East Tennessee’s most notorious showman came into the world two years after the turning of one century and left two years before the arrival of another.
It’s fitting, in a way, that Orton Caswell “Cas” Walker of Tennessee fit all his living within the confines of the 20th century. Because few people encapsulate the width and breadth of the wild advancement of the 1900s better than old Cas.
Walker was a born showman. In fact, he was a politician with a head for business like few others.
Wild, cantankerous and free, Walker was always on the grind – and often on the grift. If it wasn’t for a little girl he helped discover – with wild musical talent and business sense every bit as good as his – he would have been the most successful Sevier County native ever.
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Who was Cas Walker?
Walker was born in 1902 to a working-class family in Sevier County.
At the age of 14, he struck out across the mountain to work for a North Carolina paper mill. He later went to the coal mines of Kentucky.
When he made enough money, he returned to East Tennessee and bought a Knoxville grocery store.
It was 1924 Cas Walker, all of 22, was on his way to riches and fame unimaginable for a boy born in a mountain community at the turn of the century. A born showman, he helped promote that first store by tossing live chickens off the roof.
If you caught one, you could keep it, he said.
Like a surfer catching a wave, Walker recognized the powerful medium that was radio. In 1929, he began the Farm and Home Hour. It was a musical variety show that served as one long commercial for his grocery stores.
That show, first on radio and later on television, ran on various channels for the next 54 years.
Walker helped introduce the world to acts like the Everly Brothers – and, famously, a 10-year-old Dolly Parton.
How 10-year-old Dolly made it on television before her family even owned one
It was 1956 and the little girl from his home county knew the way into Walker’s heart.
“In true Dolly style, she would find a way to be heard. She showed her initiative by walking up to Cas Walker and telling him that she wanted to work for him,” according to dollyparton.com.
“Because of her bold determination, Walker couldn’t resist. Dolly had landed her first radio and television gig at the age of 10 before her family even owned a television.”
A crackling, dusty recording of that first show is available on Dolly’s website.
Through the half-century of static and poor production values, you can still hear the vocal talent that went on to make Dolly a star. She became a regular guest on the show until leaving to make her mark in Nashville after graduating high school.
Dolly returned to the show in March of 1967, in living color and all grown up, singing the second single from her first album, “Hello, I’m Dolly.” The archive video is also available on Dolly’s website.
Dolly wasn’t the only big name to grace the “Farm and Home Hour” stage. In addition to helping launch the Everly Brothers, Walker brought big names like Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe, Carl Smith, Carl Butler, Jim Nabors and Chet Atkins to his East Tennessee audience.
Walker’s store success (and that one time he ‘buried’ someone alive)
But being East Tennessee’s Ed Sullivan wasn’t the only motivating factor for Walker. Remember, his show was designed to promote his grocery stores – which eventually became a multi-million dollar empire.
According to Kalra Ajay’s The Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Walker had 27 stores by the mid-50s. And they generated gross annual revenue of $60 million.
Success, however, did sate Walker’s flair for the dramatic. Maybe his best-remembered promotion revolved around the burial of a traveling, one-trick, Harry Houdini-wannabe named Digger O’Dell.
O’Dell – like David Blaine many years later – made his money being buried alive. Walker paid O’Dell to be buried in the parking lot of his Chapman Highway store. Footage from that day shows O’Dell being dramatically carried in his “coffin” to his grave, which was covered over with asphalt.
O’Dell had a pipe through which air – and apparently soup – was delivered. And he could be seen by the general public through a glass window.
Footage from that day shows hundreds of cars filling the lot and thousands of people vying for a glimpse of the daredevil.
O’Dell reportedly began feeling claustrophobic and begged to be let out early. But Walker declined, saying sales were too good and a deal was a deal.
When O’Dell publicly complained that Walker didn’t care about his health, Walker hired two women and dressed them in nurses’ uniforms and had them stand guard next to O’Dell’s grave.
He kept that poor son of a gun underground for a full 30 days.
Oh, and how did Walker pay for the equipment necessary to keep O’Dell alive in that hole for a month?
He got companies to pay him for the rights to be the official sponsor of O’Dell’s air conditioning and other needs.
After success in business and entertainment, Walker ventures into politics
Having conquered business and entertainment, there was another field for which the carny barker-like Walker excelled: Politics.
Walker was elected to Knoxville City Council where he served – with a slight hiatus – for 30 years. Walker billed himself as a friend of the little man, championing farmers and the working class. And he remained as colorful as ever.
In 1946, he was elected mayor, where he ruled like an unhinged European king with porphyria.
After a few weeks of tumultuous meetings and one hell of a feud with the city manager, he was ousted in a recall election.
Cas being Cas, he was re-elected to the council. He earned national attention in 1956 when Life Magazine published a photo of Cas preparing to punch fellow city councilman J.S. Cooper in a debate over property assessments.
Not content to leave his argument in council chambers, Walker began publishing a newsletter called The Watchdog. From there, he ranted and railed and flirted with libel.
In his time on council, he opposed fluoridation of the city’s water supply. And he also successfully undermined an attempt to consolidate Knoxville City and Knox County government.
After leaving the council in 1971, Walker continued to be a power player and publishing The Watchdog until a libel suit forced him to close the publication down in 1983.
Walker died in 1998 at the age of 96. It’s often said that any East Tennessean born before 1985 has a couple of good Cas Walker stories.
The law of averages says some of them are even bound to be true.