Cas Walker

For anyone growing in East Tennessee, Cas Walker was an inescapable presence. He owned a chain of grocery stores bearing his name–“shop at the sign of the shears” was his motto for cutting prices–and the income from these stores propelled him into a career as a politician, media figure, and regional embarrassment.Today’s News Sentinel tells of a new film about this singular individual. Born Orton Caswell Walker in 1903, he was universally known as “Cas,” pronounced as if his name rhymed with “razz.”

As a politician, Cas was a contrarian who opposed more things than he championed. Foreshadowing demagogues such as Rush Limbaugh, Cas rallied poor blacks and whites who were led to believe that he was on their side by being “agin” threats such as a unified Knox County and Knoxville city government.

Cas was adept in his use of media. Ignoring what we now call “mainstream media,” he got his message out through his own television show and a self-published newspaper in which he railed at his political enemies.

Monday through Friday beginning at 6:00 AM, Cas held forth on his Farm and Home Hour, where he read his own ads with poster-sized placards placed on an easel. He had guests who discussed the issues of the day–almost always people who shared his point of view.

No one wants to listen to just talk, so Cas featured country music on his show. He was the first person to put a pre-teen Dolly Parton and the Everly Brothers on the air. A longtime presence on the show was Honey Wilds, a large man who played comic songs on a ukulele. In an earlier incarnation, Honey had been one of country music’s most famous blackface acts. In Nashville’s original Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a poster of Wilds and a partner, billed as Jam-Up and Honey, was just about the only depiction of African Americans in the whole place. You can read more about Honey Wilds here: No Depression: Back Issues.

Overall, however, Cas was an embarrassment. A photo of his fisticuffs with a fellow member of the Knoxville City Council landed him on the cover of Life Magazine. He once gave a contribution or did some favor for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and required them to play an orchestral version of “Turkey in the Straw” in return. Worst of all were some of his grocery store ads. I remember billboards and TV ads in the 1970s depicting young black boys grinning and eating slices of watermelon that looked to be three feet wide. “Thumpin‘ good” ran the ditty that accompanied the television versions. I remember cringing at the impression of Knoxville that those billboards along I-40 must have conveyed to millions of travelers passing through.

Cas lived a long life, finally dying at age 96 in 1998. Most of his sins have been forgiven, and he now seems to be remembered as a colorful character who remained true to his populist beliefs.

No one has yet written the definitive book on Cas Walker. Given his influence on politics and music, it could be a most fascinating volume.

KnoxNews: Local

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11 Responses to Cas Walker

  1. C. Sterling says:

    I remember vividly the old Cas TV ads for “thumpin’ good melons.”

    I think you are forgetting that it featured the image of two boys – one African-American and one White – eating Cas’s melons side-by-side.

    Was this an image of racial harmony? I’d doubt that. I think Cas just wanted money from all people. I’d hardly call him a big supporter of anything… other than making a buck.

    I remember because the White lad in the spot had a haircut that my family and many others called a “summer haircut” – that is a number 2 guard for the electric trimmers. It meant that I was going to have a baseball cap on my head until the first day of school each year.

  2. tennesseeguy says:

    Maybe I remembering the billboard incorrectly. Thanks for the correction.

  3. Robert In Tennessee says:

    My Dad Personally Knew Cas (Though I Was Very Young At The Time) & It Was Unbelievable How This Man (Who Was Filthy Rich) Drove A Jeep On His Rounds To His Stores Between Knoxville, Tennessee & Pennington Gap, Virginia & Walked Around In Clothing That Looked Like It Had Come From The Goodwill. If You Saw Him On The Street And Didn’t Know Him Already You Never Would Have Dreamed He Had Any Money To Speak Of. Maybe Maintaining This Illusion Is How He Kept His Money. Who Knows?

  4. Gary Phillips says:

    I have an autographed book by Cas Titled White Caps of Sevier County.
    Anybody know anything about it?

  5. tennesseeguy says:

    In Cas Walker’s “My Life History,” he claims that his father killed 23 members of the White Caps, a a vigilante organization that terrorized Sevier County from 1892-1896. I doubt that number, but who’s to know. The Sevier County Heritage Museum has a White Cap robe and mask from those days. More here: http://tnguy.com/10725.html.

    Jeff

  6. Jim Bishop says:

    Gary,

    The book you speak of is one Cas Walker copied word for word from a book another man wrote back in 1899. (Cas published his in 1937 and reprinted it in 1974) I have been looking for a copy of this book and would love to buy one if anyone knows where one could be obtained. Thanks.

  7. Wayne says:

    I too have been looking for that book. Cas Walker was supposedly the nephew of my grandmother, Laura Belle Jenkins Gentry. I also remember at the age of 6 in 1961 watching Cas Walkers show on TV. That morning Cas had featured a female Elvis impersonator. Later that evening my cousin Curtis Gentry took me to the local Cas Walker store. Lo and behold, there she was, the girl on Cas Walkers show that morning. I got to say hello and shake her hand. What a thrill for a 6 year old!

  8. Lynn says:

    My Great Great Grandfather was featured in his book on the whitecaps. He was killed by the whitecaps. I am looking for any information concerning the death of Tom Gibson. Any information would be greatly appreciated for our family.

  9. Samantha says:

    I grew up in Sevier County TN and can remember my grandfather taking mt Cas’s store for corndogs and fries. When he went to pay one day they gave him a $2. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world and my grandfather gave it to me. That was almost 30 years ago and I still have it.

  10. Rod Runner says:

    The “thumpin’ good” commercial someone mentioned containing a white boy and a black one was the SECOND such commercial. The second one was probably done due to the backlash of the first. I personaally knew the kid from the first…his name was Leonard B. When I met him we were both around 13 years old and it was a few years after he had done the commercial. Years after the original comercial had quit running, people still kidded Leonard about being “Cas’s boy” or “Cas Walker’s watermelon boy” and so on. He used to laugh it off, but you could tell he was little embarrassed by it.

    Cas Walker’s melons just cain’t be beat, ’cause they’re thumpin’ good, thuh-uh-umpin’ good.

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