“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Fern Pirtle [1903-1978]
Growing up with an older sister as my only sibling, our dog Frank made life a little easier. Mixed breed — but mostly mutt — he came to live with us quite by accident. Explaining that will take a minute.
I was about nine or ten, growing up in a town that could have been the set for “Ozzie and Harriet”: still summer nights lit with fireflies, alive with the rhythm of cicadas; winter sledding behind passing cars; leaving my bike anywhere, with every expectation that it would be there when I come back. I was inclined to wander in those amniotic Eisenhower years.
Agincourt is a town of quarters, quadrants, each pattern a mirror of the adjacent sections but each, I was to learn, unique in its evolution. Plant the same seed in four different plots and watch the inevitable variation of organic life. The north-east quad, for example—Pill Hill—is the highest point in town, as are the net worth of its residents. The north-west, where the Tabors live, is home to butcher, baker, candle-stick maker; the business women and men of Broad Street. South-east was the last section to populate, mostly after World War I. Later, Baby Boomers bought there because prices were low as the previous generation headed to retirement in Arizona.
South-west Agincourt, the fourth quad where Crispin Creek meets the Mighty Muskrat, has always been prone to flood. Our earliest industries located there—the Syndicate Mill, the Krause foundry, and a short-lived brick-making operation—and so did the folks who bore those manufacturing jobs. Remember, “manus” is the Latin word for hand and these folks worked with theirs.
The F-F-C Market at the corner of SW Fifth Street and Henry Avenue was one of my discoveries in the summer of ’54. A neighborhood institution, it served a two-block radius with a limited supply of a lot of things. When the proprietress Fern Pirtle wasn’t at the register, she was out back tending her chickens or harvesting produce from the most productive garden in town. Paving and plumbing didn’t reach that part of the city until the 1940s, so there was some speculation about “night soil” contributing to the quality of her cabbages. Best to not ask.
Mrs. Pirtle was a widow; I think her husband Sam had died in a mill accident. Mom sent me to the F-F-C one afternoon to pick up a chicken she’d ordered — freshly killed, de-feathered and still warm, the freshest fowl in town. Mrs Pirtle’s chickens had flavor, too, probably because they enjoyed free range in the yard; they’d “scratched.” The same was true for eggs. There may have been an ordinance prohibiting livestock in city limits; but if there were, everyone looked the other way.
I liked Mrs Pirtle instantly. She had a large grandmotherly frame with, as they say, “ample bosom” and a knowing smile I’d only seen on my great-grandmother, except Mrs Pirtle was Black, complected like the tobacco in her ever-present corncob pipe.
During one of my regular visits to the F-F-C, I asked what those letters meant. “Full Faith and Credit,” she replied, “just like the U.S. government,” which meant, I learned, that very little cash changed hands. Bartering was common and she often waited until payday for folks to settle up. She was a living ledger, recalling accounts to the penny, and people knew better than short change her or contest her reckoning; a couple of her brawnier patrons saw to that.
In the fall of ’54, Mrs Pirtle got news that her sister Reba had taken ill somewhere in southern Missouri. She left for a week or ten days with no one in charge, yet customers came and went; shelves were stocked; accounts kept on a yellow lined pad by the till. Pearl, her dog, was pregnant at the time, so I was asked to stop in now and then and keep an eye on her. Sure enough, the day before Ms Pirtle returned on the Trailways bus, Pearl birthed five healthy pups. And the payment for my midwifery? She surprised me with one of them, who I promptly named Frank, for reasons I can’t now recall.
Fern Pirtle closed the store in 1973 but she still kept chickens. And the cabbages were bigger than ever — perhaps because the “fertilizer” was of questionable origin.