"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

After Ernst Wagner became weary with apple brokers, he became one, selling fruit overseas

By on February 26, 2019 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Rod Molzahn

Editor’s note: In the January edition, Rod Molzahn told how German immigrant Ernst Wagner overcame one challenge after another to become a successful apple grower. Now, Rod relates how Wagner went on to grow his operations. 

By Rod Molzahn

RodErnst Wagner’s 1907 and 1908 trips to Australia and New Zealand selling apples convinced him there was good profit to be made in international exports. 

He held back part of his 1908 crop then shipped the apples to Japan and China in February of 1909. As always, Ernst sailed with his apples and sold 70,000 boxes. He returned with orders for 150,000 boxes of the 1909 crop.

In August of 1909, Wagner ran a front-page ad in the Wenatchee Daily World seeking apples for shipment to Australia and New Zealand. He paid $1.15 per box and bought mostly Winesaps and Rome Beauties. (They traveled well.) 

He also took smaller amounts of Spitzenberg, Jonathan, Senator, Stayman, McIntosh Red, Ben Davis and Black Ben Davis varieties. Growers delivered the apples to Conrad Rose at Wenatchee Produce Company. Demand for apples overseas was so strong Wagner could not satisfy it with his apples alone so he enlisted Rose to help him buy up other grower’s fruit. 

It is an irony that Ernst Wagner, who so disliked fruit brokers, became one himself.

1910 was a big year for Wagner. In January he sailed to England with carloads of apples then on with more to his native Germany where a private yacht met his ship in Hamburg Harbor to bring Wagner ashore for a welcome celebration. 

In September he returned to England with 40 carloads and to Germany with 100 carloads. In 1910, for the first time, Wagner shipped his apples to Buenos Aires, Argentina, a market he would return to yearly until 1917. 

He dominated the South American market by gaining control of all the cold storage needed to ship to that destination.

In February of 1910 Wagner hired Leo Marchant to be superintendent of the orchards and moved with his family to a fine home on North Wenatchee Avenue. 

It was clear by that year that Swakane Creek was drying up and would soon be too small to provide the irrigation water the growing acreage at Wagnersburg — the name of his orchards midway between Wenatchee and Entiat — needed. In April a pair of 30-horsepower electric pumps were installed to lift water from the Columbia River for the orchards.

Bad luck came with high water later that summer when the pumping plant, sitting on two scows, broke free and floated down river. It was spotted below Wenatchee but broke loose again before it could be captured. 

Surprisingly the pumping plant negotiated the Rock Island rapids without damage and was eventually found and retrieved near Wahluke, below Vantage. Wagner loaded it on wagons and returned it to his orchard. 

That October the Wenatchee Daily World reported that, with his pumps, Wagner could irrigate 320 acres.

In 1911 or 1912 Mary and Ernst Wagner divorced. Mary continued to live in the Wenatchee Avenue house until her death in 1928. In 1913 Ernst Wagner married Susan Bishop Callahan in New Zealand. Ernst was 53 and Susan was 38. She was a widow with three young children. They moved with Ernst to Wenatchee.

Wagner’s international export market continued to prosper until WWI began in 1914. Cargo space on steamships quickly became difficult to find and embargoes made it impossible to export American fruit to many countries. 

Wagner retired from the export market and concentrated on the domestic market until the war ended. In a Nov. 6, 1918 Wenatchee Daily World interview Wagner predicted an early end to the war. Less than two weeks later the armistice was signed. By the end of the year Wagner had 150 carloads ready to ship from New York to Europe.

In 1920 Susan Wagner, a member of the Wenatchee Women’s Musical Club, made an important long lasting contribution to Wenatchee and the valley. 

She had been born and raised in New Zealand and had seen many springtime blossom festivals celebrating the island’s fruit growing history. Susan Wagner suggested to her club that they start a blossom festival in Wenatchee. 

Two months later, on Friday, May 7, the first Wenatchee Blossom Festival with music, Maypole winding, a Navy band, Queen Fern Prowell and a street dance on Wenatchee Avenue was celebrated by a huge crowd including delegations from Seattle and Spokane. 

Ernst Wagner’s adult children had taken over management of the orchards and expanded with acreage across the Columbia in the Orondo area where the family had once lived.

The increasing production of the Wagner family orchards was outpacing the supply of wooden apple boxes. 

The Wagner’s only son, Otto, had become a legal business partner with his father when he was in his early teens. He was closely involved with all the family’s businesses including fruit and real estate investments. Now he became the point man developing new timber and lumber mill interests.

In 1920, with an eye toward manufacturing their own apple boxes, the Wagners bought a small lumber mill on Loup Loup Pass between Okanogan and Twisp. In late 1922 and early 1923 they significantly increased mill capacity with a rebuild and enlargement.

Destructive mill fires were common. Fire insurance was available but the Wagners thought it was too costly. Instead they hired a man to sprinkle the mill works with water. 

In 1931 the sprinkler man mistakenly watered down a large electric motor. The motor exploded and fire destroyed the mill. 

The Wagners abandoned the Loup Loup location and built a new, state of the art mill in the town of Okanogan.

In 1938 the Wagners bought the Fender Mill near Mazama in the Methow Valley. That included a box factory in Twisp. 

The Fender Mill was an iconic part of the upper Methow Valley but had fallen in fortune. Otto Wagner bought it for a good price. 

The Fender Mill had always been known for its specialty lumber. In 1927 the mill cut custom lumber for the construction of the Chelan Dam powerhouse. In 1939 Otto and Ernst moved the Fender Mill to Twisp near the box factory. The mill became the biggest employer and economic driver in the valley. 

Ernst Wagner died March 27, 1948 in Wenatchee at the age of 87. Susan Wagner passed away Sept. 6, 1953 in Wenatchee at age 78. 

On Nov. 20, 1967 Otto Wagner, age 75, was murdered, strangled in his home by his nephew.

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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