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Monthly Archives: November 2017


Freedmen voting in New Orleans, 1867

There was a call a couple of nights ago from the District 21 leadership hereabouts, wondering if either of us would like to throw our hat in the ring for election to public office. When I stopped laughing and politely begged off, we thought a bit more about the nature of elective office: how one attains it, how one keeps it, and why anyone would put themselves through that wringer.¹

Thus far, I’ve sketched the lives of two public servants in Agincourt — Sheriff Joe Pyne (the anti-Arpaio), a character from the Depression era and the sort of person who made a distinction betwixt justice and the law, and somewhat earlier, Hizzoner, half-term major in the 1890s Edmund FitzGerald Flynn. It’s not accidental that Flynn is named for a sunken ore boat at the bottom of Lake Superior.

From the time of its incorporation in 1857 to the present, Agincourt may have gone through several different forms of municipal government, depending on the provisions of the Iowa constitution. I spent much of my youth in Illinois, living in a village (an acceptable form in that state), which has a president, rather than a mayor, and six village trustees. Cities have mayors and city councils and there are various ways those councils can be structured and their members elected. Does anyone take “Civics” in high school anymore? Or am I wasting my breath? Not having checked Iowa’s enabling legislation, we’ve assumed a form of city government with mayor and council.

Suffrage is, of course, an interesting topic throughout the 19th century: the gradual attainment of voting rights for Blacks and eventually for women are two of the watershed moments in our country’s history. But those dates in Agincourt’s chronology will be easy to pinpoint. The other messier aspect of candidacy and electioneering are another matter. For the time being, check out the stories of Mayor Flynn and Sheriff Pyne as representations of political polarities.

¹ According to Roy, my dad, there were only two types of politicians: 1) those entering the arena, who are bound to become corrupt, and 2) those already in the arena and corrupted beyond redemption. Dad had a pretty negative view of politics. Each time the voting cycle rolled around, he’d say, “Well, time to get out the ‘Vote No’ pencil.”


This is what Mr Roy Moore should say:

To my Accusers and other Citizens of the Great State of Alabama:

Each of the charges brought against me in recent days by multiple women is accurate and true. I once used my physical strength and position of authority as leverage to gain sexual satisfaction. Those actionable impositions of power over these innocent women are reprehensible. The very human figure who committed them, however, died on __________ <insert date here> when I accepted the redemption of Jesus Christ as my Saviour; when I should also have sought the forgiveness of all those I had wronged, especially these young women, some of them children at the time.

I have improperly used titles of position and authority to achieve power and gratification unworthy of someone Born Again. Today, publicly, I again seek God’s infinite forgiveness and, for the first time, the forgiveness of my accusers. I am willing and anxious to face them and hear their heartfelt expressions of the grievous harm I inflicted so many years ago.

To remove the burden of evaluating the authenticity of this profound apology and expression of faith in the Living God, I now remove my candidacy for election to the United States Senate. Because the vicissitudes of Alabama law will not permit removal of my name from the ballot, if elected I will not serve.

With profound apologies for the damage I have wrought, I ask forgiveness from you all.


Roy Moore

This is what Roy Moore should say but is constitutionally unable to.

And these are the two reasons why Roy Moore is unfit for public office: #1) because these accusations are true and accurate statements of his actions so many years ago; and #2) because he has continued to use titles of office and, more significantly, expressions of religious faith as a shield, to maintain positions of power and authority; because his proud, nearly theatrical professions of the Christian faith are a sham, a costume worn for personal gain.


The other Mr Moore

All the hubbub swirling about a certain Mr Moore — his insistence on the use of a previous title may add unearned luster to the man, but it tarnishes the title — has reminded me of another with only a slightly different name, Sir Thomas More, of Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons.” It’s been too long since I last watched Paul Scofield’s Academy Award-winning portrayal of More in the 1966 film version.

We are, or at least have been, a Nation of Laws, and there seem to me to be too many playing fast and loose with the law these days — from the Oval and the A.G.’s offices on down. Playwright Bolt puts some mighty words into Sir Thomas’s mouth, well worth reading again until I can see the film:

William Roper: “So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!”

Sir Thomas More: “Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?”

William Roper: “Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!”

Sir Thomas More: “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
— Robert Bolt, “A Man for All Seasons”

The legal profession is represented in Agincourt today by at least one firm: Cable+Coomaraswamy+Bell. They (or one of their antecedent incarnations) bought the old Public Library in the mid-70s when it moved to the building on East Louisa near the Catholic church. And I’ve been anxious to explore their role in community affairs and, of course, how someone with a Sri Lankan name came to live among us.

Oh and, by the way, we might do well to note the last words of the film and imagine some substitution of characters:

Thomas More’s head stood on Traitor’s Gate for a month until his daughter Meg claimed it in order to give her father a proper funeral. Thomas Cromwell was beheaded five years after More was. Archbishop Cranmer was burned at the stake. The Duke of Norfolk was slated for execution but the King died of syphilis the night before the order was scheduled to be signed. Richard Rich became Lord Chancellor of England and died in his bed.

Northwest Iowa Traction Company

From the 1890s until World War II, there was a type of rail transport in the U.S. between the regional rails (like the Santa Fe or the Chicago Northwestern) and the common streetcar (which served communities of all sizes but tended to have a limited service area; these were for going to work or the market or to school). That intermediate level was known as an inter-urban, usually spelled without the hyphen.

Interurbans were the “light rail” systems of their day, often connecting a series of small hamlets with miles of track through open countryside. Whole networks of them grew, some in competition, but most interconnected like legs of a relay race. It was possible, for example, to travel from Chicago to New York on interurbans — but I wouldn’t recommend it: it would have taken days and involved transfers between more than a dozen different lines.

The greatest concentration of interurban service was in the Midwest — the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois — but they existed everywhere, even in remote parts of the southwest and mountain regions. Pacific Electric served Southern California during 1901-1961 and grew to more than 1,000 miles of track that extended from San Fernando to Newport Beach and as far east as Redlands. In the 1920s, it was the largest electric railway system in the world; sadly, now most of its routes are freeways and its cars have become artificial reefs in the Pacific Ocean. Go figure. Wanna bet that L.A. would like to have it back?

The finest and still most reliable source on interurban history, generally and company-by-company, is The Electric Interurban Railways of America by Messrs Hilton & Due (possibly in print, but my copy is old and dogeared, if you want to use it). In fact, it was H&D’s style that allowed me to write an entry for Agincourt’s own: the Northwest Iowa Traction Co., popularly called the NITC (pronounced “nitch”), founded in 1909 but gone by the WWII years.

It was also natural for the NITC to have spun off a trolley line for the city itself, a one-way track making a weird figure-eight from the depot at Broad and Louisa through most of the neighborhoods. A spur line served the cemeteries (for deliveries and the occasional well-attended burial) and another seasonal track branched off toward the fairgrounds on the west bank of the Mighty Muskrat.

There are literally thousands of postcard views of interurbans: of the cars in every possible situation (including wrecked), of the stations that often served as their hub (some of them pretty goofy), and of the conductors and engineers who ran them, proudly decked out in their uniforms.

My goal has always been to create a full corporate image — tickets, tokens, schedules, maps, advertising (posters and newspaper adverts) — something which has so far eluded me. Thought I had some volunteers but that fell through for lack of interest.

PS: If you’d like to know what happened to all those interurban miles of track, it was a conspiracy among John D. Rockefeller (oil), Henry Ford (automobiles), and Frank Seiberling (founder of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.), a story being played out again in The New Oligarchy.


Don’t, just don’t.


Today afforded me a chance for accidental introspection. It was just the right mix of place (the desk at the Rourke) and time (a long afternoon greeting guests and orienting them to the exhibits) and people (a few folks I haven’t seen in a long time). And just enough time “on my own” to wonder about the meaning I’d like to find for life. Mine, of course; yours is your own affair. Sorry to be a downer on this pleasant afternoon, but I’m just not coming up with a satisfying answer.

Truth, whatever that may be, comes to me from all directions. Today I find myself clinging to a quote from Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life”:

Well, it’s nothing very special. Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations. And, finally, here are some completely gratuitous pictures of penises to annoy the censors and to hopefully spark some sort of controversy, which it seems is the only way these days to get the jaded, video-sated public off their fucking arses and back in the sodding cinema. Family entertainment? Bollocks. What they want is filth: people doing things to each other with chainsaws during tupperware parties, babysitters being stabbed with knitting needles by gay presidential candidates, vigilante groups strangling chickens, armed bands of theatre critics exterminating mutant goats. Where’s the fun in pictures? Oh, well, there we are. Here’s the theme music. Goodnight.

Goodnight, indeed.

Forrest Wentworth [active 1920s]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

WENTWORTH, Forest [active 1920s]

Portrait of Martha C. C. Tennant

circa 1920

oil on wood panel / 18 inches by 11 inches

Before the Great Depression, it wasn’t uncommon in smaller communities to find portraits of middle class people. Yes, the Community Collection includes the faces of politicians, judges and bankers. But it also celebrates businessmen, homemakers, and one young bride on the eve of her wedding.

This bittersweet portrait of Martha Curtiss Tennant, painted in the mid-1920s by artist Forrest Wentworth, silhouettes her profile dramatically against an open window. She holds a caliper once owned by her architect son, thought to have perished with the sinking of the Lusitania, but gazes wistfully beyond the frame into her recent past. Ten years later, the family would be reunited, when he was found living in Spain, an amnesiac.

The painting is on long-term loan from the extended Tennant family.




Several years ago (in a completely different context) I spent a lot of time in The Patent Gazette, weekly publication of the U.S. Patent Office. Would it surprise you to know that patent holders from 1880 to World War I aren’t concentrated in major urban areas?

At the time, I was interested in the development of CMUs (a.k.a. concrete blocks) and learned that patents related to this topic fall in two categories: 1) patents concerning the shape of blocks themselves and innovations in ways the blocks are laid or bonded together, and 2) the machines used to make the blocks. I suspect the second strategy was far more effective in protecting the patent holder’s idea. So what can we say about Agincourt’s “industry” and, by extension, its industriousness?

Of the four quadrants in the original townsite, both their topography and relation to the creek and river influenced their character. The well-to-do, for example gravitated to the higher ground of the NE Quad — what in other places came to be called “Pill Hill” because the doctors lived there (amongst bankers and lawyers and others aspiring to the professions, rather than the trades). Look here for big houses likely to have become funeral homes or B&B’s.

The NW Quad wasn’t quite so elevated but it was also still above the Muskrat’s flood stage. This is where the merchant class built their homes within easy walking distance of Broad Street. Look here for the butcher, baker, candlestick maker, and others of that solid Middle Class that had once made America great and may again. Here the houses are modest, well-maintained but wanting a coat of paint that should have been applied last year.

The SE Quad had character from the beginning of White settlement but it was rural and woodsy and found to be the place where Archers [what residents of Agincourt call themselves] went to engage the primordial. Native American had used “Gnostic Grove” as a campsite, a place for the gathering of lower-case “C” clans and tribal meetings and their festivals and rituals. Prior to WWII, I can’t imagine that it was excessively or even extensively built up. Howard has written about “Gnostic Grove” and the breadth of its happenings, from fornication to salvation.

All of which brings us to the SW Quad, whose flood plain at the fork of the Muskrat with Crispin Creek was suitable for wage laborers, modest working-class homes and the nearby factories where people made things and sold stuff that smelled or burned or exploded. In short, this was where we should look for industriousness and all the risks attendant thereto.

Related to these neighborhood distinctions was the matter of public education. Recall that the Original Townsite provided four “School Lots”, each intended for a grade school and one of them likely to accommodate a high school as well. I suspect the construction of school buildings occurred in this order: NW, NE, SW, SE and that the high school finally settled in the NW — simply because there were more families there and the birthrate was likely higher; the rich don’t like to divide their wealth — before its post-WWII move north of Highway #7 and the beginning of suburban sprawl.

Concerning early industry, however, it began simply enough with the Syndicate Mill, the first phase of which was built in 1868:


A few miscellaneous quotes

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” ― Albert Einstein

“We are all failures—at least the best of us are.” — J.M. Barrie

“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”
― Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

“I believe that everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go, things go wrong so that you appreciate them when they’re right, you believe lies so you eventually learn to trust no one but yourself, and sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” ― Marilyn Monroe

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” ― Rob Siltanen

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” ― Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” ― Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

“Anyone who thinks sitting in church can make you a Christian must also think that sitting in a garage can make you a car.” ― Garrison Keillor

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” ― Anaïs Nin

“You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world…but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices.” ― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
― William Shakespeare, The Tempest

“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn”
― Orson Welles

“It might be possible that the world itself is without meaning.”
― Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

“Don’t for heaven’s sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense.”
― Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Everyone has talent. What’s rare is the courage to follow it to the dark places where it leads.” – Erica Jong

“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.” – Carl Jung

“If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven’t loved enough.” – Elif Safek

“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.” – M. Scott Peck

“I was born with an enormous need for affection, and a terrible need to give it.” – Audrey Hepburn

“I still love the people I’ve loved, even if I cross the street to avoid them.” – Uma Thurman

“Accomplishments don’t erase shame, hatred, cruelty, silence, ignorance, discrimination, low self-esteem or immorality. They cover it up, with a creative version of pride and ego. Only restitution, forgiving yourself and others, compassion, repentance and living with dignity will ever erase the past.”  ― Shannon L. Alder

“The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful then a thousand heads bowing in prayer.”  ― Mahatma Gandhi


“Knoxville: Summer of 1915”

Surely one of the finest and most underperformed composers of the 20th century was Samuel Barber, whose catalogue may be short but that is more than made up by its quality. I’m pleased to say that we’ve connected with another American composer in the vocal tradition of Barber and Ned Rorem. One of Barber’s post-war pieces (written in 1947 and, therefore, nearly my contemporary) is the song “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” from a text by James Agee. There are several recordings on youtube, as well as numerous on-line analyses. I’d forgot how evocative “Knoxville” was the first time I heard it more than fifty years ago, and how subtly it influenced to character of a fictitious town in Iowa.

Knoxville: Summer of 1915

It has become that time of evening / when people sit on their porches, / rocking gently and talking gently / and watching the street / and the standing up into their sphere / of possession of the tress, / of birds’ hung havens, hangars. / People go by; things go by. / A horse, drawing a buggy, / breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt: / a loud auto: a quiet auto: / people in pairs, not in a hurry, / scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, / talking casually, / the taste hovering over them of vanilla, / strawberry, pasteboard, and starched milk, / the image upon them of lovers and horsement, / squared with clowns in hueless amber.

A streetcar raising into iron moan; / stopping; / belling and starting, stertorous; / rousing and raising again / its iron increasing moan / and swimming its gold windows and straw seats / on past and past and past, / the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it / like a small malignant spirit / set to dog its tracks; / the iron whine rises on rising speed; / still risen, faints; halts; / the faint stinging bell; / rises again, still fainter; / fainting, lifting lifts, / faints foregone; / forgotten. / Now is the night one blue dew; / my father has drained, / he has coiled the hose. / Low on the length of lawns, / a frailing of fire who breathes. / Parents on porches: / rock and rock. / From damp strings morning glories hang their ancient faces. / The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air / at once enchants my eardrums.

On the rough wet grass / of the backyard / my father and mother have spread quilts. / We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, / and I too am lying there. / They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, / of nothing in particular, / of nothing at all. / The stars are wide and alive, / they all seem like a smile / of great sweetness, / and they seem very near. / All my people are larger bodies than mine, / with voices gentle and meaningless / like the voices of sleeping birds. / One is an artist, he is living at home. / One is a musician, she is living at home. / One is my mother who is good to me. / One is my father who is good to me. / By some chance, here they are, / all on this earth; / and who shall ever tell the sorrow / of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, / on the grass, / in a summer evening, / among the sounds of the night. / May God bless my people, / my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, / oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; / and in the hour of their taking away. / After a little / I am taken in / and put to bed. / Sleep, soft smiling, / draws me unto her; / and those receive me, / who quietly treat me, / as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: / but will not, oh, will not, / not now, not ever; / but will not ever tell me who I am.

—James Agee [Barber, by the way, uses only about a third of Agee’s original text; and here is another analysis.]

Among the several conscious acknowledgments I must make — to explain; justify; make plain — the subconscious sources of a project like Agincourt, music has occupied a significant place.