of 1914, Frank Lloyd Wright made the rounds of his Chicago clients, favored galleries, and friends, converting his collection of Japanese ukiyo-e prints — and any other liquid assets — into cash. He turned his office and current work over to Herman von Holst, a fellow architect with no strong commitment to the emerging Prairie Style. All of this was preface to Wright’s elopement with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, wife of client Edwin Cheney.
The Wright’s departure with Mrs Cheney erupted onto the front pages of Chicago and other major newspapers for a few days — “above the fold” — until it was swept from public attention by the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo, capital and largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina — a place familiar to few Americans. World War had had distracted us from the personal infidelities of a temperamental artist.
As a Midwestern daily newspaper linked by telegraph with the wider world, The Plantagenet may have announced the first of these events; certainly the second. My point concerns the connectedness of even small communities with happenings far beyond their reach: We may suppose a small-town provinciality that simply didn’t exist.
Within days, anxiety spread among Agincourters who had European family connections; debate ensued regarding our neutrality, as German-Americans became sensitive to public perceptions of their patriotism; and the community’s youth considered prospects for military service. Within three years, the United States entered the war and our own Marshall McGinnis became its first casualty. I’m fascinated by the multiple entwined links between Agincourt and places and events far beyond its horizons. In that light, here is a story written three or four years ago about Kropotkin, a mysterious arrival in the year leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917.
A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor
Kropotkin, the Knife-Man
Agincourt has been slow to correct and even more reticent to punish its social fringe. But no one tested that tolerance more than an itinerant mechanic named Kropotkin.
Our community has been exceptionally tolerant—that is, it has accepted difference from, even defiance of, societal norms. It neither rewards not punishes for that difference from a so-called normative state or condition. Perhaps that’s our inheritance from the Dutch who came here in the 1870s, because the Low Countries have traditionally welcomed all, with an attitude that your behavior is acceptable so long as it doesn’t impinge on mine.
Some time after 1905, a rough man calling himself only Kropotkin (Кропоткин in what a friend of mine calls the Acrylic alphabet; thank you, Cecil) arrived in town with neither family nor much in the way of possessions. The little English he spoke came wrapped in a thick Eastern European accent redolent of onions. Everyone assumed he was Russian; some even inferred that his appearance had been connected to the failed 1905 revolution in Russia which was so prominent in the local and national press.
Revolution was on everyone’s mind—from rumors that Victoria’s death would bring about a British republic, to fears that our own oligarchy might be threatened. It may have excited the natives to imagine that a card-carrying anarchist revolutionary was in their midst. Radical change can be frightening, no matter how far from its source.
Kropotkin didn’t live in town; in fact, for several years no one was quite certain where he lived. But he and his horse-drawn wagon appeared regularly throughout town to sharpen tools, kitchen knives, lawn mowers, ice skates—anything with a metal blade dulled from use or abuse. He was the Master of Metal, plying his skills as far as Fort Dodge and Storm Lake in good weather.
Kropotkin’s wagon had a large whetstone mounted on a foot-fed treadle. He would set up business on residential street corners and announce his presence by clanging a large cowbell and proffering his sharpening services in a rich basso-profundo that would have secured a contract withe the Metropolitan Opera and the lead in “Eugene Onegin”! Eat you heart out, Robert Goulet.
A dozen or so years after his unheralded arrival, Kropotkin disappeared. Evaporated would describe it more correctly. It was only then that folks realized he had been living in an abandoned farmstead five miles south of town on the flats near Muskrat City. Pinkerton agents showed up a few weeks later seeking his whereabouts, which seemed to confirm local suspicions of anarchist tendencies and a possible return to Mother Russia following the more successful revolution of 1917.
An entire generation of Agincourt children ate their vegetables and took their medicine and respected their elders with a parental admonition that “the Knife-Man will get you!” if they didn’t behave. What a sorry example of tolerance. And what a sad legacy for the memory of a strange man who did no harm—strange only because we did not know him nor make the effort.
Not all strangers are strange.
And our cutlery has never been the same.