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Hiram Walker

businessman and town founder

Hiram Walker

Hiram Walker was born in Douglas, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1816, the son of Wllis and Ruth Buffum Walker. He grew up on the family farm, attended the local schools, and moved to Detroit, Michigan, in 1838. He married Mary Abigail Williams on October 5, 1846, and the couple eventually had five sons and two daughters.

After moving to Detroit, Walker tried his hand at several business ventures before finally finding success with the Walker Wholesale and Retail Store, about 1850. The store's primary business was groceries, but Walker began expanding the enterprise almost from the start. He began by distilling and selling his own vinegar, and then expanded his distilling business to include whiskey. Then, knowing that the quality of his whiskey depended in large part on the quality of the grains used, he became involved in the grain-buying and -supplying business.

Move to Canada

In 1855, Michigan passed a law forbidding the sale of liquor by anyone other than a druggist, and only for medicinal purposes. Although the law was never effectively enforced, Walker was concerned enough that he decided to locate his distillery elsewhere. Already familiar with the area around Windsor, Ontario, Canada, because of his grain business, the decision to move across the Detroit River was an easy one, and, in 1856, he purchased 468 acres east of Windsor. By 1859 the property boasted a distillery, steam-driven flour mill, vinegar factory, grocery store, and livestock yards. The latter business grew because the resourceful Walker used the grain leftover from the distilling operation to fatten his and neighbors' livestock.

Birth of a Brand

In Walker's day, distillers sold their products in unmarked barrels, but Walker set a precedent by putting his product in bottles that bore the brand name "Walker's Club Whisky." As his whiskey gained popularity, Walker's U.S. competitors became increasingly nervous and, in 1880, succeeded in getting legislation passed that made it mandatory for the country of origin to be stated on the label. Walker complied with the law by simply renaming his whiskey "Canadian Club." And, thanks to the popularity of Canadian Club, Canada enacted laws governing what can and cannot be legally called Canadian whiskey, with the majority of those laws being based on Walker's whiskey-making process.


In 1861, Hiram Walker moved his family across the Detroit River into a large frame-house, the Cottage, in order to be closer to his operations. In 1864, with all his projects doing well, he returned to Detroit, where he lived for the remainder of his life.

While building his business enterprises, Walker also built a community. Known interchangeably as Walkerville and Walkertown, by 1867 the settlement contained the distillery, a hotel, a store, and “several tenements built by Walker and Co. for the convenience of their employees, which number from eighty to one hundred.” On March 1, 1869, the Canadian government officially recognized Walkerville as a post-office village.

By the early 1880's Walkerville had a population of 600 people, who lived in homes built and owned by Hiram Walker. They worked in Walker-owned industries, drank water pumped through pipes laid by him, received police and fire protection at his expense, and could attend the church built by him (named St. Mary’s in memory of his wife, who had died in 1872). In the absence of a commercial bank, Walker’s employees could deposit their savings in the private Walker bank.

On January 29, 1890, a petition was forwarded to the Ontario legislature requesting Walkerville’s incorporation as a town and citing the significant contributions of the Walker family to the development of the settlement. The act of incorporation was passed on April 7, and Hiram Alexis Walker, a nephew of the founder, became the first mayor. After incorporation, Edward Chandler Walker, Hiram’s eldest son, made his home there in a large mansion, Willistead, and so the Walker influence continued in local matters. Walkerville was annexed into the City of Windsor in 1935.

Other Enterprises

In 1880, Walker leased the ferry Essex from the Jenking Brothers shipyard just below Walkerville and built docking facilities on both sides of the river. Originally established for Walker's convenience, the enterprise became the Walkerville and Detroit Ferry Company in 1888, with Hiram and his sons as its executive officers, and remained in operation until 1942.

Walker also turned his entrepreneurial talents to the task of railway building. The Lake Erie, Essex and Detroit River Railway was incorporated in 1885. By the spring of 1889 the line had been completed as far as Leamington, and in 1901 the railway reached its eastern terminus, St Thomas. The Lake Erie and Detroit River Railway, as it was known then, had become an important line. Many rural people patronized the railway company’s excursions to Detroit and nearby Belle Isle, utilizing Walker’s ferry service in the process. The railway also gave impetus to a new industry -- the shipment of fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish from southern Essex to Detroit and Windsor.

The construction of the railway was followed by the establishment in Walkerville of a large number of industries, among them the Detroit drug firm of Parke, Davis and Company, the Globe Furniture Company, the Walkerville Malleable Iron Company, the Ontario Basket Company, and the Milner-Walker Wagon Works, the forerunner of the Ford Motor Company of Canada. Additional industries moved into the village before the turn of the century, creating an impressive industrial complex along Walker Road.

Walker’s interests in Walkerville failed to absorb all of his energy, and he remained equally active as an entrepreneur in Detroit after his return there in 1864. His name was associated with such enterprises as the Detroit Car Works, the Detroit Transit Railway, the National Bank of Detroit, the Michigan Land and Immigration Company, and the Hamtramck Iron Works. He also owned extensive real estate, including important parcels of land in the central business district, and was a prominent shareholder in the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune, a Republican newspaper.

Later Life

Walker's many businesses initially operated under the corporate umbrella of Hiram Walker and Sons, comprising Hiram and his sons, Edward Chandler, Franklin Hiram, and James Harrington. In 1890, however, it was decided to separate the interests and to that end the several individual companies were incorporated separately. Hiram Walker and Sons Limited continued to be associated with the manufacturing and marketing of distillery products, while most of Walker’s Canadian real-estate holdings were placed under the Walkerville Land and Building Company, and the utilities installed by the Walkers during the early years of the town’s development went under the Walkerville Gas and Water Company Limited.

In 1895, in declining health, Walker retired from his various business interests and transferred his holdings to his three sons. He died in Detroit on January 12, 1899. His sons and grandsons ran Hiram Walker and Sons until 1926, when Harry C. Hatch bought it for $14 million.


Dictionary of Canadian Biography
Walkerville Times Magazine

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This page was last updated on January 12, 2019.