A little more than a century ago, a 21-year-old Tennessean traveled west by train and proceeded from Lewiston to Spalding, where the tracks ended.
Wiley T. Wagner, who was born in 1879 in Fish Springs, Tenn., walked the 30 miles from the end of the tracks at Spalding to Fletcher, a pioneer townsite located between present-day Craigmont and Mohler. Wagner staked out an 80-acre homestead and started farming. He received a patent for this parcel from President William H. Taft on Sept. 8, 1910.
In December, Wagner’s descendants — the fifth generation to farm the land their ancestor acquired in Lewis and Nez Perce counties — were awarded the Century Farm distinction from the Idaho State Historical Society. Presented by Earl Bennett of the historical society, the award recognizes farms or ranches that have been in the same family for at least 100 years and that includes 40 acres or more of the original land parcel. There are more than 400 Century Farms in Idaho, Bennett said.
According to documentation of the family’s holdings by Kerry Wagner, one of Wiley T. Wagner’s great-grandsons, Wagner acquired more farmland in Lewis County near the original 80-acre parcel. He also bought farmland in Nez Perce County near Lewiston that he farmed by himself and later with his sons, Shelton, Joe, Tom and Dick. The farm operation was known at that time as W.T. Wagner and Sons.
Kerry Wagner said while researching the background on his family, three other patents were granted to W.T. Wagner, including a 1920 patent from Woodrow Wilson; a 1925 patent from Calvin Coolidge and a 1935 patent from Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The farmland was divided in 1961, and Joe F. Wagner received the Lewis County parcel that included the original homestead piece. Joe and his brothers, Tom and Dick, formed Wagner Bros. Inc. and continued to farm in Lewis and Nez Perce counties until 1975.
That year, the brothers separated the land into three farms. Joe F. Wagner formed Joe Wagner and Sons with his sons, Wiley E. Wagner and Jack Wagner. Scott Wagner, one of Wiley’s sons, became a partner in 1987.
This partnership continued until 1997. Joe retired in the early 1980s, and Jack retired in 1997.
In 1998, Wiley formed Wiley Wagner Farmers in partnership with his sons, Scott and Kerry. The partnership is still operating today. Joe W. Wagner, another of Wiley’s sons, became a partner in 2012. Wiley Wagner and his wife, Carole, created the Fletcher Land Company LLC to preserve the land for future generations. The current landowners and farmers are great-grandchildren of Wiley T. Wagner.
Wiley E. Wagner attended the University of Idaho, and in 1966 he married Carole Vann. The couple moved to the family farm near Craigmont, where they raised their five children. Wagner, who died in 2014, enjoyed working the family farm with his children and grandchildren.
Kerry Wagner remembered that when he was growing up, Carole worked at home and a large part of her job was cooking for the big harvest crews.
“Back then we had a big farm crew, and at lunchtime 15 to 25 people were out there working, and everyone would go in and have this huge meal — roast beef, turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy,” Kerry Wagner said. “To me, the interesting change is, back then it took eight combines and at least that many grain trucks (to bring in the harvest). Now there’s two combines, and the combine drivers eat lunch in their combines and don’t even stop to eat lunch.”
Wiley and Carole supported the arts and traveled extensively together, including an annual trip to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Wagner was a longtime supporter of the Lewiston Roundup Association and served on its board of directors for 20 years.
Carole Wagner, originally from Winchester, died in 2007.
During the Century Farm presentation, Bennett noted the change in the economics of agriculture. In 1935, he said, there were about 6 million family farms in the country. By 2012, that number had shrunk to 2 million. Almost 60 percent of the country’s agriculture production comes from large farms, and the historical society created the Century Farm award because of this decline in family farms.
As part of Idaho’s centennial celebration in 1990, the Idaho Department of Agriculture initiated a program to recognize Idaho’s farming pioneers by designating farms and ranches that have been in the family for at least 100 years.
“All of us, my siblings and I, we’re very proud to be able to continue on the family farm tradition that W.T. Wagner started,” Kerry Wagner said.
Hedberg may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 983-2326.