Monday, August 18, 2014

From the Archives: The Story of How a Farm was Saved
Written by Beth Willwerth, March 2008, for Wagner Tales

The year of 2008 marks the 10th anniversary of the referendum in which Glenview voters approved a tax increase for the purpose of purchasing land for its park district. The district wished to acquire 35 acres for sports fields and an additional 20 acres of an old farmstead. In 1967, the park district had launched a campaign to attain this same farm and replace it with a swimming pool, ball fields, tennis courts and an ice rink. However, a determined farmer along with a group of locals referring to themselves as the "Save the Wagner Homestead Committee" helped defeat the bond issue by a 3 to 1 margin. Ironically, years later, another local group "Citizens Organized for Wagners" (C.O.W.S.) worked tirelessly with the park district to once again make an attempt to acquire this land. However, this time the park district wished to keep the farm intact.

The story of the preservation of the last surviving farm in Glenview is wrought with public controversy, passion and dedication. For decades, countless eager buyers had made bids on the property. However, Pete Wagner and his sisters, Lucy and Rose, had no intention to vacate or sell their land. The 1967 park district attempt to acquire the property sparked the first successful community effort to save the farm. After the victory, Pete said, "People have been dropping in all day to congratulate me since the 6 o'clock milking time. All of my friends and lots of strangers I never met before. I feel great! Really great!" This experience also increased the Wagner's resolve to stay on their property. Lucy Wagner summed up the thoughts of her siblings when she said, "We don't want to move. Why should we move? It's our home."

Pete, Lucy and Rose Wagner

In the years that followed, the Wagners maintained their family farm and quiet lifestyle. Pete had help from loyal friends to assist him in some of the more demanding farm duties, but he continued to do the daily farm chores himself. One close friend in particular had been a frequent visitor to the farm as a young boy and continued his relationship with the Wagners into adulthood.  With the death of Lucy in 1980 and Pete in 1991, the farm was left to Rose. She wished to maintain the farm and called on this family friend for help. He agreed and began taking care of the Holstein herd, the crops, the equipment, and buildings every day of the year for the next ten years. As local resident and long time farm volunteer Bill Green put it, "If it weren't for [the help of a loyal friend], there would be no farm to save because the livestock would've been sold off after Pete died and the farm buildings would've become completely dilapidated."

In the early 1990s, local resident and friend of the Wagners, Mike Luxem, began organizing C.O.W.s. whose goal was to "work toward the eventual preservation of the farm." Another key figure in the fight to save the farm was Norma Morrison. Her successful efforts to designate the farm as park land led the way toward the park district referendum. Along with these prominent figures were hundreds of Glenview residents who became members of C.O.W.s. and supported their efforts. C.O.W.S. became incorporated as a non-for -profit in 1993 and continued its fundraising activities to educate the community concerning the importance of saving the farm.

When Rose Wagner passed away on March 3, 1997, her estate was left in a Charitable Trust. Her will stipulated that the farm be sold to the highest bidder and the proceeds of the sale go to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, founded by her parents and other local families in 1907. This final act demonstrated her strong belief in her faith, family tradition, and the long standing historic impact of her family on the community.

On December 17, 1997, the park district placed a bid on the farm. Tom Richardson, the park district Executive Director at the time, summarized his feelings and those of his colleagues, "We're excited to be doing this. It's good for the heritage of the community and the possibility of allowing children and others to see what a farm is." However, this bid could not be validated until Glenview citizens approved of a tax increase. Park Board President Cathy Crowley stated at the time, "lf we don't have the money, we can't even negotiate." Lack of funds was on the minds of many park district officials. Demographic analysis had predicted a greater need for public parks in Glenview, which meant the acquisition of more land. In addition to this need was the strong public lobby to acquire Wagner Farm. In January 1998, both the park district and C.O.W.S. had agreed that a joint "Farm and Sports Fields" referendum was necessary to successfuIIy attain both their goals.

In the two months before the scheduled March 17th referendum vote, C.O.W.S. and the park district worked tirelessly to urge voters to agree to the average $50 per household tax increase. Despite their efforts, there was marked opposition to the referendum and many voters shared the thoughts of one resident who characterized the farm as 'Just a piece of vacant property with a few cows on it." However, it was the cows in the pasture as well as the C.O.W.S. outside the pasture who brought human emotion into the drive to keep the farm. What further boosted the momentum of the campaign was the timely decision of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois naming Wagner Farm as among the most endangered properties in Illinois.

On March 17th, the efforts of the park district, C.O.W.S. and Wagner Farm supporters were left in the hands of the citizens of Glenview. To the uneducated voter, the ballot question "Shall the Glenview Park District, Cook County, Illinois, be authorized to levy and collect an additional tax of not to exceed .1259% for all corporate purposes as provided in Section 5-3 of "The Park District Code" was vague. Those closely associated with the referendum knew that it might not pass. However, when all the votes were tallied, the result was 54% in favor of the tax increase. This narrow victory opened the door for the potential acquisition of Wagner Farm for the Glenview Park District.

The story of the suecessfuI 1998 referendum didn't end that year. After the referendum passed, a lengthy battle over opposing bids for the farm ensued followed by a tedious court process condemning the property. It wasn't until May 18, 2000 that Wagner Farm officially belonged to the park district and thus to Glenview. But it was the promotional efforts of C.O.W.s. members, the foresight of park district officials, the support of Glenview citizens and the dedication of the Wagner family's closest friend that made the attainment of Wagner Farm a possibility and not simply a dream. Norma Morrison summarized it best when she said, "The cows are a Glenview icon, those white and black creatures grazing on the meadow in front of the old barn. The image of that rural scene in the midst of Glenview is what sold the referendum."