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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published June 16 2012

Did You Know: Fargo printer became successful promoter in North Dakota

A Fargo printer became one of the most successful promoters this state has ever witnessed. At first, C.P. “Con” Walker organized highly successful baseball teams. After becoming manager of the Fargo Opera House, he started enlisting and managing a number of opera houses in North Dakota, Minnesota and Canada. In time, Walker “owned and operated the longest chain of legitimate theaters on the continent.” He created what became known in show business as “The Breadbasket Circuit.” Through his ownership and/or management of a line of theaters located between Minneapolis and the West, Walker was able to book the same plays, concerts and performers that were bringing rave reviews in New York.

Corliss Powers Walker was born Sept. 19, 1853, in Poultney, Vt., to Mary (Gleed) and Jason Foster Walker, a Methodist minister. The Rev. Walker was known as a progressive who “formed an Independent Religious Society that flourished” because of his “magnetic and fascinating influence.” Finding himself out-of-step with the established Methodist teachings, the Rev. Walker became an Episcopalian priest and decided to establish a church out west. When Corliss was 7, the family first stopped in Wisconsin and, eventually, settled in Rochester, Minn., where he grew up and received his education.

In 1870, Corliss traveled to Winona, Minn., where he got a job as an apprentice for a printer who edited and published the town newspaper. According to his daughter, Ruth Walker Harvey, in her autobiography, “Curtain Time,” one day a man entered the printing shop and announced “I am Professor Illuso, the magician, and I am giving a performance in your beautiful city this evening.” The magician then told Walker that he would pay him $1 to serve as his assistant. Walker went with Illuso for awhile on tour before returning to his position at the press. With this experience, Walker became the person to see whenever entertainers or performers arrived in Winona and needed help promoting their acts. After becoming a skilled “master printer,” Walker began looking for new challenges.

In 1879, Alanson Edwards established the Fargo Argus newspaper and then created the Argus Printing Co. for printing fliers, pamphlets and publishing books. Walker came to Fargo in 1881 and was hired as foreman at Edwards’ printing office.

After settling in to his new job, Walker began to implement his talent for organizing events that would entertain Fargo residents. He staged bicycle races and other contests and then put together a baseball team.

With a keen eye for ability and having the talent of persuasion, Walker was able to convince some of the best ballplayers to play for his team. Not only did he own the Fargo team, but Walker also served as manager. By traveling with the team as they toured towns in Minnesota, Canada and northern Dakota Territory, Walker was able to scout out these communities for other potential opportunities.

On March 26, 1886, a fire destroyed the Argus building. Because he had to rebuild, Edwards began having difficulty repaying the loan from James J. Hill that he had used to establish the newspaper.

Sensing difficulty down the road, Walker contacted his brother Fred to join him at the printing plant. The brothers pooled their money and, in 1890, built an office building on First Avenue North as a real estate investment. Angered at not receiving payments from Edwards, Hill fired the Walker brothers’ boss on April 28, 1891, and in early October, the printing company was put into receivership.

The Walker brothers established their own printing plant, with Con Walker as president and his brother Fred as vice president. The brothers also brought in veteran printer and bookbinder John P. Hardy as a traveling representative. In time, the printing company “grew into the largest in the state.”

Entertainment for the residents of Fargo, ranging “from Shakespeare to minstrel shows,” was provided at the Opera House, built in 1878 by Jasper Chapin. On June 7, 1893, a fire destroyed the old opera house, and city businessmen gathered on Sept. 15 with pledges to rebuild a new one on the southeast corner of Second Avenue North and Roberts Street.

Construction began Oct. 6, and over the winter, the building was completed, providing an elegant theater with a seating capacity of 1,000. Management was placed in the hands of Con Walker, “under whom the theater flourished.” The opera house opened for its first presentation on Feb. 14, 1894.

To concentrate on his new position as director of the opera house, Con turned over the operation of the printing office to Fred. Hardy was brought in to help run the printing office, and the company was renamed Walker Brothers and Hardy. Con made several trips to New York and Minneapolis to try to bring in quality entertainment. One of the casts that he featured at the Opera House featured Harriet “Hattie” Anderson, a former child actress who later starred on Broadway with Lillian Russell and Marie Dressler. Hattie and Con fell in love and got married. Not only did Con gain a wife, but he also had someone with him in Fargo who thoroughly understood the theater and had numerous valuable contacts back in New York.

While in St. Paul on a business trip, Con had lunch with James J. Hill and told him about his plan to line up a string of theaters that could attract major entertainment. Hill told him he needed to consider Winnipeg, which “will some day be the Chicago of the West.” Con remembered being impressed with this rapidly growing city from his days as a baseball manager. He followed Hill’s advice and, in 1896, leased the Bijou Theater, which he remodeled and renamed the Winnipeg Theater.

In 1897, Con leased the Metropolitan Opera House in Grand Forks. In 1900, he purchased the Fargo Opera House and, in 1901, gained control of the opera houses in Crookston, Minn., and Brainerd, Minn.

With a string of theaters along the Northern Pacific and Great Northern rail lines, Con was now in position to book major productions that had engagements in Minneapolis and/or the northwest regions of the U.S. He named his chain of theaters the Red River Valley Circuit, but it was popularly referred to as “The Breadbasket Circuit.”

(We will conclude our story about Con Walker next week.)

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.