Introduction (an updated draught)
We learned a lot about ourselves during the Great Depression. And a large part of it came from the Federal Writers Project, which was established in 1935
Agincourt is a town located in northwestern Iowa, America’s heartland, and typical of many middling communities in the Midwest. Founded on the banks of the Muskrat river in 1853 by settlers from Pennsylvania and western New York State, it soon became the seat of Fennimore county. And long before the arrival of the railroad, it had also become a center for large scale agriculture. Agincourt’s establishment, growth and development during the next one hundred and sixty-plus years have been subject to the same conditions experienced elsewhere, especially in the Midwest and on the Great Plains. And like other communities of its time and place, those large-scale phenomena continue to adjust for local conditions, the influence of special interest groups, and even specific families and individuals. All of these and more have played their part in shaping today’s Agincourt.
Oh, yes, there is one more thing you should know: Agincourt doesn’t exist. But the tale of its evolution and of the characters integral with that organic process present an opportunity to explore the relationship between story-telling and place-making, the intimacy of a narrative and its natural setting.
Situated twelve hundred twenty-eight feet above sea level, its population of 17,693 according to the last census is holding steady. The elderly from smaller rural communities in the hinterlands come to socialize and shop, have access to health care, and 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, Hispanic, 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 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 Nationalists 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 town site’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 Purchas — 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 season. The influenza pandemic of 1918 is just one case in point where an event with worldwide implication had very local consequence.
FACTORS, on the other hand, are generated by us and our intent as a society; they are driven by purpose: culture and all its sundry institutions, such as commerce, education, religion, government and all that flows from them. How might Agincourt have reflected phenomena like these:
- 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 to the Union states and Canada.
- President Franklin 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. Other acts at different times have funded law enforcement facilities and historic preservation.
FACES, finally, are individuals. Their 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 two of these faces, Andrew Carnegie, for example, who funded 2,500 public and academic libraries between 1883 and 1929 and Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, whose small-town banks brought Progressive design to Main Street, this project would’t 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.
Maybe it’s time you met Howard Tabor, writer for The Daily Plantagenet and principal voice for Agincourt’s past. I can’t honestly tell you what motivates Howard to tackle the topics he has since 2006, the year his sesqui-centennial series began on the back page of the Saturday paper. But I can tell you that his style is anything but journalistic and wouldn’t survive a week of scrutiny at a “real” newspaper — of which fewer and fewer exist each year. Howard should be proud of that. Since he’s such a self-effacing guy, I wrote a short biographical sketch last Sunday on the drive back from Minneapolis. A lot of rumination occurs during those 240 miles:
Howard Tabor, purported author of “A few figs from thistles…,” lives a quiet unassuming life in the modest Iowa town where he was born seventy-four years ago.
As a high school graduate in the early 1960s, a career in journalism for Tabor was farfetched, not to say unthinkable. He aspired to be an architect, like his great-uncle Anson Tennant, designer of the old Agincourt Public Library in 1914-1915. But one semester at the State University in Ames convinced Tabor that the profession might tolerate him at best; it would certainly never welcome him into its ranks or files. Architecture, he knew, was both art and science; the art he could learn, the mathematics he would endure, but it was the unforeseen business of architecture that dissuaded him from making any further commitment to its five-year course of study. He was, it turned out, a devotee of words; words carefully chosen but not always deployed with diplomacy or tact. A quick lateral move to the English department afforded Tabor a comforting anonymity and time to marinate in language. Seven semesters later, he graduated into a world where uncertainty was sure, and his job prospects obtuse at best. It was 1968 and all that that entailed. It was the year that changed us all: Anson Tennant died during the winter; Howard Tabor graduated in the spring; and American political life ruptured during the summer of our discontent at the Democratic National Convention. Tumultuous times leave their mark.
Chicago called to him—perhaps with the same voice that had beckoned great-uncle Anson — to engage there with the architecture of words. So in the fall, Howard found an apartment on Chicago’s north side and a job on its south, as part-time staff for Draugas, a Lithuanian Catholic newspaper — an odd choice, since Tabor was neither, and journalism hadn’t even been his major. Additional income came from work at a used and rare book dealer on North Dearborn Street near his apartment; incidentally, it was at this now forgotten book store that I met him. Coincidentally, he also lived only seven blocks from the Chicago Historical Society headquarters in Lincoln park. This triangle defined life for the next three years, until an opening at the Plantagenet brought him home.
If you hadn’t already guessed, Tabor is part of the extended Tennant family, a double-edged sword in his part of Iowa. The Tennants were interested (i.e., had their fingers) in everything — media, manufacturing, culture and heritage — so it’s hard to say if those connections played a role in landing the job at the newspaper. From July 1971, Howard has honed his craft, writing everything from ads to obits; selling ad space and subscriptions; working hard to keep the paper afloat into the digital age; and now and then working with bucket and mop. The up-side of this extended family has been easy access to information, the sort that rarely qualifies as “public record.” His columns are redolent with those intimate personal insights; history as oral tradition enabled by a family of chroniclers. While we’re at it, you may as well have a Tennant family tree:
More personally, Tabor lives with his partner Rowan Oakes, history teacher at Fennimore County High. The two of them recently undertook a daunting project: restoration of the Wassermann Block, home of The Periodic Table, Agincourt’s newest restaurant, and also a bed-and-breakfast on the second floor. Other “bucket list” projects include writing a family history (for private circulation), a more public anthology of his “Few figs…” columns, and yet another exhibition in October 2015 which celebrated the actual Battle of Agincourt.
Howard Tabor and I will form a tag team, passing the narrative back and forth, alternately telling the story as well as telling the story of telling the story.
“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