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Photographs document Wagner family legacy

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Historical archives are scant on the Wagner family of Glenview, whose 19-acre farm became the well-known agricultural education center Wagner Farm Heritage Center Museum in 2006.

But the recent donation of nearly 100 black and white photographs showing “a day in the life” of the family will be exhibited in October or November at the farm, 1510 Wagner Road.

Karen Pulfer Focht captured them on film from 1977 to 1982 for class projects while a student at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview and Columbia College, Chicago.

Focht has been a photojournalist for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., since 1988, coming from the Post Tribune in northwest, Ind.

The Glenview Announcements published her first news photo in 1980.

Todd Wagner, director of Wagner Farm, said the collection “was a goldmine.”

“The Wagners had little documentation. They never had children and knew strangers would be going through their stuff,” Price said.

“So they burned it.

We have bits and pieces of information about them, but it’s nice to know we have more now,” he said.

The Wagners were sisters Rose and Lucy, and brother Pete. Rose was the last to die in 1997.

The family “were private folks,” yet they knew a lot of people in Glenview, Price said, adding Lucy enjoyed photography and had her shots developed at the old Glenview Camera Shop owned by Ed Evans.

As a young shutterbug, Focht knew her Wagner compilation was a look into a disappearing way of life.

The Wagner operation was one of the last farms in Cook County.

“I just wanted to document Pete’s lifestyle. Here’s a man living on a farm all his life and now the suburbs are popping up all around him,” Focht said.

“It’s the storyteller in me, something I’ve done my whole life as a photojournalist. I wanted Glenview to see and preserve his last days on the farm before he died.”

Focht also said Pete did not indicate or talk about the possibility of the family farm ending.

“I don’t recall his saying anything about that, but I knew it was near,” she said.

The Wagner lineage had owned the acreage since moving to the area in the 1850s from Trier, Germany.

Focht recalled Pete as “not an overly jolly man or gregarious, but a man with a strong work ethic.”

During the four years she took pictures, Focht learned much about the technical side of photography, as well as more how to approach strangers for photos.

“Like all good reporters and photojournalist, you need access to people and it’s something you learn. I remember using finesse with (Pete) to get him on board.

“He was not a big egotist, and I had to talk him into it. I had to make him understand what I wanted to do, which was coming back many times to see and photograph him and his family.”

Returning to subjects often is how Focht prefers to tell her picture stories, a plan she still relies on.

For example, she has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Casey Foundation for a series on Infant Mortality, a three-year undertaking.

“It provides an interesting depth — my visiting a subject many times. Pete was my first time I did this (method) when I was 18 to 22 years old,” she said.

Similar to good photo subjects, on shoot days, Pete simply went about his regular workday.

“He was open to it, but he was busy with doing what he does. He didn’t stop to pose and that’s when magicial pictures happen. He definitely was not a poser,” Focht said.

When Rose died in 1997, she directed the Glenview State Bank estate trustee, to sell the farm to the highest bidder, according to the park district’s website.

The proceeds would benefit her family parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Glenview.

Local residents asked the park district to buy the property and use it as an historical working farm for the community’s education.

“With citizen support, a referendum to approve funds to pay for the farm was approved by the voters in 1998 and the park district purchased the farm in 2000,” stated the website.

A year after opening in 2006, Wagner Farm had more than 54,000 visitors.

One of Focht’s pictures show a Wagner sister standing inside her home with a photo of President John Kennedy in the background.

Price said the Wagners were big Kennedy supporters in his 1960 presidential campaign, during which he visited Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

“I would love to know if the Wagners were at the church when Kennedy was there,” Price said.

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