Monday, August 15, 2011

Charles Walker

In short, taking into consideration the varied incidents of his active life, his indomitable perseverance and industry, and the financial ability he has exhibited, Mr. Charles Walker has had few equals and no superiors, as a skillful business man and a good citizen.
-Chicago Magazine, March 1857

The Clarke family's relocation to Chicago in 1835 can be largely attributed to the persuasion of Charles Walker. Walker was Henry Brown Clarke's brother-in-law, married to his younger sister Mary (1805-1838). Charles Walker was born February 2, 1802 in Plainfield, Otsego County, New York. He was the oldest son of Colonel William W.  and Lucretia (Ferrel) Walker. Charles had limited education but was a quick learner. He  started school at age six in a log school house built by local farmers. Working his father's farm most of the year, Walker had only three months during the winter to devote to study, doing lessons with a teacher during the day and his parents in the evenings. By age fifteen he became a teacher himself, teaching local children during the winter months. At  eighteen, while still employed as a teacher, he began to study law. The sedentary lifestyle of an attorney did not bode well with Walker's active disposition so, upon the advice of physicians, he soon gave up the law choosing instead to travel the countryside as a livestock buyer for his father.

At age twenty-one his health began to diminish, presumably from excessive time outdoors, and he decided to hire himself out to a friend as a mercantile clerk. Within two months he had mastered the trade and opened his own business in Burlington Flats, New York May of 1824. He soon owned a grist mill, saw mill, potash factory, and tannery in addition to his mercantile. Walker married his wife, Mary Clarke May 8, 1827. He dealt successfully in grain, cattle, and other sundries until 1828 when a large shipment of cheese, butter, and pork, en-route to a southern market, was lost at sea. Walker suffered financially, but was able to grow his business back until 1832 when a decline in prices brought on another blow. Still determined to make it in trade, Walker continued to buy and sell in the New York market.  In spring 1833 he was able to turn a damaged cargo of raw hides from Buenos Aries into a profitable venture by making the leather into boots and shoes for fall Indian payments in Chicago. His brother Almond Walker took these, along with an assortment of guns, boots, shoes, and raw leather to Fort Dearborn in Chicago autumn of 1834.

Realizing the profit to be made out west, Charles Walker set out for Chicago himself in May 1835. Confident in the potential of Chicago as a center of commerce, he purchased several real estate lots, one at the corner of Clark and South Water Streets. Through a partnership with Captain Bigelow of Boston and Jones, King, & Co.Hardware, Walker bought the land for $15,000 cash. That spring he purchased hides in St. Joseph which he added to the other goods picked up in Chicago, which he sent back to New York. The total shipment was said to be the first from the state of Illinois to be sent as far east as Utica or Albany.

In June 1835 he returned to Chicago with his brother-in-law, Henry Brown Clarke. While Clarke purchased land for his own estate, Walker introduced him to local business associates which undoubtedly secured Clarke employment with Jones. King, & Co. when he returned with Caroline and their two sons in October. Walker also returned to Chicago in 1836 to establish the firm Walker & Co. with brother Almond Walker and brother-in-law Eri Baker Hurlburt, Esq (also spelled Hulbert, 1807-1852) a general store on South Water Street that dealt in importing animal husbandry implements and household goods from the east. Even with his primary business affairs in Chicago, Walker continued to reside in New York.

When the panic of 1837 hit Chicago, Walker was one of few who remained in business. He was able to satisfy his debts and keep a good reputation, which enabled him to actually grow his operations during a time of economic downturn. He used depreciated Western money, still accepted and circulated in Chicago, to purchase large quantities of goods, then shipped the items to his Eastern creditors as barter payment avoiding any transmutation of currency. Walker's success allowed him to help Henry and Caroline when they experienced financial trouble in the late 1830s, saving them from foreclosure on their house. Although financially secure, Walker experienced personal tragedy with the death of his wife Mary in June 1838. He was remarried in 1841 to Nancy Bently (d.1881) at Lebanon Springs, New York. His new wife and son Charles H. Walker (by Mary) left from Otsego County, New York and permanently took up residence in Chicago May, 1845.

Despite the assistance from Walker, Henry Brown Clarke declared bankruptcy in 1842. That same year Walker formed the firm Walker & Clarke in Buffalo with Henry's younger brother Cyrus Clarke, Esq. (1806-1884) of Utica, New York. Walker was chosen as a director for the Galena Railroad in 1847. Another financial crisis occurred the same year, this time in the grain trade, but Walker's ventures again endured so that by 1851 C. Walker & Son of Chicago (formed with his son), Walker & Kellog of Peoria, and Walker & Clarke of Buffalo were among the largest purchasers of grain from farmers in the United States. He served as second president of the Chicago Board of Trade from 1849 to 1851.

Ad for Walker & Clarke, 1853.

Charles Walker contracted cholera around 1851 and was forced to leave the management of his affairs to his son Charles. He recovered, but the toll of illness lead him to retire from business altogether in 1855. In 1856 he served as president and director of the Chicago, Iowa & Nebraska line, intended to be a continuation of the Galena railroad. Charles Walker died in Chicago June 28, 1869 leaving a lasting legacy as one of Chicago's early businessmen but more importantly, as a dear friend and devoted kinsman to the Clarke family.

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