BENTONVILLE, ARK. – Sam Walton’s desk is cluttered with books, a rotary phone and stacks of yellow legal pads filled with notes. Just as in Robert W. Woodruff’s office at
Walton’s office is preserved as it was the day he died and is available to be viewed as part of the larger Walmart story presented at the Walmart Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, where the company is headquartered.
This fantastic museum, which opened in 1990, is located on the town square in what was the Walton’s 5 and 10 store; one of his outlets before he refined the everyday low-price discount model that became Walmart. I was fortunate to visit the museum as part of a corporate sharing effort and spent several productive hours with Peggy Hamilton, director of the Walmart Museum.
Peggy’s story is pretty amazing. While working as a general clerk in a store in Nevada, Missouri, she was identified as a rising talent by Walton, who recommended she be moved to the home office. In 1974, Peggy became the first female buyer for Walmart.
Peggy (picutured above) walked me through the building, which is free and open to the public, looking at the various exhibits in the museum. One exhibit I did not expect, but which worked perfectly to tell the Sam Walton story, was one devoted to Helen Walton, Sam’s wife, which included her wedding dress. Two of the more interesting items in the museum include the beat-up old pickup truck Sam famously drove, and two barber chairs. When a national magazine photographed Sam sitting in the barber’s chair with the headline that one of the world’s richest men still just got $5 haircuts, Peggy said he just laughed and said, “Why pay more?” Both were emblems of how down to earth Walton was. When the barbershop closed, the museum acquired the chairs to illustrate the story.
One of the more moving items in the museum is the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to Walton in 1992. He was suffering from cancer and was not able to fly to Washington, D.C. to accept the award. He wanted to share the tribute with the employees of Walmart and the people of Bentonville, so in a rare move, President G.H.W Bush came to Bentonville to present the award.
We returned to examine Sam’s office one more time, and Peggy told me of some of the meetings she had had there and how Sam used to use the microphone on his desk to address all of the stores from time to time, how he used the tape recorder to dictate his store visit notes, and how they had multiple briefcases because he was always forgetting one during his store visits.
When I asked Peggy what she hopes people learn while visiting the museum, her answer was simple and moving. “You get to experience one of the greatest companies in the world, from beginning to current day. And you experience a man who was a great leader.”
I could not have said it better. I learned so much during my day there and hope you will have a chance to visit. If you do, make sure to get a Coke Float at the Spark Café soda fountain as you leave!
Ted Ryan is director of heritage communications at The
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