American Ingenuity at its finest. The story of the Walker Mower from its humble beginnings to being a premier zero-turn mower with true, year round productivity.
In 1953, Bob Walker turned 7 years old and received a Christmas gift he would never forget. His dad, Max Walker had really outdone himself. The full-time farmer had put in many hours, after long days on the family farm, to give his son a child's dream - a miniature model Caterpillar. The miniature Caterpillar, later known as the Power Track, was originally powered by pedaling, and then later driven by a 4HP Kohler engine. The Power Track brought hours of enjoyment around the farm for Bob, Ruth, Dean and Nina Walker, but it also served as a powerful demonstration of Max's gift for equipment design.
As a fan of track vehicles like the Caterpillar (Max is shown here in front of one), Max refined the Power Track and it was shown at the Kansas State fair in the late 1950's, receiving quite a bit of interest. There was initial discussion about making the leap into the manufacturing business, but a limited set of tools, equipment, materials and capital prevented any such move at the time. With the experience of the Power Track and the State Fair behind him, and even though he was still farming full-time, it soon became evident that Max was moving on to bigger and better things.
Max's design capabilities were noticed by a salesman friend, who suggested there might be a market for a gasoline-powered golf car. At the time, the batteries in electric golf cars would sometimes not be able to finish an entire round of golf. Max, even though he had no interest in the game itself, designed the Walker Executive Golf Car. The first of its kind, the Executive provided golfers with dependable transportation. The car was well received and production began. The first units were made in the farm shop with a hack saw, cutting torch, electric welder and other hand tools. One of the more unconventional tools used was the fork in a Mulberry tree—Max would use it to make radial bends in frame tubing.
In addition to facing the ongoing challenges of research and development for the golf car, Max still worked full time on the farm while producing golf cars late into the night. In these early years other manufacturers tried to imitate the Walker design, but in this case, they failed to copy a critical component - the driveline. Another unique and coveted feature of the golf car was the tilt-up body. In 1960-1961, a 48' by 80' factory was built about 100 yards from the farmhouse. As the battery life on electric golf cars started to increase, so did Max's interest in getting into a more suitable product and market. The golf car project lasted until 1963 when the patents were sold to a group in Salina, KS. Approximately 1,000 units were eventually produced.
Designed because the golf car was a seasonal product with a rather narrow market, the Power Truck offered year-round production potential and provided more market opportunity. The Power Truck was designed as a run-about vehicle for industry, but some were used for such diverse tasks as mail and pizza delivery. Later, it was adapted for use as a floor scrubber for factories and U.S. Navy aircraft carrier decks. At home, a young Dean Walker was using his Power Truck as a project vehicle and as his main form of transportation. Modified with a special exhaust system, a manual transmission and painted blue, it could often be spotted zipping around Fowler. It appeared that Dean had inherited his dad's gift for engineering.
Financial limitations and a lack of local industrial suppliers drove the company to relocate to Casper, Wyoming. The company was sold to several investors at this time. The new company maintained the name Walker Manufacturing and continued to build the Walker Power Truck. Max stayed on as an employee with no management authority or input and worked in the area of product development. The company was not well managed, which drove it into financial difficulty. The company eventually closed after several years of manufacturing the Power Truck. Max found himself unemployed and had nothing to show for all of his years of hard work.
In Casper, having found a job welding steel building frames for $2/hour, Max was approached by a Greeley, Colorado company (Byco) to develop an agricultural tractor cab cooler. After designing the cooler, he sold the plans and patent rights to Byco and was able to raise enough money to buy back the shop equipment from the bank (lost by the company's new owners). Some of this equipment was original and had been purchased back in Fowler. Byco, in turn, gave Max a contract to manufacture the coolers. Dean assisted in developing tooling and welding fixtures in preparation for the 1972 summer production schedule. Manufacturing went well in Casper at the Walker Manufacturing facility, a former bakery building.
Byco urged Max to move the manufacturing operation closer to Greeley, because supplier materials for the project were mostly coming from Colorado. In the fall of 1974, Walker Manufacturing moved to Fort Collins. Bob joined the company in January of 1975 and Dean joined in June of the same year. Walker Manufacturing settled into a brisk business. Between forty and fifty coolers were manufactured per day with a per unit revenue of about $30. It was not much income, but it was paying the bills when the lawn mower development project began in 1977. During the 11-year period of cooler production, approximately 70,000 coolers were built. The cooler contract ended in 1983, and the lawn mower project was well underway.
After buying two rear-engine riding mowers to mow their personal residences and finding them cumbersome and slow, the Walkers went to work to design and build a lawn mower that was fast, easy to operate and would deliver a beautiful cut. The result was a compact tractor with a pre-manufactured deck and an 11HP engine.
In 1978, because improvements were needed in steering and grass handling, a second prototype was built that incorporated different steering ideas and integrated a blower into the main chassis design. In 1979, a third prototype was built to incorporate hydrostatic transmissions, an 11HP engine and an increased deck size that was Walker's own design with a dual timed blade system with a gearbox drive.
The third prototype mower was shown at fairs and agricultural shows in 1979 and drew positive feedback. In 1980, the decision was made to build the first 25 machines. It was an arduous task, but weld fixtures and hand tooling were completed. Dean and a handful of employees from the cooler business hand built the machines late in the year. In 1981, no mowers were produced, but the few that remained from the 1980 build were sold. Around this time, Max and his wife, Margaret, began to drive around the United States to demonstrate the mower. While on one trip ending in Florida, Max received two orders for a total of 100 tractors, so they came home, ready to get to work. In 1982, one hundred and twenty five mowers were produced.
Walker first attended a national power equipment show in September 1981, and national marketing was undertaken in 1982. Throughout the 1980's, it became evident that the original ideas of a maneuverable, compact mower offering a superior cut would be well-received by commercial cutters and discriminating homeowners alike. The advantages of the out front design emerged quickly as different attachment ideas surfaced. These included a snowblower, rotary broom and a dozer blade. Walker's 1988 introduction of the enclosed gear axle came far ahead of other ZTR competitors. Engine improvements made in the 1980's included the use of Walker's first commercial-grade engine, the 16HP Kohler Magnum.
The early 1990's brought the introduction of compact V-Twin and diesel engines, and Walker took hold of both ideas with the design of the Models MT (Twin) and MD (Diesel). Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI) for small engines emerged in the late 90's and was introduced into the Walker Model MT. All these improvements were made while virtually maintaining the same compact size of the original mower design. Deck sizes and tractor options have also expanded over the years. In 1990, the company moved into a new 76,000 square-foot facility without losing a single day of production (12 mowers a day were built at the time). In 1994, a 40,000 square-foot addition was added to the factory making the production floor a total of 100,000 square feet.
By 1991, Walker Mowers were being well received on a global level, and distribution was established to give support through servicing dealers. On February 28, 1991 Walker's 50 employees built the 10,000th Walker Mower.
In the summer of 2000, to celebrate the production of the 50,000th Walker Mower, 1750 Walker "Family Members" from around the world joined Walker Manufacturing employees at the Walker Mowers Family Reunion in Fort Collins.
In 2002, a factory expansion increased the manufacturing floor capacity to 200,000 square feet. Two major components of this expansion were a state-of-the-art powder coat finishing system and an inventory racking system capable of holding over 1,000 machines. In the area of product design, there was continuous improvement of existing models and introduction of new models. The B series tractor was introduced in 2004 to offer a non-collection machine using either side discharge or mulching decks. These tractors have expanded the Walker line to offer customers a unit competitive with popular mid-mount style machines while offering the advantages of a front-mount deck design.
Walker Mower tractors and decks are built and sold separately. Walker's deck total production number was growing faster than the tractor number, and on April 5, 2006, mower deck 100,000 was built. The company had 149 employees when this milestone was reached.
On September 19, 2011, company founder Wesley "Max" Walker went home to be with the Lord. Max left a legacy of honesty, hard work and a commitment to loving people. Those who worked with Max would describe him as a servant, a friend and a faithful follower of the Bible. It was easy to see that he had the entrepreneurial spirit, yet he was careful to always recognize the Lord as his source of blessing, talent and strength. Walker Manufacturing continues to run under the direction of Max's two sons: Bob oversees the business and marketing areas of the company, and Dean oversees product development and manufacturing operations. The Walker family maintains 100% ownership of the company and is carefully planning for the third generation of Walkers to carry on the business.
Innovations continue to be made to the product line including a focus on better fuel efficiency and improved performance. Efforts continue to be made at the factory to increase efficiency in manufacturing with better machines and improved processes including the implementation of a new manufacturing software operating system. The Walker Mower is distributed throughout the United States and into 28 other countries. We are thankful for the thousands of people who have recognized the benefit of our product and invested in a Walker Mower. We truly enjoy how our product brings people together and the relationships we have formed over the years.