A hailstorm is credited with sparking Herbert Wagner’s most popular business idea.
When a storm damaged the crop at his longtime orchard, Jim’s Apple Farm, near the southern Minnesota town of Jordan, Wagner — better known as Hippy — knew he needed something else to set his business apart. And a lot of yellow paint.
In the 10 years since Wagner opened Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store, the family’s iconic big yellow barn on Hwy. 169 has become a popular destination for visitors across the country. Inside, past shelves stacked with thousands of soda flavors and hundreds of saltwater taffies, visitors would find Hippy baking pies as polka music played overhead.
The family business lost its idea man, chief pie baker and patriarch when Wagner died Nov. 21 at the age of 91.
“He wasn’t doing it for the money,” said son Robert Wagner of Belle Plaine. “This was the game; it was the fun.”
The serial entrepreneur got the business bug while helping run his family’s restaurant as a kid, then selling homemade fudge. After World War II — where he served in the U.S. Merchant Marine, including at the Battle of the Bulge — he and his family opened Wagner’s Supper Club, then an apple orchard in the 1950s. The orchard did well, also selling pumpkins and squash out of their yellow barn.
“Business was just in his blood,” Robert Wagner said.
After a hailstorm hit, Hippy knew he had to rely on more than apples, so he and his son tried out a mini grocery store. Then a convenience store. Then knickknacks and stuffed animals. Each one flopped. Until they set up tables of candy.
“Candy took hold,” Robert Wagner said.
Since then, a dozen additions have made room for rare candy, peanut brittle or 49-cent packs of candy cigarettes. While Hippy had studied architectural design, the store design didn’t matter much beyond the yellow paint he insisted on for the barn and fences lining Hwy. 169.
“He understood it needed to be big and bright,” Robert Wagner said. “He had a quirky approach to retail.”
In an era of trendy marketing and online shops, the store stands as an unintentional throwback to the past, forgoing a phone number, website and credit card machines.
“To my dad, that was just a fad,” said Robert Wagner, known for his red suspenders. “It’s a simpler store going back to a simpler time. That’s just the way he was.”
And tracking inventory? Not a chance. There’s only the serendipity of what flavor of licorice or root beer is in stock.
Hippy was a mainstay of the business, quietly baking pies, making fudge or overseeing 10,000 apple trees. At first, he didn’t like that his accidental candy attraction had usurped his orchard in fame, but while candy draws people there, he — and dentists everywhere — can take comfort in knowing apples still remain a hit at the seasonal store.
“He was someone who lived the American dream,” said his daughter, Mary W. Zbaracki of Duluth. “He was a kind, generous person.”
With his German and Polish work ethic, Hippy worked nonstop and was also a school board member and religious instructor near where he and his wife of 67 years, Dolores, raised 10 children. He also took pride in an extensive library and developing one of the first solar heating operations.
This year, he worked 161 consecutive days until Nov. 9, when only a stroke could take Hippy Wagner away from the work he loved.
Besides his wife, son and daughter, he’s survived by children Anne Sanquini of Saratoga, Calif., Joseph Wagner of Jordan, James Wagner of Edina, Anthony Wagner of Little Canada, William Wagner of Chaska and Gerald Wagner of Belle Plaine; seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Services will be at noon Saturday at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Jordan.