Robert Long Walker (1835 – 1919)

Mr. Walker was born in Trumbull County, Ohio on June 7, 1835 and died on the same date 84 years later. He is now resting in the Riverside Cemetery immediately behind the Speakers Rostrum. At the age of 17 he left Poland Academy and worked on his father’s farm in Liberty Township until enlisting in Company D, 52nd Ohio National Guard. After serving 100 days he returned to farming. On November 6, 1856 Mr. Walker was married to Almira Powers (1835-1918) of Austintown and they had a son, John (1857-1928) and a daughter, Clara (1859-1950). In 1874 Mr. Walker entered into the banking business by forming Poland’s Farmer’s Deposit and Savings Bank and was instrumental in the erection of the 3-story brick building now located at 410 South Main Street. In April 1875 he moved his family to Poland and built the magnificent Victorian house that now stands at the corner of Riverside Drive and Main Street. Walker was described as coming from good Scotch-Irish stock. He was kindly, honest, and at one time the wealthiest man in Poland. Although starting out as a farmer, Mr. Walker had gained his wealth during the Civil War period by prospecting and mining coal. Back then it was common practice for farmers living in Mahoning County to lease their farms to mining companies that in turn sold the coal to the iron industries just starting in the Valley. In many cases these mines brought in more money than raising cattle or growing crops. Thus was the beginning of the industrial revolution and the decline of agriculture as a way of life in America.

When William McKinley returned home from the Civil War, he looked up his boyhood friend, Robert Walker, and borrowed enough money to attend law school. Mr. Walker admired his old school chum and took pride in calling him “The Major”. He was only too willing to be of assistance whenever McKinley needed cash. From the very beginning of McKinley’s political career Robert Walker was his chief financial backer. Each time McKinley would pay back the loan from his salary as Congressman and then as Governor of Ohio. Robert Walker was a staunch Republican and once served as the Mayor of Poland. In 1870 he was elected to the Board of Trustees of the Poland Cemetery Association and served devotedly until 1894.

In 1880 young Ida Tarbell came to Poland to teach at Union Seminary. The Walkers welcomed her into their home and treated her as one of the family for the next two years. Ida became a life-long friend of Clara, the Walker’s daughter, and remembers her fondly in her 1939 autobiography entitled “All In The Day’s Work”. It is through her close relationship with the Walker Family that we learn of the sad events that led to the collapse of the Robert L. Walker fortune just prior to McKinley’s 1896 presidential campaign.

Many historians would like you to believe the collapse began with Walker asking Major McKinley to endorse a note for $17,000 to tide him over a temporary embarrassment. We are told that McKinley was trusting to a fault and without scrutiny or investigation would sign every renewal that Robert Walker presented. We are also told that the notes were “in blank” and Walker used them in a desperate effort to forestall his financial collapse. Political historians sometimes shade the truth or ignore the facts entirely.

What these historians failed to mention was that Congressman McKinley, while in congress, supported a tariff on tin plate. So sure was he that the tariff would become law that he encouraged Robert Walker, his oldest and most loyal friend, to establish a stamping plant in Youngstown for the making of tin ware. The Major also suggested that Walker take with him as a partner McKinley’s brother-in-law, Andrew Jackson Duncan of Poland. As Duncan had no money to invest, McKinley gave Walker a sheaf of signed notes to be used whenever he needed more money. It was not the nature of Walker to refuse anything that the Major suggested.

Robert L. Walker had experience as a farmer, a coal operator, and as a banker. He was not trained as an industrialist; however, he did start the stamping plant in 1890 just as the long depression of the nineties was beginning. Money was tight and Walker was forced to use the Major’s notes. Walker soon found that he had embarked on a hopeless undertaking. In 1893 the works closed with McKinley losing $100,000. This amount was more than the combined fortune of McKinley and his wife. When word of the plant closing reached McKinley, he rushed back to Youngstown and was met at the train station by his old war comrade, Major James L. Botsford. McKinley was straightforward with his friend. He had signed the notes and he must now give up politics, go back to law, and pay his honest debts. On the other hand the National Republican Committee was counting on McKinley to win the Presidential election for them in 1896 and they were not about to allow McKinley to drop out of politics. The $100,000 was small peanuts compared to what the Republicans expected from McKinley’s election. The money was quickly raised by the Republicans who explained that William McKinley had become a victim of “a man named Walker” who had deceived the Major and had betrayed his confidence. The Republican committee put on Robert Walker the stigma of fraud and sadly McKinley never denied their presentation. Walker’s reputation as a banker was destroyed by McKinley’s silence.
This story does not end here. Clara Walker kept the accounts of McKinley and her father. When she went to work the morning after the failure was announced, she found that all of her books had disappeared along with many papers that belonged to the firm. She later confided in Ida Tarbell that no note was ever cashed without first consulting with McKinley and that Andrew Duncan knew what was going on in the enterprise at all times. When asked to give his side of the story, Walker refused by saying that “nobody would ever believe the Major could do anything wrong. I didn’t.” In 1895 Walker was forced to sell his house on Riverside Drive and all the land to the east and behind the Union School to
Dr. C. R. Justice. Now that both Robert Walker and William McKinley have been dead and buried these many years I feel bound to tell their story as I believe it happened. I make no apologies to those readers who hold the former U.S. President in high esteem.