Hidden History: Family builds fence wire empire from Melvern headquarters – Osage County Online | Osage County News

Hidden History: Family builds fence wire empire from Melvern headquarters

By Wendi Bevitt

If only for a moment in time, Melvern was famous, made that way by the ingenuity of the Warner family and the farm equipment empire they began there.

Priscilla Warner and her husband Emery began their married life in Tazewell County, Illinois. When the Civil War began, Emery signed up to fight for the Union and served as a drum major with an Illinois regiment. Tragedy struck the family and Emery perished from fever in New Orleans in 1863.

Not long after the war ended, newly widowed Priscilla Warner was looking for a place to start over. Flat broke; she packed up her possessions and her five boys and headed from Illinois to the newly opened Indian lands in Kansas. In 1870, she settled on Sand Creek near Waverly. She spent the last of her limited funds on a cook stove, sack of flour and strip of meat for her family.

Priscilla and her boys took on the Kansas prairie, making a living by farming. The oldest son, Charles E. “C.E.” Warner, not a fan of farming, took up carpentry to bring in extra money for the family.

The family’s industrious nature eventually led to inventions that not only benefitted themselves, but other farmers. Son William H. Warner used his skills and invented the first successful hog fence in 1894. The Warner style had an interlocking weave on top, with a string of barbed wire at the bottom to prevent hogs from burrowing under. This was an immediate goldmine for farmers. Coupled with C.E.’s invention of a machine to speed up the manufacture of the fence, as well as his invention of the interlock fencing tie to solve the problem of wires slipping, the Warners were launched into a whole new realm of business by 1899.

Demand for their product was there – they opened factories in both Waverly and Melvern. C. E. Warner and his son Eugene L. “Gene” operated the factory at Waverly, and William H. and Richard E. operated the factory at Melvern. The factory at Melvern operated 10 fencing machines, and employed 16 individuals during the winter months.

The company’s output in 1899 was 250,000 rods, which meant $60,000 worth of business for the Warner Fence Company. Business was so good they began the push to expand again, branching out to a plant in Pueblo, Colo., with stocking centers in Brazil, Ind., San Francisco, Los Angeles, Lincoln, Neb., and Guthrie, Okla.

The need soon became to expand to a much bigger plant. The towns of Emporia, Melvern and Ottawa were considered as possibilities, but ultimately Ottawa won the bid because of its ability to provide superior shipping facilities for the burgeoning company.

At this point, the production centers at Waverly and Melvern joined together at the Ottawa plant. C. E. and Gene took over responsibility for the merged location.

William H. was the company’s treasurer but kept ties to the Melvern community, serving as its mayor and engaging in banking there. The company soon employed two shifts of a total of 100 men. The demand was unlimited because of the variety of fence produced. Fence prices ranged from $1 to $7 per rod.

The Warner Company plant at Ottawa, as depicted in local newspaper.

Eventually more buildings went up on the campus, which was on the north end of Ottawa, the largest being 94,000 square feet. The Ottawa plant would produce castings of gas engines, fence, gates, pump jacks, gasoline sawing machines, pumps, windmills, and castings of all kinds, including novelty items such as wire hammocks for a short period of time.

The Warner company reportedly became the largest woven wire fence factory in America, with its principal competitor as the U.S. Steel Corporation. U.S. Steel was formed 1901 and produced two-thirds of the nation’s steel products. There were only about a dozen other companies in U.S. producing like products – only four of these were west of the Mississippi River.

During World War II, the facilities were converted to manufacture gun parts for the U.S. Army. The tide began to change for the company when the promise of the use of their cross-cut saw to the U.S. armed forces for use in jungle (engagements) was crushed by the development of the portable chainsaw. Their gas powered engines had brought power to farmers even before farms had electricity.

Gene Warner’s death in 1951 was a further shock to the company. His wife continued to run the business for a few months, but finally sold out to the Comfort Equipment Company. When the flood of 1951 covered the plant in eight feet of water, it delivered the final blow from which the company was not to recover.

Today, only about half of the original Warner buildings remain in Ottawa.

Though long gone, the Warner family’s inventions and products not only brought fame to Melvern, the company also changed the world of farming and fencing for Kansas and the Midwest.

Warner Fence Company newspaper ads

Photos of family members and Warner plant in Ottawa from The Evening Herald, Feb. 9, 1909; Warner fencing ads, Ottawa Daily Republic, March 27, 1906, and March 20, 1909.

wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She has lived in Osage County for 18 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.

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