By Paul Holley
John H. Dwight’s idea for a new product – the ratchet jack – helped lead to a Racine company’s 80-year run in the auto parts industry.
One day in 1912, Dwight (1881-1933), who had worked at the Mitchell Motor Co., took the opportunity to pitch his idea to William A. Walker (1859-1919) as the two were waiting to take a train from Racine to Chicago. Walker had to first decide whether to pay an additional 60 cents to ride in the parlor car so he could hear what Dwight had to say. Walker bought the extra-fare seat and, ultimately, took on Dwight’s new product.
Walker and his twin sons, Willard T. and Warren H., were the owners of the Racine Economy Spring Co., a manufacturer of bolster springs, seat springs and tongue supports for horse-drawn farm wagons. The Walkers were very interested in developing products for the fast-growing automotive industry. Dwight’s product idea was “a tire saving device” to lift automobiles off the ground for winter storage.
Given the condition of what passed for early highways – and the somewhat flimsy tires on early autos – the tire jack became an important product for the Walkers’ company. Racine Economy Spring changed its name to Walker-Moore Manufacturing in 1912 and to Walker Manufacturing Co. in 1915. The following year (1916), the company had 400 employees and built a new factory at Michigan and Hamilton streets on Racine’s lakefront. That plant would eventually grow to 400,000 square feet.
The Walker-made jacks, for autos, trucks and wagons, were standard equipment for the U.S Army in the years leading up to – and including – World War I. By the 1920s, the Walker Manufacturing product line had grown to include hydraulic jacks, service jacks and wheeled jacks that were sold to automakers and wholesalers.
The Walkers recognized the need to diversify into other auto accessories, particularly replacement auto parts. Working with Earl Gunn, an engineer at Kenosha’s Nash Motor Co., Walker Manufacturing started producing mufflers – originally called silencers – in the early 1930s.
The Walker family lost control of the business in the 1930s Great Depression The subsequent management restored the company’s health by the late ‘40s and grew it to six plants in the Midwest.
Walker Manufacturing was acquired by the Kern County Land Co. conglomerate in 1959. Kern County was, in turn, purchased by another conglomerate, Tenneco Inc., in 1967. By the 1970s, the Walker plants were producing automotive exhaust systems, including catalytic converters, mufflers and manifolds. The company continued to produce jacks throughout the period. The jack production was moved from Racine to Arkansas in 1971. Muffler production ended in Racine in 1978 but the headquarters remained.
Tenneco Automotive commemorated the centennial of Walker Manufacturing (predecessor Racine Economy Spring) in 1988. But, the Racine operations didn’t last much longer. The headquarters were consolidated in Illinois by the mid-1990s and the Racine buildings were torn down. Today, the vacant lakefront site awaits redevelopment.
William Walker, who died in 1919, was posthumously inducted into the Wisconsin Industrial Hall of Fame in 1967.
John Dwight went on to become vice president and general manager of Belle City Malleable. He relocated to Saginaw, Mich., in 1920 to join Saginaw Products Co., an auto parts manufacturer. He died in Michigan in 1933.
(Material for this story came from “Invention City: The Sesquicentennial History of Racine, Wisconsin” published by Racine Heritage Museum -1998; Racine Heritage Museum archives, Ancestry.com and Wikipedia.)
(Gadgets and Geeks is an ongoing series of stories that highlight inventions from Racine County. Pay close attention, because the Racine County Eye will hold an upcoming Gadgets and Geeks Trivia Night. Trivia answers will be gleaned from these stories.)