The son of Isaac and Mary Shepley Walls, John Walls was born in Halifax, Pennsylvania, on August 24, 1800; attended school in Harrisburg; employed at McCleary's Mercantile, 1816, Harrisburg; in 1818 he was sent to Milton by McCleary to work under the supervision of Michael Hoff. After this training period, Walls opened his own store, McCleary & Walls, at McKee's Half Falls in 1827. He then opened two more branches, one in Muncy in 1829, and one in Lewisburg in 1831 where he also established himself as a grain dealer. Between 1827 and 1829, he held a contract with the Pennsylvania Canal Company to furnish hydraulic cement. In 1844 he joined with his brother Johnson to form J. and J. Walls general merchandisers in Lewisburg. On September 25, 1832, John Walls married Margaret Adlum Green, daughter of General Abbott Green. The couple had eight children. John Walls played a central role in the development of the Susquehanna Valley. He served on the Board of Directors of the Bank of Northumberland, and was one of the founders of the Lewisburg Dimes Savings Institution, originally chartered in April 1853, and re-chartered as the Lewisburg National Bank on January 12, 1865. He was a life-long member of the bank's Board of Directors. Also a director of the Union National Bank in Lewisburg, he was on the building committee for the Union County Court House, completed in 1857.
Through his political associations, Walls was commissioned as Associate Judge for Union County on November 20, 1860, and served until his election as State Senator for Lycoming, Union and Snyder Counties where he completed the 1865-1867 term. His Democratic success in the Republican-dominated Union County was testament to his many significant contributions to the area. One of these contributions was his involvement with a project that bolstered the economic prosperity of Union County. Walls was one of several Lewisburg men who pledged $4,000 to charter the Lewisburg, Centre, and Spruce Creek Railroad in 1853. Regional trade opportunities increased substantially when Lewisburg was linked to trunk lines in Juniata County and other sections of the Susquehanna Valley in 1869.
John Walls also served in many other capacities. He was a manager of the Lewisburg and Mifflinburg Turnpike Company, reestablished by the state legislature in 1858. The Lewisburg Gas Works had begun operations in 1859. Walls was named president of the board of directors when the company was reorganized in 1866. He was a director of the Lewisburg Bridge Company that was formed to rebuild after the first bridge was lost in the flood of 1865. The new span across the river was completed in 1869.
In 1880, suffering from a cancerous growth, John Walls submitted to the amputation of his right hand. Afterward, he learned to write with his left hand, and remained well for many years until a lump developed in his throat. He traveled to Philadelphia for treatment by a noted surgeon. Although the operation had appeared to be successful, Walls collapsed while recovering at the Pennsylvania Hospital and died on June 5, 1891 at the age of 91.
Believed to be the oldest merchant in the state, well-known for his quiet generosity to customers who could not always afford to pay, John Walls was widely revered for his honor and integrity. At his funeral, the Reverend C. B. Austin praised the years of dedicated service the Honorable John Walls had devoted to the town of Lewisburg: "Mr. Walls has been so closely identified with this community that we had ownership in him as a public man."