Jerry Summers: Cas Walker - P.T. Barnum Of Groceries

Saturday, June 27, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Orton Caswell “Cas” Walker would have to be described as one of the most unorthodox businessman, politician, and/or radio and television personalities.

The stories about this East Tennessean have to be distinguished between fact and fiction but he was a public figure that lit up the skyline in his adopted hometown of Knoxville with his wild and unusual antics that were displayed in an open forum to an adoring number of citizens so the majority of them have to be true. 

“Cas” Walker was born in Sevier County, Tennessee on March 23, 1902, and quit school when he was 14 years old to start working in a variety of jobs in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky.  When he had earned and saved enough money to go into business for himself, he returned to Knoxville in 1924 and established the first Cas Walker’s Cash Store.  From this beginning he developed and operated 27 stores in Tennessee and Kentucky which grossed over $60,000,000 in one year.

He was famous for his low prices compared to his competitors, his aggressive marketing, and innovative advertising.  His stores had as his logo a pair of shears indicating price cutting in his grocery locations.  He threw thousands of discount coupons out of airplanes in the neighborhoods near any of his stores to advertise his weekly specials. 

One of his most outrageous stunts was to hire an individual by the stage name of Digger O’Dell (stolen from the undertaker in the popular Life of Riley radio program) to be buried alive in the parking lot of a Cas Walker Store on Chapman Highway in Knoxville for $100 a day with a pipe to breathe and a telephone to answer calls during the day or night.  The intended underground entombment was supposed to be for 30 days. Because the gimmick was so successful with breaking crowds and grocery sales Cas refused to let Digger out before the scheduled 30 days…. “No way said Cas, sales were too good and a deal was a deal!”  Digger tried to get dug up by calling the newspaper claiming he was having a heart attack and that Cas was denying proper medical treatment.  Cas’s solution to his complaints was to dress two women up who worked for him in nurse uniforms and station them above the grave selling barbecued chicken sandwiches.

Another money providing gimmick was when Cas one Saturday started throwing live chickens off the roof of one of his stores with the announcement that if you could catch one, it was yours!  This became a regular Saturday night event and drew crowds by the thousands and record grocery sales.  Other sales promotions included greased pigs contests, free flea dips, and other promotions that ranged from the crafty to the ridiculous.

In 1929 Walker created a variety of radio shows known as the Farm and Home Hour to help promote his grocery sales.  In 1953 he went on television in Knoxville which aired until 1983.  The show featured established county music performers such as Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Jim Nabors, Chick Athens and others.  It also launched the music careers of Dolly Parton who first performed on Cas’s show at the tender age of 10 in 1956 as well as the Everly Brothers who were regulars on the show in the mid 1950’s and Barbara Mandell and Con Hunley.   However, Cas fired the brothers when he claimed that they were beginning to play too much rock and roll and “that jumpin' up and down music don't sell groceries."

Cas also started a newspaper called the Watchdog that was distributed at his stores and was basically a rant by Cas as to what he was hacked off about at the moment.  He loved to get on political rivals and police who he had seen hanging around his competitors while on duty.  He also hated dog dealers and women who wore hot pants and then accused Cas’s friends of raping them. 

As to politics he projected himself as a hick, a redneck, and sometimes a just plain idiot.  Cas was first elected to the Knoxville City Council in 1941 and was elected mayor in 1946 but after a few weeks of rowdy meetings and the firing of the city manager the other members of the council ousted him in a recall decision.  Nevertheless, he was re-elected repeatedly until he retired voluntarily in 1971 and remained a political force and champion of the little people into the 1980’s.

One of his early mentors who turned political opponent and enemy was George Dempster who invented the “Dempster Dumpster” and served as city manager and mayor of Knoxville.  After the relationship cooled and became bitter Dempster once said, “If I ordered a whole carload of SOB’s and they just sent Cas I’d sign for the shipment.”

His most famous political stunt which got him in Life Magazine on March 19, 1956, occurred during a meeting of the Knoxville City Council when he exchanged punches with fellow councilman, J.S. Cooper, a former political supporter over tax rates and property assessments. 

In later years Cas was in a nursing home and he confided in reporter Betty Bean that it was a made-up fight between the two of them.  Rumors about Cas putting ice in the hamburger meat to make it weigh more and chemicals in stale meat to preserve it longer also dogged Cas over the years but he managed to survive each allegation. 

The antics of Cas Walker are too numerous to cover in a short article!  Many of the stories about his life are contained in a book entitled Cas Walker: Stories on his Life and Legend published by U.T. press in Knoxville and edited by Joshua Hodge, who at the time was a PhD student in the History Department but passed away while the book was in its final stages of completion.  The book can be found at www.utpress.org/title/cas-walker.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com  

 

           

Cas Walker
Cas Walker

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