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Georges Le Serrec de Kervily [1883-1952]

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

Le SERREC de KERVILY, Georges [1883–1952]

“Portrait of a Boy” [William Kelly Simpson]


oil on wood panel / 16.25 inches by 20.25 inches

Before he emigrated to the United States, Georges Le Serrec de Kervily had been a Polish expatriate living in France. Born in 1883 at Krakow during the partition of Poland, he may have had either Polish or Russian citizenship, where his family were titled. He studied art in the West, however, served in the French Army during World War I, and then emigrated to the U.S.

Known primarily as a painter of landscapes and commissioned portraits, this delightful study from 1933 shows the five-year-old William Kelly Simpson, who eventually became professor of Egyptology, Archaeology, Ancient Egyptian literature, and Afro-Asiatic languages at Yale University. He once lectured at Northwest Iowa Normal in conjunction with an exhibition centered upon art of the Amarna Period.

Simpson’s wife was a great-granddaughter of Standard Oil magnate John D Rockefeller. His extensive personal collection of art was auctioned following his death in 2017.

Industry (again)

Agincourt’s economic health has depended on diversity. A one-man band paying a single note is doomed. You should know, however, that as an architecture undergraduate I took ECON 151 and learned very little beyond the notion of “guns or butter”. Does that analogy date me?

One of the earliest manufacturing facilities I designed was the Syndicate Mill, circa 1868, a water-powered plant that made sense as soon as I understood the number of Iowa mills dating from shortly after the Civil War. But the area between the western edge of the Original Townsite and the Mill Pond was limited; it was evident that water-power would be outmoded very early and also that industry would leapfrog the Muskrat onto what had been agricultural land. But what might that industry resemble?

Nineteenth century manufacturing, even in a predominantly agricultural state like Iowa, was surprisingly diverse, and few of them depended on available of local materials. Farm implements came from places like Chicago or Kansas City, but wagon wheels are another matter. One of the weirdest (though it makes perfect sense) was the manufacture of egg cartons; there are chickens galore but all those eggs have to travel.

Innovations in building materials included what was called “straw board”, planks made from compressed straw, used for sheathing rather than structure. As an organic material, its insulating value was probably pretty good—planks of thatch—but I suspect its resistance to combustion was another thing altogether. Probably explains why you won’t find it at the Man’s Mall; look instead for an updated version such as “oriented strand board”, treated for fire resistance and bonded with glue that’s been to the Moon.

Think of “straw lumber” as 19th century bamboo.

This article from 1882 is typical of others I’ve found.

OK, so straw lumber was a thing. But what equipment was required for its production? Photographs of actual 19th century factories aren’t numerous. The facility shown at the head of this entry was unidentified place or product. Does anyone have an idea from what you can see here?


Oherville and Environs

Fennimore County Courthouse #2

Oherville is a rural commune in the French department of Seine-Maritime with a population under 300. I can’t imagine the last time an American tourist passed through; perhaps I’ll be the first.

Just east of the concentration of houses—calling it a village would be an exaggeration—is the 16th century manoir d’Auffay-le-Mallet, an aggressive example of Norman brickwork found throughout the region. It’s farfetched to believe that WHW might have been here or even seen this, or any other sample of this characteristic patterning, for that matter. But the moment I saw it, Halsey Wood immediately came to mind.

There is a scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy about someone about to testify at a trial. He is sworn in and agrees to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” What no one knows is that he happens to be in a state where he will have to do precisely that. The officers of the court, in fact, are unable to stop him from telling the Truth, whole and absolute, and it isn’t pretty.

Sometimes I feel that way about architecture: There are great buildings—not nearly as many as you might imagine—and there are good buildings, still worthy of note and discussion, and then there are those buildings with a level of “goodness” that makes me wish I’d designed them. The old church at Biville is in that last category: I could close my eyes at night, completely satisfied that this work was mine; not because anyone would think it great—it isn’t—but because I could die comfortably, knowing this were part of my legacy. Can you imagine its effect if the tower were rotated just 22.5° and we were presented one of its eight faces head on? Boring.

These French buildings are discussed here, as well as in the William Halsey Wood blog, because Wood himself has a foot in each endeavor. One is about him; the other, about his particular influence in a small unassuming Iowa town. I know how the manor house will become part of the project. The church is simply along for the ride.

A Note on the Community Collection

The entry format for the Community Collection database has evolved, because some of what it records is fact, but much of it is fiction used to reinforce the story line. Consider the entry for Prof Karl Reinhardt’s portrait:

KNOX, Susan Ricker [1874-1959]

Gentleman in Spectacles / Portrait of Dr Wilhelm Reinhardt


oil on canvas / 14.25 inches by 10.25 inches

Wilhelm August Karl Ernst Reinhardt, first president of the Northwest Iowa Normal School, was born in Hildesheim, Germany, in 1874 and received his doctorate from Göttingen University at the age of twenty-seven. His emigration to North America in 1904—facilitated by family already living  in St. Louis and the German exhibit at the World’s Fair that year—brought him to a faculty position at Washington University. He taught history there for ten years until his appointment as first president of the new Normal College at Agincourt, Iowa. Susan Ricker Knox’s portrait, commissioned by the college Board of Trustees as part of his investiture in the Fall of 1915, hung in the Board Room until it was put on permanent loan to the Community Collection in 1970—a place where more people can see it.

Susan Ricker Knox was born in New Hampshire and evidenced artistic ability from an early age. At the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia and the Cooper Union in Brooklyn, she studied with Howard Pyle and Douglas Volk, and continued her education in Spain, Italy, Paris and London. With studios in both New York City and York Harbor, Maine, Knox specialized in portraits, especially of mothers and children. One critic noted: “Her special attention to the sitter’s character, or the spiritual, was a trademark of her work.” It’s not known whether Professor Reinhardt sat for this portrait in Iowa, New York or some intermediate point or whether she may have worked form a photograph.

The portrait was restored by Anthony Moore Paintings Conservation in 2008.

As one of the more fully developed entries, there is a wide variety of information here. Without actually telling the reader what they can “take to the bank”, I’ve crafted a sort of graphic code which, hopefully, won’t get in the way.

  • The artist Susan Ricker Knox is an actual person; her dates are accurate (or as accurate as the internet has been willing to provide). Alternate spellings or variations in a name are so identified. Were Knox an invented person, as some of the artists are—particularly when artworks are unsigned but could still be useful in telling a story—her name would have appeared in bold italics.
  • Works sometimes arrived with a title on or attached to the piece: prints are often titled in pencil on the front; paintings, sometimes of the reverse. If the title was given, it appears in “quotes”; if we’ve invented one, without quotes, as it appears here. The subject of Ricker’s portrait remains unidentified, sadly, but that omission allowed us to repurpose the portrait to enhance the story.
  • A date for its creation is sometimes provided, but in this case we’ve bracketed it (i.e., guessed) based on the style of clothing. Again, italics indicate the date has been manufactured—admittedly a subtle distinction.
  • The medium and size are accurate, determined from the piece itself and true. Height precedes width.
  • The story of the subject and/or of the artist we’ve left uncoded, rather than allowing formatting to get in the way of narrative. In this case, Dr. Wilhelm A.K.E. Reinhardt is an invented character for the Northwest Iowa Normal School story. Ms Knox’s information is as truthful as limited research can make it.
  • REMEMBER: Italicized information is fictional or uncertain.

Many of the early entries were more fully developed as parts of contributing stories. But I must confess to increasing laziness recently, with the intent to come back at a later date.

Signs of Security (Part 1)

Give Us a Sign

If, as Louis Sullivan suggests, form follows function, what should be the image of a bank? An unnamed on-line banking firm is promoting banks so user-friendly that they resemble Starbucks. Which certainly seems at odds with the recent grilling of major bank CEOs before the Senate Banking Committee, as clueless a bunch of hypocrites as can be herded into the same room these days—though I’m not certain now that I mean the bankers or the senators. Be that as it may, let’s consider the archetypical image of Main Street financial institutions during the last 150 years. Agincourt’s got one of them right now: the 1908 Farmers+Mechanics+Merchants Bank at #2 North Broad Street.

When considering the imagery of an early 20th century bank—in an era shortly before the dominance of large financial institutions, corporately owned, and responsible to shareholders rather than actual depositors—I opted for the stability of Classical Revivalism. [Besides, it was an opportunity for me to tangle with a unfamilliar stylistic vocabulary.] So the typical entry dominating what real estate agents call “100% Corner” would anchor the block just across the street from the new Agincourt Public Library—just 100 feet and seven years apart, but as stylistically distant as possible from each other. Had I taken more time to consider the issue, I might have gone another way. Consider, for example, the unbuilt Security Bank in Minneapolis, a design from the office of L. S. Buffington but from the hand of Harvey Ellis.

The Buffington/Ellis design achieves the conservative stability of Neo-Classicism, but without all those fussy (and costly) Orders. With a design date of 1891, it’s tempting to link it with contemporary European Art Nouveau, rather than the prevailing Classicism that would dominate the Chicago World’s Fair just two years later. But I suspect there may be a deeper meaning to the Security’s domed box, something drawn from the innate thrift of 19th century small-town Midwesterners.  Consider the industrious bee, who puts away for hard times what can be harvested in plenty. More than one small town bank promoted such thrift in young people through the mechanical bank, usually embossed with its own name as a promotional tool. Frankly I’d rather have one of these, than a toaster oven. Do you imagine Harvery Ellis had this in mind as he sketched the Security Bank?

There were a host of memes and metaphors to draw from, some of which I found on eBay this afternoon among the real-photo postcards offered there for sale to collectors like myself. Consider these as models:

Bank, Kilbourn, WI / Yes, but what’s an “Electric Theater”?

Bank, Lenoir City, TN / Architectural style as wallpaper.

Bank, Lidgerwood, ND / Those granite columns came from Vermont, but were they worth the cost? My grandmother would have called them “dust catchers” and banished them to the land fill.

Bank, North Brookfield, MA / The Richardsonian was popular in the Midwest, too, but these look too much like legos.

Bank, Geneva, NY / Of all in this group, I’m fondest of the delicacy of a design I’d classify as “Edwardian”.

il·le·git·i·ma·cy /ˈˌi(l)ləˈjidəməsē/


1.the state of not being in accordance with accepted standards or rules; lack of authorization by the law.

2.the state of being born to parents not lawfully married to each other.

Bastardy, the state or condition of children borne out of wedlock, is a 19th century concept with little use or meaning in the 21st. Marriage itself has far more importance as a legal concept—the legitimacy of children for the orderly passing of real property to the next generation—than it does in religion. Among the Puritans of New England, in fact, marriage was considered a civil procedure for precisely that reason. In my view, it is one of the better arguments in support of same-gender marriage. To more fully understand the consequences of bastardy, read Dickens.

Here and there in these pages are hints regarding a kind of “Illegitimacy Underground” in late 19th and early 20th century Agincourt. This entry may serve to flesh that story out, fill some gaps, correct any conflicts, all of which seems high time. The chief characters were Mrs Casius Hyde Miller (better known as Belle), Circe Beddowes, Maud Adams, Martha Tennant, and the redoubtable Dr Rudyard Fahnstock, MD. This quintumvirate formed in spite of itself to address the very real problems of illegitimacy in their community. Each played a distinct role in its operation.

Belle Miller: Circumstance—why is it we habitually fall back on circumstances?—made Mrs Miller a widow far sooner than she might. With half a business and twice the responsibility at an time when retirement and death were nearly synonymous, her younger brother, a man of the world, set Mrs M up in business as a madam; when the film is cast, she’ll be played by Amanda Blake. Her employees, as you might expect, had the occasional conceptual issue which required medical attention.

Circe Beddowes: Enter Mrs Beddowes (a.k.a., She-listens-to-the-moon), a Sac & Fox medicine woman, skilled in the herbal arts. She had actually taught a course in herbal medicine at the Hahnemann Hospital in Chicago. Caught early enough, Mrs Beddowes could induce miscarriage with a potion of leaves, roots, bark, and berries. But if things were too far advanced…

Maud Adams: Maud Adams found room in the dormitory where her restaurant staff lived en famille, where the pregnancy could be carried to term with a house mother and surrogate sisters in attendance. In several of those situations, the girls often changed careers and performed a different socially-acceptible kind of service. When their time came…

Martha Tennant: Martha Tennant served as midwife (in the room where her son Anson would subsequently dream of becoming an architect)—a stable, funnily enough, because there was no room at the metaphorical inn. It was Mrs Tennant who bankrolled the entire operation, though her husband Jim knew full well what was going on but deferred to his wife’s better instincts. [You should know, too, that when she herself was widowed, Martha joined a religious order and converted the house to hospice care.] Mrs Tennant was also on exceptionally good terms with her clerical neighbors: Rev. Stephen Grimaldi and then his successor Fr. Chilton Fanning Dowd at St. Joe’s, and Rev. Frances Manning across the street at St Ahab’s. Legitimacy can be helped along with the right imprimatur.

Rudyard Fahnstock: Doc Fahnstock took his hippocratic oath seriously—today he wouldn’t ask your sexual orientation before deciding to provide medical service—and would not perform abortions, except in the case of the mother’s health. He did render assistance when required at the birthing, but his larger contributions were the preparation of birth certificates to deal with the very issue that began this post, legitimacy, and a discreet supply of birth preventatives, which might have resolved the matter at the outset. He and Mrs Tennant also found homes for the infants with far less paper trail than might otherwise have been dictated by state law. Collectively, the five of them ran an underground orphanage, thereby avoiding the stain which bastardy would leave, a social label for all to see.

Sissy Beddowes was the first to die; she was the group’s eldest by far, followed closely by Belle Miller. Doctor Fahnstock practiced medicine until his own end, when his practice was carried on by Henk Cuijpers with comparable compassion. Maud Adams left us in 1943 and then, five years later to the day, it was Martha Tennant’s time. By then, however, the secret society they’d formed was common knowledge. Indeed, it may always have been. Secrets are hard to keep in a small town like ours.

Martha Tennant (known to only a few as Mother Martha Mary, SSM) enjoyed a funeral like few others in Agincourt history. Her competitors for that honor would have been all the others in their group, I suspect. Someone—still unidentified and likely to remain that way—knew most of the story and was able to fill the blanks with quiet inquiry. The beneficiaries of their work, the young women, their newborns who grew, married, and had families of their own; all who were complicit one way or another, numbered in the dozens, if not well over a hundred. All those who attended the funeral (with requiem masses at both St Joe and St Ahab) and then walk with the horse-drawn wagon that bore her to The Shades would each wear red socks as signs of solidarity.

There can’t have been that many pairs of red hosiery in all of northwestern Iowa, so I’m guessing several die pots were called into service, because the blaze of crimson, scarlet, vermillion, cerise, cardinal, and carmine along the way set the pavement ablaze. A veritable barometer of the compound benefit a little good can do.

Richard Hovey [1864-1900]

Poetry was hardly a significant part of my public school education, and by the time I got to college, it was too late. My relationship with poetry would always be stiff, artificial, ex post facto.

I did write one long poem while at university, a longish, self-consciousness plod celebrating a turning point for me—not so much a coming-of-age piece as a coming-to-grips. Perhaps they’re one in the same. It’s title—“Norman, summer of 1970”; I hadn’t yet read James Agee—didn’t even hint at the shallow profundities awaiting the hapless reader. With great good fortune, I misplaced the only typescript years ago. So you have been spared. You’re welcome.

Writing about Wright many posts ago, I wondered about the 19th century poet Richard Hovey, just three years Wright’s senior and dead at thirty-six, just as Wright was coming into his own and developing the Prairie Style of his first period. It was through him that I learned of the Dartmouth poet: Hovey had written something titled “Taliesin”, a reference to the Welsh bard that Wright would be hard pressed to ignore. So I dutifully found a collection of Hovey’s work, but found it unreadable: my eyes slid over the words but afforded me no traction, despite his best intent. A single line, just a fragment in fact, lodged with me: “…to fashion worlds in little.” That should be enough, and has been, for it emboldens me even today to keep the Agincourt Project alive.

That being said, I revisited Mr Hovey today and found cause to give him another try:

WHEN we are dead I firmly do believe
We shall slip back into the primal sea
Of the universal life, that there shall be
No such false joys as on this earth deceive
—Nay, nor no truer ones—nor cause to grieve
Nor terror nor despite nor mockery
Nor love, life’s strongest bitterest mystery
And while we still are struggling in the strife
Surely it is a gracious boon though small
That one brief sweet real joy at least there is,
To be about to die and know that all
The anguish and the agony of life
Will not last longer than a lover’s kiss.

Whatever school of poetics has been assigned him, Hovey is, at heart, a Gnostic, and for that glimmer I am glad, as I look toward “that one brief sweet real joy.”

Mental Mapping

An Excursus

[look it up; I had to]

“It is not down in any map; true places never are.” — Herman Melville

Dr Bob believed the creation of Agincourt was good therapy. He said I “lit up” each time I relate some new facet of the concoction—or do I mean concatenation? In hindsight, perhaps this was not the best use of my limited time with him. But he also warned me to call as soon as I began packing and and made arrangements with United Van Lines for the move.

There are occasions when my digressions into one tangled thread or another of Agincourt history, or of its current events, induces a look of concern on my friend’s faces. Do they wonder, I wonder, if I’ve finally started to lose it; whether Hercule Poirot’s “little grey cells” have begun their inevitable transubstantiation to cottage cheese. For the time being, I seem to have reasonable command of my faculties, so put your mind at rest. [I will admit, however, that “executive function” continues to be my weak suit.]

The digression du jour is a component of the project that I’ve put off too long: crafting a map of Fennimore County. Iowa already has ninety-nine, so one more shouldn’t upset anyone; they’ll scarcely notice if I’m careful about it.

There are a surprising number of articles but especially books about imaginary places; it gives aid and comfort to someone preoccupied with doing precisely that. But I don’t need any such reassurance; the creative process itself provides all the confirmation I require.


Whether accident or design, Iowa eventually accumulated ninety-nine counties. And with them, there came to be ninety-nine county seats, each in nineteenth century terminology known as a “county capitol”: the nation has a capitol, as does the state, and so in nested, nineteenth century logic does the next level of governance, the county. Ah, but because Agincourt required a status which might provide assured economic prosperity, it had to become a county seat. Hence, the creation of Fennimore county, Iowa’s 100th.

Shoehorning a new county—each averaging about thirty-two miles square—into an existing matrix has been no easy exercise in cartographic distortion. My first thought to dissect a highway map was folly, either to fit Fennimore entirely or to repurpose portions of four adjacent counties. A wholesale violation of space-time was required, and so it has evolved into something approaching origami and likely to be my entry in the Rourke Art Museum’s 60th “Midwestern Invitational”.

“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.”James Joyce, Ulysses

[Technically this is post #1237.]

Frances Faig [1885–1955]

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

FAIG, Frances Wiley [1885–1955]

Ohio Landscape


oil on canvas / 6 inches by 8 inches

“A noted woman artist from Cincinnati, Ohio, Mrs. Faig studied with Frank Duveneck and also with Charles Hawthorne.  She was a member of the McDowell Society, The Cincinnati Women’s Art Club and the Southern States Art League.  She was married to John T. Faig, professor of mechanical engineering and president from 1918-1951 of the Ohio Mechanics Institute, now the College of Applied Science.

“In addition to the Engineering Library murals at the University of Cincinnati, Mrs. Faig painted murals of the Miami and Erie canals in Hartwell High School and of the Cincinnati hills in the Woman’s City Club.  In 1932 she painted murals in Western Hills High School.”

Les fauves (‘the wild beasts’) was coined by art critic Louis Vauxcelles when he saw the work of Henri Matisse and André Derain in a Paris exhibition of 1905. But unlike the French Impressionist movement, the Fauvists “emphasized painterly qualities and strong color over representational or realist values” retained by the Impressionists.

This small but powerful work comes to the collection from the family of Agincourt businessman Holborn Messenger, a 1914 graduate of the University of Cincinnati, where he may have known the Faigs.

J. Sterling Morton and all that

“When it rains, it pours.”

J. Sterling Morton is hardly a household name. I recognize it because there is a suburban Chicago high school named for him; we played against them and customarily lost. There is also the Morton Wing of the Chicago Art Institute. But a much better clue to his identity is a little farther west: the Morton Arboretum in DuPage County (which I must confess is toward the bottom of my bucket list but things change). My guess is you’ve used one of his products, perhaps even today, when you picked up a salt shaker, because Morton’s millions were made from the production of common table salt.

Why the Morton family are connected with Arbor Day I don’t know, but I somehow knew even as a grade school kid that they were.

Growing up in Bedford Park I came to appreciate trees. Not just West 65th Place, but the entire suburb of Bedford Park profited from the very phenomenon J. Sterling believed in—the planting of trees. For my village was a textbook example of modest residential streets ennobled by mature rows of stately elms and maples, cathedrals of green, American allées worthy of a Vaux-le-Vicomte at their end. This was the age before Dutch Elm denuded middle America, so my memories of sultry summer nights playing “Kick the Can” or catching fireflies in mayonnaise jars are among the happiest of what was for me an unhappy time.

Besides lightening bugs, which have practically disappeared, there were also the cycles of cicadas, an odd-numbered rhythm of years when the woke from their slumber long enough to mate and leave larvae for an equal length of time. But for that brief encounter, a matter of just a few days, they made a holy racket as soon as the sun had set. If you’ve missed one of those unofficial festivals of life, I can’t quite do it justice. But recollection encourages me to recreate that setting, sacred to me, in Agincourt.

It’s surprising how many real-photo postcards there are of those very streets of my youth. Even in their black-and-whiteness I can be transported to the late 1950s, the happier age of Dwight Eisenhower, when the future looked so hopeful to a twelve-year-old anxious to watch it unfold. RPPCs (“real-photo postcards”) are often far more expensive than their lithographed cousins. Why? Because there could very well be just the one in your hand or on your computer screen. RPPCs weren’t necessarily mass produced; they depended on nothing more than you, your camera, and a darkroom to print that image which had momentarily seemed so worthy of being recorded. If I’d been an amateur photographer, I might have created some myself.

Looking at one of these, my reaction is always the same: I hear Samuel Barber’s “Summer Music” in my mind’s ear, and I recall the text of James Agee’s prose poem “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”, which was itself also partially set to music by Barber. Let yourself be transported to a simpler time by this fragment:

“The noise of the locust is dry, and it seems not to be rasped or vibrated but urged from him as if through a small orifice by a breath that can never give out. Also there is never one locust but an illusion of at least a thousand. The noise of each locust is pitched in some classic locust range out of which none of them varies more than two full tones: and yet you seem to hear each locust discrete from all the rest, and there is a long, slow, pulse in their noise, like the scarcely defined arch of a long and high set bridge. They are all around in every tree, so that the noise seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, from the whole shell of heaven, shivering in your flesh and teasing your eardrums, the boldest of all the sounds of night. And yet it is habitual to summer nights, and is of the great order of noises, like the noises of the sea and of the blood of her precocious grandchild, which you realize you are hearing only when you catch yourself listening.”