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Frontier communities often engaged in seeming contradictions. The need to “civilize” the place, for example, required the harvesting of trees for production of lumber — to build houses, churches, schools and other testaments to an established community — while it also called for the planting of sheltering trees both in town and out. So it wouldn’t be at all unusual for Agincourt’s early businesses to have included both a saw mill and lumber yard as well as a nursery and greenhouse.

Before the arrival of railways and shipments of building supplies, often from great distances, lumber for building was produced locally from old-growth timber along rivers and in other sheltered places. Sawyers turned trees into planks and planks into boards, often on contract with the farmer who provided the trees themselves. And sawing operations were powered by sweat-equity and eventually by water power or steam; the boards having characteristic saw marks left by the different processes. [For an excellent treatment, I recommend Technics and Architecture by one of Agincourt’s honorary posthumous citizens Cecil Elliott.] The ability to date a building often comes from the forensic analysis of saw marks and nail heads.

Beyond the obvious need for shelter, the civilizing impulse also encouraged settlers from the Eastern Seaboard and Ohio River valley to literally transplant their vision of community which almost invariably meant stately rows of shade trees lining public thoroughfares — until the arrival of Dutch Elm disease. There is a short but telling note in a Valley City, Dakota Territory newspaper about Herbert Root planting literally miles of equidistant saplings along the streets of his subdivision and the inference that his property values were thereby enhanced far beyond the investment. It’s reasonable, therefore, to assume Fennimore county boasted multiple sawyers and at least one nursery.


When the original townsite was laid out in Section 15 (of some township or other yet to be identified), 1853 may have been premature to have imagined the arrival of a railroad. But the southwest corner of that mile-square plat was situated at the convergence of Crispin Creek with the Muskrat River, where we might logically assume there to have been some old-growth timber. Eventually, of course, the Milwaukee Road or one of its spurs sidled up to that side of town and a convenient place to cross the Muskrat. Since Medieval surnames often derived from either town or occupation (Baker or Cooper, for example), let’s identify Agincourt’s early lumber yard with the Sawyer family, who had brought their generational skill set to the area in the 1860s, setting up shop on a pair of outlots where the railroad eventually ran.


By 1900, certainly before the outbreak of World War I, Sawyer Lumber & Coal had its own rail siding for delivery of lumber and other building materials. Lumber yards were often the source for coal, since that part of Iowa had no native deposits. The 130 foot by 680 foot site by that time would have been “zoned” with sheds, shacks, and bins of material by type for ease of access and delivery. Here are four of Ed Sawyer’s employees: two human (Adam Markiewicz¹ in the sporty striped overalls on the left and Marlin Rust with those excessive cuffs on the right) and two of the four-legged variety (Sid and Jeff) on the right. The horses had their own accommodations on site and the Sawyers themselves may also have lived there or nearby, vigilance for fire being one of the costs of doing business.

The sawyer’s neighbors might also have included feed and seed dealers and granaries for the cash crops that would eventually have been a major component of the local GDP. Drayage would also have been an important service, with their requisite livestock and teamsters — linguistic holdovers into the 21st century that will be a mystery to anyone under fifty. Those enterprises have yet to be identified — if someone is looking for a corner of the sandbox to play.

¹ Adam Markiewicz was my grandmother’s youngest brother. Uncle Adam was a frequent visitor to my dad’s gas station in Bedford Park during his retirement, a quiet round-faced man who died when I was about ten years old. Late in life, Adam had worked on the building of the dam that created Lake Sakakawea, an obtuse connection with North Dakota long before I ever thought to move here.

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