Over the years, Tennessee has had an abundance of colorful, plain spoken and populist politicians. Few match the legendary Grocer, Cas Walker, in either outspokenness or longevity. From 1954-71 thousands of East Tennessee families began their day with the Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour on local Knoxville TV.
The mixture of music, local politics and shameless self-promotion kept people glued to their sets, as no one was ever sure of exactly what Cas was going to do, even Cas sometimes.
Caswell Orton Walker was born in 1902, just two years after my father. He opened his first Knoxville grocery store in 1924, ending a brief career as a Harlan Kentucky coal miner. While Cas dropped out of school at 14, he was a shrewd businessman who always catered to his working class customers. An early stunt set him apart from other merchants. Every Saturday, Cas would drop live frying chickens from the roof of his store free to any customer who caught them. Thousands would show up and do their grocery shopping afterwards. By 1941 Cas Walker had built his business to a successful level that led him to enter politics and that…… is when the fight started.
In 1941 Cas rode his name recognition and popularity with the common folk of Knoxville to an election to City Council. He carried his shrewd and ruthless business skills to politics. Routinely Councilman Walker railed against the “silk stocking” crowd that looked down on his customers; he fought hard against tax increases. And he was definitely against merging governments in Knox County.
It is safe to describe Councilman Walker as an “agin’er” While his strident approach endeared him to common people, it didn’t translate well to city management, as his election to Mayor in 1946 ended with recall less than a year after he fired the city manager. I’m sure somewhere he made a note to himself that he couldn’t run government like his business. George Dempster, former ally and city manager fired by Walker once said, “if I ordered a whole carload of SOB’s and they only brought Cas, I’d sign for the shipment.”
By the 1950’s Cas Walker was as strong as ever. His grocery chain was grossing over $60 million per year, and he’d added a Newspaper, The Watchdog, to promote his opponents and assail his enemies. Of course the paper was a give away to every customer at his supermarkets. Not all Cas Walker stunts worked out as planned. In 1956 Life magazine published a picture of Cas Walker throwing a punch at a fellow Councilman after a heated debate on property taxes. Still he didn’t slow down, only voluntarily retiring from City Council in 1971.
For four decades Cas Walker personified East Tennessee. I know that will cause a degree of consternation with my more progressive friends, both of them, but it is true. He grew a business through the Depression, World War II, Korean War, Cold War, Civil Rights, and Vietnam, while still maintaining electability. Warren G. Harding was President when he came to Knoxville from the coal mines. Richard Nixon was halfway through his first term when he retired. Moreover, he gave a cultural boost to Tennessee music, launching the careers of Dolly Parton and the Everly Brothers. He also brought Chet Atkins, Jim Nabors, Roy Clark and countless others to the forefront. Cas Walker was a Tennessee icon of the 20th Century. We’ll end with a Dolly Parton performance on Cas Walker’s show in the 1960s. She first appeared on Farm and Home Hour in 1954 at the age of 10.