County seat of Wagoner County, Wagoner is located at the intersection of U.S. Highway 69 and State Highway 51, eighteen miles north of Muskogee and forty miles east of Tulsa. The town was founded as a "crossroads community" at a point on the Missouri, Kansas and Texas (MK&T) Railway where the Kansas and Arkansas Valley Railway (branch of the Missouri Pacific) would intersect. On June 5, 1887, William H. McAnally, an MK&T fireman, moved his family from South McAlester to build a small hotel at this isolated prairie spot in Indian Territory. Others followed, and the next summer three frame hotels and two general stores greeted the new railroad.
A switch had previously been located just below the new town to accommodate the shipment of walnut logs from the river bottom and hay from the vast grassland. The facility was called Wagoner's Switch after dispatcher Henry "Big Foot" Wagoner, who had reported a need for it. The town used the name, and the switch was eventually moved up to the town. Cattle shipping immediately became a major industry, cutting short the long drives to market.
In 1895 the local newspaper began sending out booklets to encourage people to move to the area. Surrounding newspapers and Twin Territories: The Indian Magazine praised Wagoner as a town well situated, showing rapid growth and prosperity, and destined to be a major city. Anticipating the breakup of tribal lands and rapid urban growth, hordes of hopeful settlers rushed into the new town. An 1894 census listed 642 names within the city limits. The 1896 the population was approximately 1,500.
Having outgrown the "crossroads" classification, the city was in need of a government. Incorporation of Indian Territory towns became possible under the statutes of the state of Arkansas, as adopted by an act of Congress approved May 2, 1890. In fall 1895 an incorporation committee was formed and circulated a petition. On January 4, 1896, the U.S. District Court approved the application, making Wagoner the first incorporated town in Indian Territory.
Elections were held and taxes levied to support city government, law enforcement, fire protection, education, streets, and utilities. A privately funded, three-story, rock courthouse was built, and in 1897 Wagoner was awarded the newly created U.S. Western District Court, bringing many lawyers to town. At the turn of the century the Dawes Commission turned the land in Indian Territory from tribal control to private Indian ownership and soon a popular movement succeeded in enabling sales of that land to non-Indians. Real estate business in Wagoner boomed, the population flourished, and a vast farming community grew up in the fertile area bounded by the Grand, Verdigris, and Arkansas rivers.
At 1907 statehood Wagoner's population was 2,950, and the existing courthouse gave the edge that was needed for the community to be named county seat of Wagoner County. By 1910 the population registered 4,018. The city supported three railroad trunk lines with twenty passenger trains daily, the MK&T division headquarters, municipal lights and water, cheap natural gas, three banks, three grain elevators, nine churches, paved streets and more concrete sidewalks than any city its size in the state, the state's largest single school district, and a germicide water supply for a bathhouse and for bottled shipment. Industries included a cotton oil mill, a cotton gin, an iron foundry, a hardwood company, a cement plant, and a roller mill. Wagoner's population included a large segment of African Americans with a thriving business community of their own. At least six newspapers had served Wagoner by 1910.
Always politically active and predominately Democratic, Wagoner was home in 1912 to the state chair of all three political parties, including T. C. Harrill, Democrat, James A. Harris, Republican, and Edward. L. Moore, Socialist. A large annual fair was held, and horse racing was very popular. Hunting and fishing were widely pursued; game and fowl were shipped to markets in the large cities. Road shows, street fairs, an opera house, and the local band entertained families.
In 1913 the MK&T division moved back to Muskogee, leaving its large complex vacant and creating a large gap in local business. The oil boom to the west took a toll, and the Great Depression dealt a final blow to Wagoner's struggling economy. The population dropped to 3,436 in 1920 and 2,994 in 1930. During this time Pres. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal projects aided the community by setting up a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the south part of town. Works Progress Administration crews built a new elementary school, a courthouse, a National Guard armory (now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, NR 94000490), and a community building; all are still in use.
Wars had a significant impact on Wagoner. Centrally located between Camp Gruber to the south and the Oklahoma Ordinance Works to the north, the town benefited from an influx of workers during the war years, turning the economic tide. With 3,535 residents in 1940, 4,395 in 1950, 4,959 in 1970, 6,191 in 1980, and 6,894 in 1990, Wagoner showed steady growth with each census. In 2000 the population reached 7,669, and it peaked at 8,323 in 2010.
A number of small industries flourished during those years. Garform, pioneer in molded fiberglass boats, was one of the first. Others included manufacturers of rolled metal tubing, fractional horsepower motors, sport shirts, buckets for cherry pickers, parts for cooling towers, telecom towers, and shelters. UNARCO, a shopping cart maker, was Wagoner's largest industry at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Farming was the mainstay of the area until 1950 when dams on the Grand River formed a chain of lakes, providing hydroelectric power but flooding valuable farmland. The McClellan-Kerr navigation channel on the Verdigris River prompted the construction of a grain elevator and brought barge shipping to the area, changing the local crops to marketable grains. Federal subsidies to farmers returned vast areas to pasture.
With the 1950 filling of Fort Gibson Lake came Western Hills State Lodge, marinas, fishing, lake cabins, and an influx of sports enthusiasts and retirees. Wagoner became a recreational and retirement community as well as a "bedroom" community for workers in Tulsa and Muskogee. Wagoner's citizens and the Wagoner County Historical Society have preserved many territorial-era homes (six listed in the National Register of Historic Places), and the city owns a downtown history museum. Annual, city-sponsored celebrations include Summerfest Carnival, Fourth of July in the Park, and Holiday of Lights, featuring home tours and month-long musical entertainment in the Civic Center theater.
Brad Agnew, "Wagoner, I.T.: Queen City of the Prairies," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 64 (Winter 1986–87).
John Downing Benedict, History of Muskogee and Northeastern Oklahoma, Including the Counties of Muskogee, McIntosh, Wagoner, Cherokee, Sequoyah, Adair, Delaware, Mayes, Rogers, Washington, Nowata, Craig, and Ottawa, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1922).
D. C. Gideon, Indian Territory, Descriptive Biographical and Genealogical (New York: Lewis Publishing Co., 1901).
Joseph B. Thoburn, A Standard History of Oklahoma (Chicago: American Historical Society, 1916).
Wagoner County History (Wagoner, Okla.: Wagoner County Extension Homemakers Council, 1980).
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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Shirle Lamb Williams, “Wagoner,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=WA002.
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