Upfront: OPE industry mourns the loss of a pioneer

By Steve Noe

The outdoor power equipment industry lost one of its finest with the passing of Max Walker, the founder of Walker Manufacturing Company, on Sept. 19. He was 88.

On the day of Max’s passing, company officials, which include his sons Dean and Bob Walker, issued the following statement, “While our hearts are heavy at this time, we do rejoice that Max now stands in the presence of the Lord he loved (and spoke of) so much. Thank you for all of your prayers at this time.”

Max was a fitting name for a man who made the most of his life here on earth. Born in 1923 to Wesley and Eva (Siever) Walker in Elkhart, Kan., and raised from age 2 on the family farm in Fowler, Kan., Max was not satisfied with merely putting in a full day’s work on the farm. At night, he would retreat to a remodeled chicken house/farm shop, where he would pursue his passion of small vehicle design.

“Max had an incredible gift of design, and he always gave the credit to the Lord for the ideas that he had,” said Ryan Walker, one of Max’s grandsons, during the eulogy. “He was able to design not only eye-pleasing products, but also ones that had a unique feature not offered on any other product of that type.”

Although Max had no interest in golf, in 1957, when the batteries in electric golf cars often would not last for an entire round of golf, Max took a salesman friend’s suggestion and built the Walker Executive, one of the first gasoline-powered golf cars. The Executive was well received by golfers for its dependable transportation, and the first units were produced in the farm shop with a hacksaw, cutting torch, electric welder and other hand tools. The resourceful Max even used a fork in a Mulberry tree to make bends in frame tubing.

In 1960-61, a 48-foot by 80-foot factory was built just 100 yards from the family’s farmhouse to accommodate production of the Executive. But as the battery life on electric golf cars started to increase, Max became more interested in getting into a more suitable product and market, so he exited the golf car business, selling his patents to a group in Salina, Kan.

In 1962, Max designed the Walker Power Truck, which was a small runabout vehicle. Due to financial limitations and a lack of local industrial suppliers, Max moved the company in 1968 to Casper, Wyo., where it was sold to several investors. Max remained with the company as an employee in product development, but had no management authority or input. Unfortunately, the company was mismanaged, experienced financial woes, and eventually closed. Max suddenly found himself unemployed.

After landing a $2-per-hour job welding steel frame buildings, Max was approached by a Greeley, Colo.-based company called Byco to develop an agricultural tractor cab cooler in 1971. After designing the cooler, Max sold the plans and patent rights to Byco and eventually raised enough money to buy back his shop equipment that was lost to the bank. Byco gave Max a contract to manufacture the coolers, starting in the summer of 1972. In the fall of 1974, at Byco’s urging to move the Casper-based manufacturing operation closer to Greeley, Walker Manufacturing relocated to Fort Collins, Colo. In 1975, Bob Walker joined the company in January, and Dean Walker followed suit in June. In 1977, while still producing the coolers, Max, Dean and Bob began to design and build a riding lawn mower when they could not find one that satisfied them. After making three prototypes, the Walker Mower was put into production and marketed in 1980. And the rest is history.

Grasshopper Company President Stan Guyer said, “My wife and young (at the time) children stopped in to see the factory in the early years of Walker Manufacturing. They were shutting down for their summer vacation, but Max wouldn’t have us leaving before we shared a cinnamon roll with him and his family — that was just the type of person Mr. Walker was.”

Max was a servant, a friend and a faithful follower of the Holy Scriptures, said Tim Cromley, Walker’s marketing manager. “To anyone who knew him or worked with him, it was easy to see that he was a child of the King, yet he was careful to always recognize his Heavenly Father as his source of blessing, talent and strength,” added Cromley.

Max is survived by his wife of 68 years, Margaret; sons Bob (Barbara) Walker and Dean (Suzanne) Walker; daughters Ruth (David) Saunders and Nina (John) Rattle; a brother, Kenneth Walker; 13 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.

To learn more about the wonderful life of Max Walker, including photos of many of his innovations, visit Walker Manufacturing Company’s website at www.walkermowers.com. Pictured above, from left, Dean, Max and Bob Walker in 2004.

OPE Editor Steve Noe


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