The East Tennessee History Center has launched a new exhibit on early Knoxville television in conjunction with the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound. One of the artifacts on display is the original backdrop from Cas Walker’s TV show. Doing the history of Knoxville TV without Cas Walker—self-made grocery magnate, broadcaster, populist, politician, and one-man Knoxville institution, referred to by one writer as “equal parts P.T. Barnum and Huey P. Long”—would be like doing the Jacksonian era without Old Hickory.
Born in Sevier County in 1902, Orton Caswell Walker spent his early years working jobs at mills and coal mines in North Carolina and Kentucky before opening his first Knoxville grocery store in 1924 with $850 he had managed to save. In a few decades, he turned this initial investment into a multi-million-dollar chain of establishments in three states.
Walker owed his success to a knack for self-promotion. No advertising gimmick was too outrageous, whether it involved dropping coupons from airplanes, tossing chickens off the roof of his store, or burying a volunteer stuntman alive. His image as an unpolished, uncultivated hick who enjoyed a good raccoon hunt served him well with working-class customers.
Walker leveraged his popularity into a role in local politics, winning a seat on the Knoxville City Council in 1941 and a short term (ending in a recall election) as the city’s mayor in 1946. In office and in his self-published newspaper he railed against higher taxes, the consolidation of Knoxville’s city and county governments, flouridation of the municipal water supply, and the local elites who considered him a backwards embarrassment. Reveling in his persona as a rough-and-tumble champion of the little guy, he denounced his opponents in what he called the “silk-stocking crowd.” A demagogue he may have been, but he endeared himself to the same working-class voters who had patronized his grocery stores.
The highlight of Walker’s political career came in 1956, when a dispute with J.S. Cooper during a city council meeting erupted into a full-fledged fistfight. I consider this the most delightful moment in Knoxville’s political history since the Sevier-Jackson showdown of 1803, and thankfully a newspaper photographer was on hand to preserve it for the ages. The image appeared in Life magazine, putting Knoxville’s contentious local politics in the national consciousness.
Walker, at left, winds up for the punch. (Photo by Tom Greene, from the McClung Historical Collection via Wikimedia Commons)
The centerpiece of Walker’s promotional efforts was his self-hosted TV program, the Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour, which ran for three decades and offered him a platform to plug his stores, showcase regional musicians, and pontificate. From a purely historical standpoint, the show is most notable for giving a young Dolly Parton one of her first breaks in the entertainment business. But for sheer entertainment value, none of the musical acts could top Cas himself, holding forth in his own rambling and occasionally profane style.
Here’s Cas discussing the subject of store security (mildly NSFW language):
And in this clip, he shares some advice on professionalism with his musical guests:
You can enjoy more of his televised antics here; his political career is discussed in detail in Dr. William Bruce Wheeler’s history of Knoxville.