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The lumber baron behind Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center and public library system

Thomas Barlow Walker worked his way through school in a number of professions before gaining knowledge of northern Minnesota forests through a tip.

portrait photo of tb walker
T. B. Walker, ca. 1915.
In the 1850s and 60s, Thomas Barlow (T. B.) Walker worked his way through school and into Minnesota’s lumber industry, where he became unusually successful. He later helped found two of Minneapolis’s significant cultural organizations: the public library system and the Walker Art Center.

T. B. Walker was born in Xenia, Ohio, in 1840. In 1849, his father invested all of the family’s money in a wagon train of supplies, departed for the gold mines of California, and then died in Missouri, losing the entire investment. At just nine years old, Walker had to find work to help support his family. As a result, he had little chance to attend school.

Walker read books whenever he could, however, and when his family moved to Berea, Ohio, in 1856, he enrolled at Baldwin University there. Walker was only able to afford one term per year. He worked the rest of the time and kept up with his studies on his own, particularly excelling in mathematics. His future wife, Harriet Hulet, was a fellow student; they married in 1863.

Walker’s work while in college varied from clerking in a store, to obtaining lumber for railroad ties, to selling grindstones door to door. In 1862, while trying to trace a misplaced shipment of grindstones, Walker came to St. Paul and met James J. Hill, when Hill was still employed as a shipping clerk. On a tip, Walker went to Minneapolis and within the day was employed by George Wright to survey land in northern Minnesota. About the same time, the University of Wisconsin-Madison offered Walker a job as an assistant professor of mathematics, but he decided to go ahead with surveying.

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Walker used the inside knowledge he gained during the 1862 surveying project and other future projects among the pine forests of northern Minnesota to get his start in the lumber industry. He was able to convince investors to partner with him because of what he knew. He formed his first logging company, Butler, Mills and Walker, in 1868.

Walker pulled his money out of Butler, Mills and Walker and paid off his debts before the Panic of 1873. When the economy turned around later in the 1870s, he was well positioned to reinvest. He formed a second larger company, Camp and Walker, which expanded northern logging operations, acquired the Pacific Mill in Minneapolis, and built mills at Crookston and Grand Rapids.

Camp and Walker shut down operations in 1887, and later that year, Walker went into partnership with H. C. Akeley of Michigan. Their firm, Walker and Akeley, built logging railroads across Itasca County to the Red River to get their company’s logs and lumber out of northern Minnesota. Walker founded his other firm, the Red River Lumber Company, with his sons in 1883.

Walker was known as an honorable man who paid his employees well. He experienced very little unrest among his workers related to wages or working conditions.

Walker lived in Minneapolis from 1863 on, despite traveling regularly for work in the mid-to-late 1860s. He was active in many projects related to the growth and development of the city. For example, he built a central commercial market that provided jobs and made Minneapolis a center of wholesale grocery distribution.

Along with Thomas Lowry, Walker was an early supporter of the Minnesota Academy of Science and a founding member of the Minneapolis Library Board. He was president of the Library Board from 1885 until his death. Earlier, he had been active in the Minneapolis Athenaeum, a private subscription library. He strove first to make the Athenaeum’s policies more liberal and friendly to the public and later to place the Athenaeum in partnership with the city’s public library system.

Walker was also an avid art collector, building one of the largest private collections in the region. He installed his collection in dedicated rooms in his house at 8th Street and Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis and allowed the public to see it for free. As his collection grew, he decided to found his own museum, the Walker Art Gallery, which was built at 1710 Lyndale Avenue South on land Walker purchased from Thomas Lowry. The gallery was completed in 1927, before Walker’s death on July 29, 1928. The gallery was reorganized into the Walker Art Center in 1939 and continues to have a lasting cultural impact.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.