Editor’s note: Students in Sara Olding’s Senior English classes at Sidney High School partnered with the Shelby County Historical Society to explore the stories of early residents and visionaries of Sidney, Ohio. Turning their research into writing, they spent time “Learning About Legacy.”
SIDNEY — There are many buildings that have a story. For students at Sidney High School, we often wonder about the large abandoned building on Fair Road. At one time, it must have been a busy place with a lot of potential. I have driven by that big, rundown brick building at least a thousand times as I made my way back and forth from school. It wasn’t until my senior year when Mrs. Olding assigned a new kind of research project that I learned the story of that building- The Wagner Manufacturing Company.
Mathias Wagner was born in Germany and immigrated to Sidney, Ohio, in 1838 to work on the construction of the Shelby County Canal. Always looking for a way to improve his life, he began raising cattle and hogs in hopes that he might be able to leave the back breaking work of canal building that only paid a dollar an hour. In time he learned, that rather than working on building the canal, he could make good money feeding the canal workers. He also noticed Sidney’s rapid growth and invested his profits in local real estate. Over time, he eventually became the wealthiest man in town.
Wagner was most likely the busiest man in town. He and his wife, Mary Rauth, had 12 children together. He operated a farm and managed his investments, but that still wasn’t enough for him. In 1863, he purchased a hotel on the corner of Poplar and Ohio naming it the Wagner Hotel. He enlarged and renovated the property. The Wagner Hotel took up nearly a whole block. It was the finest hotel around, including a ballroom on the third floor. It became famous for a roaring fireplace, a hot toddy, and pleasant conversation. It stood as the center of society in Sidney for more than a century.
In the early 1880’s, several of Wagner’s sons began a cookware business as a partnership. The Wagner Manufacturing Company, incorporated in 1891, pioneered the use of cast aluminum cookware. The brothers acquired several other businesses and Wagner became an important player in the cast iron and aluminum market in this country. For over a half century Wagner products were sold not only throughout the United States but in Europe too. The company placed first in numerous international competitions. On the back of each product they made, Wagner and their hometown “Sidney, Ohio” was casted. Wagner Cookware put Sidney “on the map” for good.
What is left of the Wagner legacy? The Wagner Manufacturing Company building on Fair Road is a shell of what it once was. That building hasn’t been active since 1952. Original Wagner products are prized by collectors. The grand Wagner Hotel fell into decay and in 1973, at 110 years old, was razed to make way for the first Federal Savings and Loan building. The Fifth-Third Bank now stands on what was once the site of the hotel at 101 South Ohio Avenue.
The Wagner family was potentially the most influential family in Sidney’s early industrial development. Mathias Wagner started a very long and important legacy which helped develop the city I live in today. I admire his work ethic and persistence. His story of consistent improvement is very motivational. It is impressive how he decided to work smart instead of working on the canal and how he never settled for just being the richest man in town from real estate, but he chose to make a name for himself by continually looking to contribute more to the Sidney community. He also represents a great American story of a man born in Germany who longed for a better life. Lucky for all of us, he landed in Sidney, Ohio and used his dedication and drive to make great contributions to our city. The next time I drive past the Wagner Building on Fair Road I will no longer wonder about its story, but rather I will remember the drive of Mathias Wagner and wonder what I can contribute to my community.
The writer is the son of Wes Steenrod and Sara Fridley. A 2018 graduate of Sidney High School, He plans to work full time and attend Edison Community College in the fall.