The Life and Times of James Frederick Wardner

He was a wandering soul; the only reason he stayed anywhere for long was to make money — or lose it.

James Frederick Wardner: 1846 - 1905

James Frederick Wardner: 1846 - 1905

Jim Cameron

Things are a little slow in the town of Wardner, B.C., these days. Not like it once was. It’s the same in Wardner, Idaho, population somewhere around 100.

Both towns were named for Jim Wardner, who really didn’t stick around either place for long, although he spent a fair amount of time in the Kootenays and was well-known in Cranbrook in his day.

He was a wandering soul; the only reason he stayed anywhere for long was to make money — or lose it — or to visit an old friend or make a new one, have a laugh and a drink or two, make some plans and tell some stories. Jim Wardner enjoyed a good story and, as it turns out, one of the best was his life.

He was born on May 19, 1846, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a youth he was restless and relatively unschooled, with a love for animals and a passion for doing business, any business, and if it made him some money in the bargain then so much the better.

Jim began raising and selling rabbits at age eight and stuck with it for five years, about the longest stretch he stuck with any single occupation. At age 13 he became a clerk in the I.N. Morton Drug Store where he gradually learned the pharmaceutical trade to the point that he was taken on as a hospital steward with the 39th Regular Wisconsin Volunteers in 1863, fighting for the Union in the American Civil War.

Generally relegated to the rear lines, his only contact with the enemy came near Memphis, Tennessee, when Nathan Bedford Forrest and his raiders attacked the regiment.  According to his autobiography “Jim Wardner of Wardner, Idaho” — an entertaining read if ever there was one — the Wisconsin Volunteers “started like broncos before a cloudburst and fled five miles to safety.” Jim, remaining behind to help with the wounded, avoided capture by hiding in a big bake oven for “ten of the longest hours ever passed” before he safely rejoined his comrades.

Following his discharge at the end of the war, Jim paid a quick visit home and then moved on to New York City. The only job available was night clerk in a drugstore in the notoriously crime-ridden “Five Points” neighbourhood where most of his sales involved morphine, opium and other such legal “medicines.” He supplemented his income by selling photographs of his new-found friend, local saloon-keeper John Allen, dubbed by the NY Times “the Wickedest Man in New York.” Jim quit his regular job to implement a series of lectures throughout the area featuring John Allen but was foiled when Mr. Allen died rather suddenly.

Jim then undertook a stint as an assistant to an unnamed “Tapeworm Specialist” who supplied prescriptions to “no less than ten women a day … who paid — according to the doctor’s ability to size her up — twenty-five to fifty dollars,” a goodly sum in the 1860s.

Always eager for a chance to further himself, Jim purchased the exclusive rights to sell a newly invented “Anti-Cow-Kicking Milking Machine” in the State of Wisconsin. The enterprise suited his purposes nicely as he had been corresponding with Mary Hadley, a young Milwaukee lady with whom he made plans to wed on his trip through. As luck would have it, it also allowed him the opportunity to demonstrate the wondrous milking machine for the first time. It was, in fact, a specially constructed bright red, nickel-plated tripod stool upon which his future mother-in-law’s maid was knocked senseless by his future mother-in-law’s cow, shattering both the invention and his patent hopes in the process.

Luckily both the maid and the wedding plans survived and he took himself a wife of inestimable patience and perseverance.

Jim once again entered the pharmacy business as a partner in the Palace Drug Store in Boston, until the prospect of visiting an uncle out west proved greatly preferable to facing the wrath of a customer cast into spasms by Jim’s assistant who prescribed the wrong drug. He duly found himself in Los Angeles, “a quaint, old Spanish-Mexican town of few pretensions and less attractions,” dabbling in real estate and fruit farming, both of which proved very profitable shortly after he gave them up.

A friend from his Milwaukee rabbit-raising days convinced him to invest in a wild hog farm on open parkland near San Diego, only to discover that the 500 porkers promptly scattered throughout the San Julian Mountains and, when occasionally spotted, proved too wild and dangerous to capture.

A return to Los Angeles soon sent him in another direction, one that he would follow for the rest of his life and one in which he would make his fame and fortune. His fame would invariably increase; his fortune would remain somewhat more erratic.

Introduced to a promising proposition in Ivanpah, Arizona, he invested heavily in his first mine, from which employees would pack ore 260 miles west to Los Angeles, much of it across the harsh Mojave Desert. It proved a decent money-maker until an entire pack train of 25 animals and five packers was massacred by rampaging Apache Indians. That was enough for Jim to pull up stakes and move to safer ground.

Now, if all this seems a little on either side of believable, and no doubt Jim Wardner would be the first to admit to the possibility, consider that it was small potatoes compared to the latter half of his life in which Jim found himself in numerous remarkable (and reasonably well documented) circumstances in which he invariably landed on his feet, sometimes very rich, sometimes flat broke, but always with an eye to the next card in the deck.

Next Week: Jim Wardner, the National Candy Bank, Black Cats and a Jackass.