Walker & Company
Walker & Co. was the ubiquitous outdoor advertising company in Detroit during the first half of the twentieth century. Founded in 1885 by brothers Henry W. and John D. Walker, the small company grew when Henry’s ambitious and innovative son, Harry Collins Walker, joined the company in 1895. By 1913 there were outposts in, Monroe, Mt. Clemens, Ypsilanti, Pontiac, Flint, and Saginaw.
Outdoor advertising became increasingly effective during the 1920s, as more and more people began owning and driving cars. Also during that decade, Walker & Co. bought a former indoor equestrian academy at 88 Custer in the New Center area for its new headquarters. Clients included many top auto manufacturers, department stores, beverage makers, and newspapers. Eventually the company expanded its reach across the state, and it was an early adopter of new technologies such as neon and fluorescent lighting. Both the lighted ball on top of Penobscot Building and the illuminated lettering on top of Ambassador Bridge can be attributed to Walker & Co.
By the 1950s, ninety-five percent of auto company and auto dealer signs were produced by Walker & Co., and it was top five nationally in outdoor advertising. Based on its success, the company soon experienced a series of buyouts. In 1961 a Minneapolis company called Naegle purchased it, selling off out-of-state markets, and modernizing many structures. In 1969, Eller Outdoor of Phoenix bought the company and discontinued the commercial sign division to focus solely on billboards. In 1979, Combined Communications, the parent company of Eller, merged with the Gannett Company of Rochester, NY to become Gannett Outdoor which was the largest outdoor advertising company in the country. The same Gannett currently owns the Detroit Free Press. Since 2006, the legacy of Walker & Co. has continued as CBS Outdoor at the same location on Custer Street where it has been for almost ninety years.
The Detroit Historical Society has a collection of over 700 photos of signs and billboards produced by Walker & Co. which are available on our online digital collection. – D.S.