Biography of Thomas Barlow Walker of Minneapolis Minnesota

Thomas Barlow Walker, born on February 1, 1840, in Xenia, Ohio, was a significant philanthropist and pioneer in Minneapolis. The son of Platt Bayliss and Anstis Barlow Walker, he overcame early hardships following his father’s death in 1849. Walker initially sold grindstones and later undertook surveying and timber ventures. In 1863, he married Harriet G. Hulet and moved to Minneapolis, where he invested in pine lands and established successful lumber mills. Walker’s business ventures and charitable contributions, along with his wife’s philanthropy, notably impacted Minneapolis’s development. They had eight children and were deeply involved in various community and national causes.

Thomas Barlow Walker, philanthropist, was born in Xenia, Greene county, Ohio, February 1, 1840, the second son and third child of Platt Bayliss and Anstis Barlow Walker. The Walkers were of English stock and settled during the early history of the country in New Jersey. His father left that state early in life for New York. The Barlows were also of sturdy parentage. His maternal grandfather was Thomas Barlow, of New York, and two of his uncles were for many years judges, Thomas in New York, and Moses in Ohio. His father died en route to California in 1849, and his mother was left to struggle with adversity with her four young children.

The boy, who has since won recognition among men, was but nine years of age, and adversity stared the whole family in the face. The excellent mother never gave up hope for one instant but set out to give her children the best education possible. It was hard times for a while, and Thomas helped as well as he could, by selling papers, cutting wood, doing odd jobs in the stores. However, it was evident that when he undertook to pick berries or do similar work, he would hire other boys to work for him and pay them a certain amount for each quart picked. He seldom failed to realize a profit on his enterprises.

When the lad was sixteen, the family moved to Berea, a town a few miles outside Cleveland, Ohio, to be near Baldwin University, where Thomas hoped to complete his education. But these hopes were never fully realized, as the scarcity of money compelled him to go to work. For a while, he clerked in a store.

With the little money he had saved, he entered college, expecting to work his way through. Once he bought a piece of timber on speculation and hired fellow students to help him cut the timber. This venture yielded some returns but not enough to enable him to complete his course, and shortly afterward he accepted an offer from Mr. Hulet to go on the road and sell Berea grindstones. Berea grindstones had never sold so well before young Walker went out with them, and orders for them came in thick and fast. But all the time during which he traveled, he carried two grips with him: one containing his wardrobe; the other, much heavier, held his books, which he studied at every opportunity.

Such was his diligence that he found time to keep up with his classmates, and when the examinations came at the end of the school year, he always stood at the top. During his whole course at college, he could only afford time for one term in the year. Yet, he was so earnest in his endeavors to learn that he was not content with acquiring all the knowledge the textbooks contained but also read and understood every work on the subject he could obtain. He excelled particularly in the higher branches of mathematics: Newton’s Principia, Astronomy, Chemistry, and other related subjects found a devoted adherent in the young man.

In 1869, when he was nineteen years old, he undertook a contract that would have presented insurmountable difficulties to even an old, experienced business person. He was then selling grindstones at Paris, Illinois, where the Terre Haute & St. Louis Railroad Company was building their line. Without friends, capital, or credit at the local bank, he took up a contract to supply the railroad with cross ties and other lumber. He obtained credit at the bank, bought timberlands, built boarding camps for his crews, and soon had things booming. Prospects were bright, and his profits would have been considerable considering his only capital when he started was plenty of nerve and self-reliance. However, at the end of eighteen months, the railroad company failed, and he was left with only a trifling fraction of what he had earned.

With a few hundred dollars he had saved, he returned home, where he began teaching school. In this vocation, as in everything he ever undertook, he was successful.

The Civil War having disrupted the school at Berea and paralyzed business, young Walker became a member of an artillery company and waited for several weeks to get into camp in Cleveland. Having failed to secure admission to the company, it became necessary to find employment, and for this purpose, he went West, through Michigan and Wisconsin. He applied to the president of the board of regents of the State University of Wisconsin for the position of assistant teacher in mathematics, which the president found him fully competent to fill. While waiting for the decision of the board, he went to McGregor, Iowa, and there he met J.M. Robinson of Minneapolis, who gave him a glowing account of the new town of Minneapolis, “ten miles above St. Paul.” He decided to come to Minnesota to engage in a surveying enterprise with Mr. George B. Wright of Minneapolis. Having arrived there and met Mr. Wright, he engaged to go on the government survey. Soon after starting from Minneapolis toward the frontier, Mr. Walker received the appointment of assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin. However, since he had already engaged in the surveying work, he refused to change his decision. Thus, it seems that Minnesota has acquired the lifelong citizenship of Mr. Walker through an incident of his meeting with Mr. Robinson.

Mr. Walker took passage on the first steamboat for St. Paul, bringing with him a consignment of grindstones. There he met an unusually intelligent and energetic young man, employed by the transportation company as a clerk and workman on the wharf, who has been a firm and trusted friend ever since. That young man was James J. Hill. From St. Paul, Mr. Walker came over the only railroad in the state to Minneapolis, and within an hour of his arrival, he entered the service of George B. Wright. The surveying expedition was soon abandoned owing to an Indian outbreak, and returning to Minneapolis, Mr. Walker devoted the winter to his books, having desk room in the office of L.M. Stewart, an attorney. The following summer was occupied in examining the lands for the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. In the fall, he returned to his home in Berea, Ohio, where he was married on December 19, 1863, to Harriet G., the youngest daughter of Hon. Fletcher Hulet, a lady whose name is synonymous in Minneapolis with good works. Returning to Minneapolis, Mr. Walker embarked upon an active career that made him not only a participant in but the chief promoter of many good works and enterprises in the city. In the summer of 1864, he ran the first trial line of the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad, after which he gave attention for years to the government survey. In 1868, he began to invest in pine lands, thus laying the foundation for the large fortune he subsequently acquired. His first partners in the business were L. Butler and Howard W. Mills, under the firm name of Butler, Mills & Walker. The first two provided the capital, while Mr. Walker supplied the labor and experience. This led to the extensive manufacture of lumber by the old firm of Butler, Mills & Walker, later L. Butler & Co., and later still Butler & Walker. In recent years, his most important operations in this regard have been his large lumber mills at Crookston and Grand Forks, both of which have been leading factors in the development of the Northwest. Mr. Walker’s business career has been characterized by strict integrity and honorable dealing.

This sketch would be incomplete if it failed to record the beneficial and sustaining influences that have surrounded Mr. T. B. Walker’s home life, as well as the valuable assistance accorded to him by his wife and children.

Mrs. T. B. Walker, with her truly Christian, motherly nature, possesses exceptional talent, thoroughly practical ideas, and a high degree of executive ability. She has always devoted her best efforts and true devotion to her husband, children, and home. While fulfilling her duties diligently, she has also been actively involved in numerous charitable and philanthropic works for many years.

As a wise counselor and loyal supporter, she has consistently exerted a sustaining and stimulating influence on her husband. Those who have personally acquainted themselves with her or witnessed the results of her life’s work do not hesitate to place her in the front rank among the most capable, efficient, and admirable women of this country. In the latest publication of the National Encyclopedia of American Biographies, a highly commendatory sketch of her life is included. Out of the multitude of individuals mentioned in the six large quarto volumes of this standard work, only about four or five other women are included. While never neglecting or slighting any of the details pertaining to the rearing, training, and welfare of her large family of eight children, she has been at the forefront of planning, developing, and managing many significant public and charitable works. Additionally, she has played a prominent role in matters of national importance. With great energy, she has combated all forms of intemperance, especially the blight of the liquor curse. She was the principal figure in planning, establishing, and maintaining the Northwestern Hospital, of which she has continuously served as president for the past twenty-five years, dedicating much of her time and resources to its advancement. She is the sole surviving originator of the Bethany Home, and despite facing numerous discouraging circumstances, she has been largely responsible for the construction, supervision, and perpetuation of that highly beneficial and important charitable institution. She was also one of the primary founders of the Women’s Council, which was successfully maintained for many years, with her serving as its president for a significant part of its existence.

She has freely given her time and resources to assist the unfortunate, particularly women and children. The number of such appeals has often been overwhelming and continuous, making it truly remarkable that she has found time to attend to other responsibilities. For years, she has pushed herself to the limit, managing her family and household affairs while remaining ready to respond to repeated calls for meaningful work. Her character, energy, remarkable judgment, clear understanding of home and public affairs have been vital in shaping her sons and daughters and preparing them for successful and purposeful lives. It is difficult to find a more ideal family anywhere in this country, where the father, mother, and children live exemplary lives, devoted to and considerate of each other, and striving to make significant contributions to humanity. Mrs. Walker’s role in the development of this family life is equally important to that of her husband, and she deserves and receives an equal share of credit for the successes that have rewarded the efforts of her husband and children.


C.F. Cooper & Company, History of the Red River Valley, Past And Present: Including an Account of the Counties, Cities, Towns And Villages of the Valley From the Time of Their First Settlement And Formation, volumes 1-2; Grand Forks: Herald printing company, 1909.

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