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

The children of Wagnersburg

By on May 23, 2021 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Rod Molzahn

By Rod Molzahn

In 1895, Ernst and Mary Wagner with all their belongings paddled a large raft from Orondo across the Columbia River and claimed a 320-acre homestead six miles below Entiat. They called it Wagnersburg. 

Three children came with them: eight-year old Emma Louise, five-year old Julia Rose and three-year old Otto Henry. A year later Molly Theresa was born and in 1898 Katherine Marie joined the family.

Once a house was built the work of developing an orchard began. It started with 900 apple trees brought over on the raft. 

As soon as they were able, the children began working on the growing orchard. 

Eight- year old Emma was first. She worked with her mother building wooden irrigation flume sections on top of a cliff. They lowered then by rope down to Ernst, roped up along the cliff face. He attached the flume sections to metal pins pounded into the rock cliff.

Since Otto was the only son, the girls became the primary labor force on the ranch. There wasn’t a job they couldn’t do from engine repair to construction. Photos show them under cars and driving tractors.

Emma, it was said, could fix anything. A family story tells of an adult Emma opening the door of a sister’s house and shouting out, “Your screen-door squeaks. Bring me a hammer and a glass of whiskey, no ice, and I’ll fix it for you.” 

Emma loved the outdoors, especially fishing. She had a cabin on Lake Chelan above Twenty Five Mile Creek.

In 1905, at age 18, Emma married Roy Martin. He was involved in real estate. In time Ernst Wagner came to dislike Roy. According to family lore, Ernst paid him off to “Get lost.” A divorce quickly followed.

In 1917 Emma married Thomas Atkinson, the ranch manager at Wagnersburg. Ernst must have approved.

In 1910, Julia, 20-years old, married Charles Dunning. Their daughter, Vivian, was born in 1911. Sometime in the next several years Julia and Charles divorced. 

In 1920, Julia and Vivian were living with Mary Wagner and younger sisters, Molly and Katy, in the family home on north Wenatchee Avenue. Ernst and Mary had divorced in 1911 or 1912. In 1925 Julia married Homer Earl Jessup. They moved to a house at Wagnersburg to do their part running the orchards.

Otto Wagner had a much different experience growing up on the ranch than his sisters had. 

About 1908 when Otto was 16, Ernst made him a full partner in the family businesses. Otto was closely involved in managing the orchards and the family real estate investments. None of the sisters were given that opportunity.

By 1920, the apple production from Wagnersburg had outgrown the local supply of apple boxes. Ernst and Otto decided to expand into the lumber business and make their own box shook. 

Otto was out in charge of developing the new endeavor. The first step was the purchase of a small lumber mill on Loup Loup Pass between the Okanogan Valley and Twisp in the Methow Valley.

In 1922 and ’23, the mill was enlarged and modernized. In 1931 it was destroyed by fire. Mill fires were common in that era. 

Otto abandoned the Loup Loup site and built a new state-of-the-art mill in the town of Okanogan. It was a major employer in the area until it also was destroyed by fire.

In 1938 Otto bought the iconic Fender Mill at Mazama in the upper Methow Valley. The purchase included a box factory in Twisp. The next year the mill was moved to Twisp near the box factory. The complex became the biggest employer and economic driver in the Methow Valley.

Otto married Kay Hayden in 1926. They soon became leading citizens of the Methow Valley and especially the town of Twisp. In 1967 they donated a municipal swimming pool to the town and named it the Ernst Wagner Memorial Pool in honor of Otto’s late father.

Otto shared sister Emma’s love of the outdoors and hunting. 

He and Kay had a ranch up the Chewuch River north of Winthrop. 

There was an abundance of rattlesnakes on the ranch. A man from Pateros had a reputation for catching rattlers alive and milking them for their venom. Otto hired him to rid the ranch of snakes. The man was paid by the number of snakes he caught. 

At the end of the day he came to Otto with two wriggling gunnysacks and told Otto how many snakes he had. Otto expressed doubt about the number. The man said, “Do you want to count them?” Otto wrote him a check.

Molly Theresa Wagner was 25 when she married Arthur Pohlman on July 4, 1921 in Penticton, British Columbia. The couple joined Emma and Julia in the work of operating the successful orchards at Wagnersburg. 

Molly and Arthur’s first daughter, Gloria, was born a year after their marriage. A second daughter, Molly Ann, was born in 1929.

The youngest of the Wagner children, Katy, at age 27, married Elbert “Harp” Harper in March of 1925. They joined the brigade of sisters and husbands at Wagnersburg. 

Together they managed the 320-acres of orchard and expanded their orchard holdings when they purchased land in the Orondo area and developed the “Ox Team” orchard.

In the late 1940s, likely after Ernst Wagner’s death in March of 1948, Katy and Harp moved to Los Angeles. 

Katy worked for NBC in the public relations department for 14 years before retiring. Family history claims Katy could “smoke like a chimney, drink wine like a fish and lout-talk any truck driver.”

In 1961, Rocky Reach Dam began operation. The reservoir behind the dam inundated almost all the orchards of Wagnersburg. The children of Wagnersburg received a substantial settlement from the PUD for their lost land.

Julia died of cancer in 1933 at Wagnersburg. She was 43. 

Emma died of cancer in 1959 during the construction of Rocky Reach Dam. She was 62. 

Otto Wagner was murdered in his Twisp home in November of 1967, six months after the dedication of the municipal pool. He was 75. 

Katy died in February of 1990 in Wenatchee at age 92. A month later, Molly, the last of the Wagner children, died in Wenatchee. She was 94.

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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