“My dad hoped I’d be a veterinarian,” Gerald Wagner said, “but when I found out how long that would take, I said I’d rather join the Army. Dad dragged me out of bed by my leg and said, ‘From now on, you’ll be working in the store!’”
Gerald comes from a long line of entrepreneurs. His grandmother, Emily Lautenbach Wagner, whom the family describes as a “wheeler-dealer from the Jacksonport area,” ended up with two businesses in Maplewood: a tavern and dance hall run by her son Arnold, and a meat market that she ran herself. Her daughter Lena was a partner with Art Lautenbach in the Sawyer Opera House (later the Union Supper Pub), and Lena and her sister, Exilda, at various times ran the Ivanhoe in Jacksonport and the Nightingale and Nautical in Sturgeon Bay.
Later, Arnold had the By-Way Market where CVS is in Sturgeon Bay, and Emily’s other son, Ed, took over the meat market in Maplewood. Although Ed’s real interest was in being a cattle buyer, he operated the store – by this time expanded to include a full grocery line – until his son, Gerald, assumed ownership in 1947, when Gerald was just 17.
Unfortunately, Gerald’s store ownership coincided with the nation’s involvement in the Korean War. He received several deferments, but finally a friend working for the local draft board explained that his only alternatives were to be drafted or get married. Gerald remembers exactly what he told her: “The Army is just a two-year commitment. Marriage is a lot longer.”
So, Ed left the cattle-buying job he loved to return to the store while Gerald served his years in Korea. Gerald asked his dad to sell the store while he was away, but it wasn’t easy to sell a business that required attention nearly 24/7. That’s why Gerald returned to being a storekeeper, and Ed went back to buying cattle. He once said he’d bought and sold enough cows to make a ring around the world.
Gerald’s heart may not have been in the store, but he was extremely successful at expanding it: He bought a nearby cheese factory and turned it into a slaughterhouse.
“If you bought half a pig from us,” Gerald recalled, “we charged 26 cents a pound for cutting the meat and grinding the lard. If you wanted the ham sugar-cured and maple-smoked, that was six cents a pound more. When families began to get home freezers, we offered 25-pound pork bundles and 25-pound beef packages.”
When Gerald heard that Clarence Broad in Sister Bay was going out of the custom-smoking business after a fire, he paid a Sunday-afternoon visit to Earl Willems at the Sister Bay Bowl to find out who had been running the smoked-meat delivery route and hired the man, called Slim Jim, on the spot.
“He sat there in the Bowl and wrote a list of all the equipment I needed to buy – as long as both arms,” Gerald said.
His smokehouse ran seven days a week, handling 500-600 pounds of ham a day. Its three-quarter-ton truck ran a route two days a week, picking up hams from slaughterhouses in Luxemburg and Belleview, and delivering them three weeks later to stores in Door, Kewaunee, western Brown and northern Manitowoc counties.
Wagner’s Market continued to prosper, but Gerald couldn’t get a career change out of his head. Then one day, when the mayor of Algoma entered the store to buy a half of beef, he asked Gerald whether he ever bought stock.
“Sure,” Gerald responded, “but just the four-legged kind.”
The mayor sent his stockbroker to see Gerald, who bought several shares, most of which lost money.
“I figured I didn’t need help to lose money,” Gerald said, “but the stock market intrigued me.” This occurred at exactly the same time when a prospective store buyer, Donnie Baumann, came along. The sale was finalized in 1966, and Gerald agreed to stay on for a year to teach him the ropes.
Gerald went on to a 30-year career as a stockbroker, which he did his own way: never sitting at a desk, making sales without a lot of paperwork and “never selling anything I wouldn’t have bought myself.”
He and wife, Carol, will both turn 90 this fall. Married for 65 years, they retired on property north of Sturgeon Bay.