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     Pheasant opener: 1919, South Dakota’s first pheasant season, a one-day affair when roughly 1,000 hunters bag 200 birds. – Pheasants Forever

When you talk about pheasant hunting traditions, the Wagner family must be at the top of the list.

Last weekend’s opener was the 100th for a family whose hunting history goes back a century, a year after South Dakota held its first pheasant hunting season in Spink County near Redfield in 1919.

When the state expanded the ringneck season to include the entire state in 1920, two brothers, John and Tony Wagner, started a family tradition that has been a fall highlight each year since then.

“I always say, if it isn’t the truth, it ought to be,” said Dennis Wagner, grandson of the founder, in telling me of the family’s plans to get together for the autumn outing and to celebrate a centennial rare in the state’s history.

The hunt is in the heart of pheasant country, still on Wagner land, a mile and half south of diagonal highway SD262 that connects Alexandria and Emery.

But there’s much more to this story than pheasant hunting and family tradition, and it’s tied to one of the toughest times in our state’s history.

At the time of the first hunt, the land belonged to Henry J. Wagner, father of John and Tony. Henry was then the president of the Farmers State Bank in Alexandria. The bank was forced to close in 1933, one of many across the state and nation, and never reopened.

Henry died three years later and it was his will that was later discovered to be so remarkable.

“It was standard, except for the last part, which listed all those promissory notes that had been made to the bank,” Dennis said. “Henry bought those notes from the bank when it failed, and it was something that lessened the economic hardship of neighbors and friends in Hanson County.”
Dennis, who grew up in Alexandria, also entered the banking field after graduating from the University of Denver with a triple major in economics, United States history and political science. His career took him to Colorado, Madison, and finally, Rapid City, where he has been for 20 years.

But it’s the family ties, strengthened in large part by the pheasant hunt, that has been the constant.

There are countless stories about pheasant hunting in South Dakota. The best ones aren’t about the birds bagged or the best shots.

How pheasant hunting brings families together, at least once a year – sort of like Christmas — is what warms my heart.

Oct. 23, 2019