“The city is a place where a small boy, as he walks through it, may see something that will tell him what he wants to do his whole life.”
— American architect Louis I. Kahn
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
October 25th is an ordinary day in most places; it falls on a Thursday this year. But in Agincourt the date serves double duty: as the Feast Day of Crispin and Crispinian, patron saints of leatherworkers (and more recently of sadomasochists), and also as Founders’ Day, our local celebration of Agincourt’s origins in 1853.
Other than a parade and an evening of fireworks, the only prominent marker is the fountain at the west side of Broad Street near the courthouse. Few know that it once stood in the middle of the street, installed at the exact center of the original townsite in 1907. But that original plan, laid out in 1853 and the municipality that incorporated four years later, is the subtler evidence of Agincourt’s origins, something that can only be appreciated from the air.
Comparisons with Philadelphia are inevitable: in addition to similarities of form, all five Founders lived in the Delaware water gap of Pennsylvania and western New Jersey — though just one of them ever saw the Original Townsite. Pliny Tennant acted on behalf of the other four: his brothers Horace and Virgil, their banker Morris Hirsch, and brother-in-law Ellis Farnham, all of them canny traders in the spirit of William Penn’s Quaker town. Pliny Tennant camped near Gnostic Grove and supervised surveying, then abruptly pushed farther west into the white-out of the western mining fields.¹ Their surrogates — the Oracle Land Company — carried the investment plan into reality.
Without the diaries of Harmony Barker Bledsoe, we’d know very little about those earliest days, between the platting of 1853 and Agincourt’s eventual incorporation four years later. Her journals and letters to family in Ohio record a miscellany of weather, diet, celebration, birth and death, and the inconvenience of unpaved roads and outhouses. An 1859 letter to her sister in Ohio records an incident few of us can now imagine but was very real:
Little Marcus [her five-year-old grandson] was missing at supper yesterday and we feared foul play. George, the Fletchers, and other neighbors organized a search but attention soon turned to the convenience [a euphemism for outhouse], suspecting he had fallen from the seat and into the pit! God’s be Praised! We soon found him safe and wandering on the Commons.
She also recorded the curious distribution of the Church Lots, the four large blocks bracketing the four civic squares. A stable population, families rather than itinerant singles, were the foundation of a community, so the proprietors gave building sites for churches, stipulating that construction begin within one year. To make the distribution equitable, they conducted a double-blind lottery, with eligibility based on membership: those with twenty-five households could participate. The Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Catholics qualified and drew lots to establish the order of choice, then drew again for the actual sites. Four of those congregations continue to occupy their lots, framing the courthouse, the square and commons, and the academy site—now a nursing home. And all of them together represent the transcendental balance between body, mind, and spirit that was a common view in the early nineteenth century.
The names of Bledsoe, Farnham, and Hirsch are faded from public memory; descendants of the Tennants, however, are still represented in the community—myself included—so my enthusiasm for Founders’ Day may be suspect. But it is surely satisfying to acknowledge the sense of their intentions and to celebrate the patterns of civic life they set in motion.
¹ Pliny Tennant disappeared but his yield on the investment was banked for his return. It remains today, a charitable fund for civic projects, known as Pliny’s Purse.
“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to your questions.”
― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities