Learn how one family went literally from “bags to riches” and how a son honored his mother’s legacy by naming after her one of Salt Lake’s most noted buildings.
When Izzi Wagner lost his father, he was just sixteen. Life was hard for his mother Rose, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe. It was 1931, and she and her children got to work collecting old burlap bags to mend for sale to local merchants. They sold bags in any quantity and accommodated virtually everyone who came to their door. Even those with no cash, such as truck farmers who paid up after the farmer’s market closed for the day. The adobe house Rose bought on Third South in downtown Salt Lake City was both home and shop, and the Wagner Bag Company began to thrive, even in the midst of the Great Depression.
In the late 1950s, the company expanded into manufacturing, and exchanged burlap for cardboard packaging. Izzi and his older brother Abe moved the shop to Third West where it eventually merged with St. Regis Paper for millions in cash and stock. Izzi continued as manager of the new plant, which became the largest independent distributor of industrial packaging in the Salt Lake Valley.
The famed “bags-to-riches” legacy of the Wagner Family, however, is just one chapter in Izzi’s story. He put his distinctive stamp on everything – from helping to build Salt Lake’s Symphony Hall to relocating the Jazz basketball team to Utah. But late in his life he wanted to honor the memory of his mother Rose, as well as his wife, Jeanné, a former Vaudeville actress who had died unexpectedly. The old adobe home on Third South was long gone, but in its place, the Wagner family helped build the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, which opened in 1999.
Today, the Rose Wagner is a busy, efficient art center with six resident performing arts companies, who put in hours of rehearsals and hard work in order to entertain the public. Rose – whose love for music, theater, and dance was never shaken by the hard work she did to care for her children – would be proud.
See Don Gale, Bags to Riches: The Story of I.J. Wagner, University of Utah Press, 2007; Dawn House, “Wagner Bag Co. Celebrates 100-Year Anniversary,” Salt Lake Tribune, June 8, 2012; I.J. “Izzi” Wagner obituary, Salt Lake Tribune, 2005.