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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.”

Amen.

 

Honorary Citizenship

It may not mean much, but Agincourt is about to bestow honorary citizenship on several people who’ve been instrumental carrying the project forward. But not until we’ve crafted a suitable certificate. What will it get me, you ask. Well, beyond that rosy glow of satisfaction, how about free pie and covfefe at Adams’ Restaurant?

Van Jones [dates unknown]

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

JONES, Van (dates unknown)

Portrait of William Bendix

ca1945-1950

oil on board / 23 inches by 19.2 inches

It is surprising when portraits leave a family’s possession and find their way to strangers through estate auctions or garage sales. An anonymous donor noticed this fine portrait at an antique dealer in Omaha and recognized the subject as former Agincourt resident William Bendix (1905-1984), developer of Riverside Addition and builder of what is arguably Agincourt’s first mid-century modern home. Bendix owned the Chevrolet dealership, which may be where the portrait hung and also account for it going astray.

William and Maureen Bendix had one child, a daughter Estelle. About the artist Van Jones we know little, except he was British, active post-1927, and produced both fine and graphic art — a distinction we are loathe to make..

Rachael Robinson Elmer (1878-1919)

This is the centennial year of the death of Rachael Robinson Elmer. It will probably pass unnoticed. But not by me.

As a kid, I spent a lot of time in the Loop. Downtown Chicago was my playground, though you probably won’t understand my definition of “play”. At the age of twelve or fourteen I hung out at Flax Art Materials and a record store whose name I can’t recall, both of them on South Wabash. Also on Wabash, under the latticed shadow of the “L”, but a couple blocks north of Flax was Kroch’s & Brentano’s bookstore and its art-and-architecture mezzanine, the domain of Henry Tabor. You could find me somewhere along that stretch of Wabash on any given Saturday.

Don’t ask me precisely where it was in that neighborhood but somewhere along the “L” I recall signage for the P. F. Volland Printing Co., on a second or third floor, clearly visible from the windows of the passing train I had ridden from 63rd and Loomis. It meant nothing to me at the time — a teenager has very few commercial printing needs — but today it has taken on new meaning and, not incidentally, confirmed my suspicion that “six degrees of separation” is pessimistic.

Pessimistic because, unknown to me, the Volland Co. had produced a remarkable series of postcards in its earliest years, icons of the Arts & Crafts era and highly collectible today. And I know this now because of Rachael Robinson Elmer, one of Volland’s artists then.

Rachael Robinson Elmer was born in Vermont to artistic parents. Her father was an illustrator; her mother a painter.  Rachael began her art education at the age of twelve, eventually studying in New York City with the likes of Childe Hassam (a name I do recognize). Some time in 1914 she met Paul Volland and established a business relationship with his company. The first of her cards reached the market in early 1915 and immediately found an audience as the “Art-Lovers’ Postcard Series”.

Rachael wasn’t the only artist in Volland’s employ. Maginel Wright Enright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s sister, designed for Volland. Marion Mahony Griffin is reported to, as well. I wonder if Margaret Iannelli did, too. Volland had good taste.

You may not find the 1919 date troubling; I do, because that it was the winter of 1918-1919 that the Influenza pandemic took tens of thousands of American lives; millions worldwide. Rachael Elmer was among them, passing on February 12th.

Do you suppose she’ll mind if we appropriate some of them for the Agincourt Project?

 

Lake Life

A great number of things fascinate me. But concerning real-photo postcards, there are just two: the images that some people will take, and the finished product that some other people will purchase. Perhaps the photographer in this case was intrigued by the mystery of this one-point perspective, a dirt road disappearing into the distance, revealing nothing of its destination. We must travel the road to learn its secret.

Agincourt’s hinterland is rich with roads like this, and I suspect you’ll find recreation at its end, possibly one of the resorts on the eastern and southern shores of Sturm und Drang. Happily I’ve gathered several RPPCs of the cabins and cottages just as likely to be your reward.

Either of these work for me: not so much cottages or cabins (the former has the notion of quaintness within it), these seem little more than shacks, but I wouldn’t mind at all spending a week reading and writing, with occasional glances across the water, catching the flit of a dragonfly or the fish that broke the surface to feast on it. The sound of owls, busy at night, or the smack of a beaver’s tail warning the kits that a fox is afoot.

 

Purge

Just checking the stats this morning and discovered several visitors to Agincourt from seven countries outside the U.S., which is interesting. I can suspect who some of you are, but others are an ongoing mystery. This encouraged me to take a look at “followers”, which is another story altogether.

There were sixteen so-called followers, three of whom are ladies with large accoutrements, one of them offering brides anxious to emigrate from what I presume to be the Eastern Block. If I have purged them in error, I apologize.

Elsa Björkman-Goldschmidt [1888-1982]

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

BJÖRKMAN-GOLDSCHMIDT, Elsa (1888-1982)

“Vinter” / “Winter”

1922 (1916)

lithographic reprint of woodcut /

This modest print is one about which we know more about the artist than the work itself. The original was printed in 1916 in an unknown edition. Copies of the original are included in the collections of the British Museum and the National Gallery of Ireland. In 1922 it was reproduced as a print, possibly in book or periodical form such as The International Studio. Our copy is in that format and is on long term loan from Temple Emanu-El synagogue.

About the artist herself, however, there is considerable information. Her entry in Svenskt kvinnobiografiskt lexikonintroduces a massive biographical summary of her long and dramatic life:

Elsa Björkman-Goldschmidt was an author, journalist and visual artist who was associated with the liberal left women’s movement. She also undertook comprehensive humanitarian work on behalf of prisoners of war, children, and refugees during and after both World Wars, largely as the local representative of Rädda Barnen in Vienna.

As the citizen of a neutral country during the Second World War, Mrs Björkman-Goldschmidt was able to accomplish considerable humanitarian work, despite her status as a Jew.

Photograph of Else Andrea Elisabeth Björkman-Goldschmidt [1888-1982]