Agincourt is a town in northwestern Iowa—America’s heartland—and the seat of Fennimore County government. Twelve hundred twenty-eight feet above sea level, its population of 17,693 according to the last census is holding its own. The elderly from smaller rural communities come to enjoy shopping convenience and access to health care, to attend funerals of friends and family until they themselves ultimately become one; meanwhile, young adults bolt for economic opportunity elsewhere. Anywhere! Lately, though, that displacement has slowed. Building a diversified economic base through enlightened self-interest and the internet has made the future less cloudy, if not actually bright for small towns like Agincourt.
Culturally, the community is Protestant and 91.38% White—with marginal representation of African, Asian, and Native Americans. Conservative, with a lingering whiff of Progressivism, yet the likes of Teddy Roosevelt could not field a candidacy in today’s political color spectrum: Agincourt is purple tending toward red, in the otherwise bright crimson of the state’s 7th Congressional District. Its current representative might have done a cameo in “Pleasantville” and remained uncomfortable with the film’s shift from black and white to technicolor. He and another prominent political figure hold that White Nationallists are “fine people.”
The city was founded in 1853, when the former reserve of the Sac and Fox Nation opened to White settlement, and incorporated four years later. The only plausible reason for its name—the definitive battle in the Hundred Years War between the French and English—is the Classics background of the townsite’s promoters Virgil, Pliny, and Horace Tennant, East Coast investors who intuited Horace Greeley’s admonition that the country’s surplus population “Go West” years before he actually said it. With financial backing from their brother-in-law and a Philadelphia banker, the Tennants acquired a mile-square section of The Louisiana Purchase—the physical building block of Manifest Destiny—and then conceived a rational plan for growth based on Enlightenment Philadelphia, let it waft onto the unplowed tall-grass prairie, and stood back to watch.
The consequences weren’t unexpected considering their plan had provided for all the civic virtues—education and culture, government, enterprise, and spiritual nurture, in no particular order. Long before arrival of the railroad, the mighty Muskrat River offered rudimentary water power for the milling of grain and wood, as well as fish and fowl to supplement the frontier diet. And when the seat of government at Muskrat City proved flood-prone and untenable, the block already designated for a courthouse was another stroke of foresight. The frenzy of railroad speculation twenty years later effectively sealed the city’s good prospects.
Forces, Factor, Faces
A middling Midwestern town, Agincourt’s establishment, growth and development for one hundred and sixty-seven years have been subject to the same factors and forces experienced elsewhere, especially in the Midwest and Great Plains; and like other communities, those large-scale phenomena continue to be modified by local conditions, by special interest groups and even by specific families and individuals. The Civil War and the westward march of Manifest Destiny mentioned earlier; the arrival of the railroad and impact of the automobile; large scale agriculture, all but industrialized even in the 19th century; government initiatives (or their absence), war, pestilence and other natural disasters; shifting population and economic uncertainty: these have all played their part in shaping today’s Agincourt. For purposes of telling this story, let’s call them Forces, Factors, and Faces.
FORCES are the raw natural conditions into which we are born: geology and plate tectonics, climate, the force of gravity, disease. It would be comforting to think we have some effect over them—planetary warming suggests we do, in spite of our better intentions—but rivers jump their course and cyclones rage in their season. The influenza pandemic of 1918 is just one case in point where an event of worldwide implication had very local consequence.
FACTORS, on the other hand, are generated by us and our intent as a society: culture and all its sundry institutions, such as commerce, education, religion, government and all that flows from them. How might Agincourt have reflected these phenomena:
- The Second Great Awakening washed over us, as it did Western New York State, bringing salvation to the banks of Crispin Creek.
- Agincourt was a station on the Underground Railroad as former slaves fled north.
- President Roosevelt’s Executive Order #9066 incarcerated everyone of Japanese ancestry, regardless of citizenship, while leaving German lives unaffected.
- The Hill-Burton Act of the 79th Congress underwrote a spate of hospital and rural clinic construction.
FACES, finally, are individuals—whose reach may be long, like Pope John XXIII, JFK, or Dr Jonas Salk, or more localized and immediate, like the founding Tennant family and other community leaders past and present. Without Andrew Carnegie, who funded 2,500 public libraries between 1883 and 1929, and Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, whose small-town banks brought Progressive design to Main Street, this project would not exist. And so, as radio announcer Fred Foy opened each weekly episode of “The Lone Ranger”, “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear!” We invite you to explore the community of Agincourt, Iowa, the town that time forgot and geography misplaced.