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River Rats

The River Rats

Aspects of Agincourt history are often based on my own experience. The connection is usually positive but on occasion it’s a negative reaction to what I’ve seen. The relationship between Fargo-Moorhead and the Red River of the North, for example, has a checkered history: initially the river was a source of food and the focus of recreation but by mid-century we had essentially turned our backs on the Red. Private interests took advantage for residential sites but, as a public resource, it was ignored. I’ve kept that in mind while imagining the Mighty Muskrat.

river rats

Like Moorhead and Fargo, I thought Agincourt’s earliest settlers sought fish and other wildlife from and along its banks. But as the city’s character shifted from frontier to urban, I hoped the Muskrat could remain, as they say, “a place of resort.”

Shanties of rough wood and canvas, built as weekend retreats, shifted gradually to more sophisticated construction. The squatters who seasonally occupied the river’s west bank — known in the community as “River Rats” — eventually found themselves at odds with the law. “Authority” looked the other way because the land was unsuitable for crops or any other productive use. But creation of the Fennimore County Agricultural & Mechanical Association and acquisition of land opposite the city’s northwest quadrant brought the conflict to a head. It would be nice to believe it could all have been resolved with a gentlemen’s agreement, rather than protracted, ugly and divisive confrontation in the county courts.

Recently the postcard above came to my attention. Though it shows a site in Maine (and nitpickers may claim that the plant material shown in the image couldn’t possible have been in Iowa) I hope that photoshop can eliminate the offending label. The handwritten “Here’s our cabin” isn’t a problem; in fact, it’s a charming personal touch that can be woven into the backstory.

A year ago I performed a marriage at a small private-access lake in northern Minnesota. The cabin there is, to my mind, the “poster child” for rustic, lakeside living: a building that grew like topsy over the decades; where everything seems to have settled into its proper place; and each framed black-and-white snapshot of a zoftig lady in a one-piece bathing suit and cap is somebody’s second cousin’s great aunt. This cluster of cabins in the Maine woods, even at a distance, radiates that sort of character and makes me think another minor story is afoot.

NB: On the eve of two divisive political conventions, and as news from Nice, France continues to shock our sensibilities, it may be that I need to think about these bucolic early 20th century buildings and the peaceful time they represent.


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