All that's left of Digger Odell's grave is a rough patch of asphalt in a parking lot on Chapman Highway. You have to look hard to find it. But for about a week in 1960, it was the most talked-about spot in town—a literal traffic-stopper.
It started when Digger talked Cas Walker into burying him alive. The result was spotlights and disc jockeys and big crowds peering at a man way down in a hole while Walker dispensed popcorn and Cokes and barbecue. There was a corrugated metal thing that mean little boys, compelled by the unshakable conviction that he had snakes down there with him, would scrape sticks across to drive Digger even crazier than he already was.
Nobody knew how to draw a crowd like Caswell Orton Walker. Equal parts P.T. Barnum and Huey P. Long, nobody was better longer than this hillbilly populist at selling what East Tennessee wanted to buy. A public figure for some 70 years, he dominated Knoxville politics for three decades. He built a multimillion-dollar supermarket chain and was one of the first to discover the awesome power of television, which he used to flog his goods and his enemies, reward his friends, launch careers and generally aggravate what he called "the silk-stocking crowd." In the meantime, he served variously as mayor, vice-mayor and member of City Council. When Knoxville chooses a Man of the Century, it will be Cas Walker—he has become our urban folk hero, a legend of tall tales and low rumors, a man whose many pursuits changed Knoxville itself (or staved off change, for that matter).
P. R. Showman
The Digger Odell incident is just one of the many oddball P.R. exploits Cas Walker employed to promote his grocery stores, but it's also one of the most infamous. In his immodestly titled, self-published autobiography My Life History, A True Living Legend, Walker says it was Digger himself who presented the stunt as a unique promotional idea.
"He said he wanted to be buried alive in front of one of the Cas Walker stores, preferably the one right there (on Chapman Highway).
"I said 'How do you get a job like that?'
"He said 'I will be buried, six feet underground, with a stovepipe running down to where I am so people can talk to me.' I said, 'What do you get for that kind of work?' "
He said "I get $100 a day.'
"I said 'I was thinking about offering you $25 a day, but I am going to offer you $50.' His wife was a Jewish woman and she was shaking her head yes so I knew I was going to start burying a man and I had never had that experience before.
"We dug our hole, and I got ready to bury him. Of course, I advertised that I was going to bury him at a certain time. You never seen a crowd like we had."
Digger had a telephone, and Walker remembers that he "talked with women all night. You have never experienced a ladies man such as this one was."
Walker put up a tent over Odell's grave to accommodate the crowd, which one night numbered 1,500 at 2 a.m.
But Digger wanted to be dug up before he had fulfilled his 30-day contract. Walker was having none of it, since daily receipts at the Chapman Highway store had increased from $3,500 to $8,000.
"I told him that was too much money to dig up," Walker said in a 1990 interview with the Knoxville Journal.
Digger started faking heart attacks and calling the newspapers and the health department to complain that Walker was denying him medical care.
Walker's solution was to dress two women who worked for him in "nurse suits" and station them above the grave, selling barbecued chicken sandwiches.
Again, from Walker's autobiography: "Now this fellow [Walker never mentions his name], if there ever has been a trouble maker, he is number one. He got to smothering for no reason in the world, but I got my farm man to bring his post hole diggers and dig a hole at the foot of his grave. He got the hole dug and I got an 8 inch stove pipe and run down to the foot of his casket, and let it stick up out of the ground."
When people started throwing money down the pipe, wishing-well fashion, Walker, in the digressing fashion that was his signature, says he "got the idea to work to raise money for the needy children, so they could have milk. After two years working for this fund, we furnished milk to every needy child in the city and the county, too... I put a funnel in the stove pipe and a sign that said "Wishing Well" on it. They got real busy then. When we took it up, we had $1,017. We gave it to the Milk Fund.
"This fellow in the grave called a doctor. He said he was smothering. Of course, he was under contract to the Cas Walker stores. The doctor took his temperature which showed to be 105. We drug along for 4 or 5 days, then we dug him up. He went to the Andrew Johnson Hotel and got a room. A nurse took his temperature when he got out of the grave and it was normal. About 15 or 20 women backed up trying to get into his room. This was the best promotion we ever had. The next best was Elvis Presley's will."
(Which is another story entirely...)
Cas Walker's life story is pure Horatio Alger. He was born March 22, 1902, to Tom and Anna Mitchell Walker, who worked a hardscrabble Sevier County farm near the Sinks. There were 12 children, and Cas counted himself "the youngest, the meanest and the prettiest" of the boys.
His young life was greatly influenced by his father's membership in a group called the Blue Bills, which had been formed to combat the White Caps, a band of masked vigilantes who marauded around Sevier County during the last decade of the 19th Century. Its reign of terror ended with a double hanging on the courthouse lawn in 1899.
In the White Caps and the Blue Bills of Sevier County, which Cas Walker published in 1974, he says "All during my school years in going to and from school, I lived in constant threat and my brothers and sisters did likewise because my father was a Blue Bill and helped to hang Catlett Tipton and Pleas Wynn who were White Caps."
Maybe that was one of the reasons Walker left home early and often. He walked across the mountain when he was 14 to work in a Champion Fiber and Lumber Company logging camp in Smokemont, N.C., with the aim of making enough money to pay off the mortgage on the family farm, which was threatened with foreclosure. He also put back tuition money so he could attend Murphy College, a Sevierville secondary school where he waited tables and did janitorial work to earn his keep.
There, he was tormented by the more affluent city kids for his rough clothes and country manners. A story from My Life History illustrates the kind of experience that likely was at the root of his lifelong antipathy for the elite.
"One day, a city boy tripped me and he did it on purpose! He sat down and made faces at me. He had caused me to fail my school lesson, and then he said he wanted to meet me outside after school. He had got my dander up!"
Walker said he "whipped (the city boy's) tail good."
Later, while Walker was sweeping out a building on campus, the city boy came back with his father and his brother.
"I (had) found a baseball bat. I thought they might come back, so I put that bat where I could get to it... The old man asked me if I could whip all three of them. I said I was willing to try, and I let the bat do the talking. They got in a couple of licks on me, but I beat the devil out of them... With the help of the good Lord and a baseball bat, I got the victory."
Fed up with his snooty classmates, he ditched school in 1919 and headed for Kansas, where he worked on a ranch and then hoboed around the West. Then he was on to the coal camps of Kentucky, where he brawled his way into his twenties and, by 1923, had made enough money digging coal to save $850, which he used to buy himself a grocery store in Knoxville.
His mining experience, Walker said, "...Made me feel like I'd skinned the world and gutted it, too."
Armed with this confidence, the brash young Walker barged uninvited into Knoxville's business community. He took up residence in East Knoxville and threw live chickens off the roof of his store. He held barbecues and pigs' feet parties and ran crazy promotions. He collected up poll tax receipts and gave voters "advice" on how they should vote.
Walker ran for City Council in 1939 and was narrowly defeated. Undeterred, he won a seat in 1941, and by the time he was elected mayor in 1945, he owned seven retail stores, two feed stores, a wholesale grocery, a stockyard and a dairy. He was strong in the inner-city black and poor white wards, where he commenced to grow larger than life and ornerier than a whole trainload of SOBs.
O.C. Johnson, known as "Little Cas" during the 25 years he ran Walker's C&R green stamp operation, sums up Walker's entrée into Knoxville this way:
"Victor Ashe come riding in on his Mama's apron strings. That old man (Walker) dug his way in in the coal mines of Kentucky and in a little old square box store on Vine Street."
In 1928, he married Virginia Grantham, a pretty Knoxville girl with red hair so long she could sit on it. He says he "went pig wild over her" from the very beginning. They had one daughter, Wilma June, born in 1930.
A letter to the editor of the Knoxville Journal in 1943 asked: "Do we want a mayor who by his own admission has amassed a fortune yet tries to make the lower-income citizens believe ... that every man with an extra pair of socks is a predatory capitalist who spends most of his time devising means to suck life-blood out of the working people?"
Walker was elected mayor in 1945, by virtue of being the leading vote-getter among the Council candidates. He entered office with an agenda, telling a Journal reporter election night that his first order of business would be "a good businessman being city manager."
This was a shot across the bow of City Manager George Dempster, whom Walker charged with "being too dominant at council meetings. I favor letting the Council run the city for a change..." Dempster resigned before Walker could fire him.
There's a chapter in Walker's autobiography entitled "No Other Mayor In The City Of Knoxville Has Ever Found Stolen Merchandise Or Lowered The City Tax Rate, Except For Me." It fails to mention the fact that he was recalled.
Wheeler and McDonald's Knoxville, Tennessee, summarizes Mayor Walker's troubles thusly: "Now he was mayor and no longer able to talk with impunity and conviction about being an outsider... He was obliged to take care of his supporters, many of whom hungered for city offices... Now he had to try to solve such thorny issues as taxes, the city's bonded indebtedness, zoning and unemployment."
Walker's hand-picked city manager lasted only 11 weeks in office before Walker led a move to fire him. An irate business elite forced a recall vote and ran a lumber company executive against him in a December election that Wheeler and McDonald call the dirtiest in Knoxville's modern history.
Walker was cast out of office, but the silk-stocking crowd had little time to celebrate. Within 10 months, he was back on Council, once again the leading vote-getter. He reclaimed his place as the resident "aginner," opposing sales tax referendums, consolidated government, construction of a City/County building, construction of the Civic Auditorium and fluoridated water, which he believed was communistic.
O.C. Johnson remembers an advertisement taken by Walker's political opponents: "Squawk, Cas, Squawk. How would you like to live in Squawkerville?"
In 1956, a photograph of Walker slugging a City Council colleague made Life Magazine (although he would admit, years later, that the fight was a publicity stunt). He gloried in his uncouth image, which couldn't have been more offensive to the Chamber of Commerce bunch if he'd driven by Cherokee Country Club and flipped them the finger.
McDonald and Wheeler describe Walker during this era as "an elemental force in politics: blunt, acerbic, tough and eternal, he could deliver 20,000 votes on any issue on a given day."
He ended the decade with a successful battle to defeat a referendum to consolidate the city and county. He was still prospering financially into the early '60s, but later that decade, his political base started showing signs of decay. Although he continued to be elected, he was no longer a front-runner, and began to be mocked more than feared.
McDonald and Wheeler: "The savage warrior, who made no money personally from his years in local government but who had been generous with jobs and other favors to political friends, saw the handwriting on the wall. In the eyes of the newcomers, he simply had to be eliminated."
Just because Cas Walker was no longer in office didn't mean he'd disappear from public view. For anyone past the age of 25, no memory of an East Tennessee childhood is complete without a Cas Walker's Farm and Home Hour vision of Red Rector's Vienna-sausage fingers flying over the mandolin strings and Honey Wilds' big mitts whaling on the little ukulele he called his chili dipper. There were David West's hot banjo licks and, clear as yesterday morning, Curly Dan Bailey's high, lonesome tenor soaring on the "Do your grocery shopping" part of the Farm and Home Hour theme song, with yodeling Claude Boone calling out "Say that again," and all of them standing in front of the big painting of Cas treeing a whole family of coons and joining in to harmonize on the "...at a Cas Walker store" finale.
David West, now the owner of Ciderville Music Barn, laughs when he remembers some of the God-awful cloggers and gospel singers Walker would let on the show: "Fred Smith always said The Gong Show got their idea from Cas Walker. He'd put people on that couldn't sing a lick." (In his defense, Walker did give Dolly Parton her first break...and also famously kicked the Everly Brothers off his show.)
There's Cas in a porkpie hat waving his hands and pointing at his merchandise with his crooked middle finger—a habit and a deformity that launched a million adolescent locker room jokes. And everybody knows somebody who can imitate that gravely voice flogging merchandise: "Neighbors, we've got these number one-grade Mrs. Paul's fish filets..." or Bush's pinto beans or Blue Band Coffee (which was really JFG packaged up as Cas' house brand).
Walker was on Channel 10 for 30 years, selling stuff and threatening dog thieves and blasting his political enemies and taking up money for the Milk Fund or for some family in Dumplin Valley that got burnt out over the weekend.
"We was on radio and TV at the same time," says Danny Bailey, who was there for most of it, including the July, 1971, morning when Mary Tindell came to the studio to confront Walker and he dragged her off the set "by the hair of the head." Walker was charged with assault.
"I'd just rather not get into that," Bailey says.
Walker told his side in a 1988 Knoxville Journal interview. He said he was trying to push Tindell (the mother of County Commissioner Billy Tindell) out of camera range.
"She just rared back and hit me in the mouth and knocked out three of my teeth. She was strong as a bull. I started fighting her then, and Lord a' mercy, I just kicked her on out the door. Then, I went over to the jail and made bond. The next day, some of them tried to say I broke two of her ribs, but where I kicked her, her ribs wasn't near. I planted me a boot factory, and that never did cost me a cent. She was trespassing. She was an awful good woman except when she took these mad spells."
Insiders believed his plea bargain agreement included a promise not to run for re-election in 1971. Whatever the case, he retired from public office.
The Farm and Home Hour was on the air until March 30,1983, when Channel 10 pulled the plug.
"I remember I cried," Boone says.
And there was the Watchdog, a weekly tabloid Walker published from 1964-1981, primarily to skewer his political opponents. He didn't let up after leaving office, and Julia Tucker, whom Walker supported for a city school board seat in 1971, later took the full force of his fury.
Walker supported "little Julie Tucker" by lambasting her opponent, incumbent Jack Cooper, dubbing him "Cadillac Jack" because of the car he drove.
"There wasn't a thing in the world wrong with Jack Cooper," says Tucker. "He was a good school board member, but this was a time in my life I decided to run for school board, too. Cas wrote some things in there that were not flattering... I was appreciative of any help I could get, since I was an unknown. I think he was instrumental in my getting votes in certain sections... but he cost me votes, too. The League of Women Voters wrote me a letter saying because of his support, they wouldn't support me..."
Tucker won and became the first woman to chair the city school board. Cooper sued Walker for libel. Walker accused Tucker of writing the offending stories, something Tucker, to this day, denies. The case came to trial in 1981, and made big news. Tucker was the star witness.
"I dodged the subpoena as long as I could," she says. "I even went to Colorado. When I got off the elevator in the courthouse, there were photographers, TV people, courthouse hangers-on—I know how Monica Lewinsky feels."
The case was settled before the jury returned.
"I heard the jury was going to award Jack Cooper more than he was asking for...Word had it that Jack donated that to his church," Tucker says.
"When I think back on it, I admire Cas for lasting. When he's your friend, he's your friend. But when he was your enemy, he was vicious. Sometimes he'd put the Watchdog out twice in a week if he was really onto something. You'd never know which way the wind was going to blow..."
A second 1981 libel trial also ended badly for Walker, and that December he closed the Watchdog down.
One of the last issues, enshrined in the Museum of Appalachia, has two stories with Walker's byline.
One, headlined "Why should I worry?" sums up his reaction to news of the $183,000 judgment against him: "At the beginning, it upset me, but then I got to thinking why should I worry. All the tight spots I've been in, what's one more? I have been in one mine explosion, I have been in one mine that fell in and it took 24 hours to dig me out. I have ran right smack into a cyclone while on an airplane, which was foolish..."
Another headline: "Watchdog has been hit with a judgment which could put it out of business."
Other front page stories included: "Kessel agrees World's Fair will be a financial drain on Knox County," and "How many people reading this story could stand a child crying for milk?"
Stevie Dalton, son of longtime Walker employee Howard Dalton, says he believes the Watchdog was printed in a "secret location, to where somebody wouldn't blow it up. The less you know about it, the better off you are..."
"Any type of sore, it will heal you up in two or three days. It will cure skin cancer, too, but I don't tell people that. My God, there is so many things it can be good for, I am afraid they will start thinking it is good for everything. There was a preacher said 'You know, at my church, Mr. Walker, people ask me to pray for them and I put oil on them and pray for them. The Bible says that, you know.'
"It would be good judgment to use Supraderm Salve."
It was Howard Dalton's job to manage the Knoxville stores. He went to work for Walker in 1939. He and his son Stevie work for the old man still, packing up cartons of Supraderm Salve to fill orders from as far away as a man in British Columbia who puts it on his Eskimo dogs.
Walker discovered the salve when Ginny brought some back from a Nashville horse show intending to use it on their grandson's athlete's foot. At the time, Cas was suffering from something he, with uncharacteristic delicacy, called "a colon bowel condition," for which he'd been treated at Johns Hopkins, where he said he had been told it was fatal. His friends remember it as a bad case of hemorrhoids.
In My Life History, he says he went home early one day "itching so bad I just couldn't stand it anymore." He found a jar of salve, applied it to the afflicted area, and "My Lord, it wasn't but a few minutes until I got complete relief."
Cas liked the way the salve worked so well that he ordered 20 cases. Then he liked the way it sold so well that he decided to buy the company and was quoted a price of $5,000. But the demand he created made the owners jack the price up to $100,000. He agreed, and said he made the money back in 90 days, in part because he advertised the salve in Full Cry, a coon hunters' magazine.
Fall of an Empire
Wilma June died in 1979. Cas' nephew and foster son, Odell Cas Lane, who worked in the business and served in the state Legislature, died as well. Cas Walker was desolate. His health began to fail and so did his business. Bit by bit, he was shorn of everything that was important to him. By 1984, he was living in a nursing home with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's.
The Cas Walker Supermarkets were taken over by his heirs, who changed the name of the chain to Food Plus. By 1985, Food Plus was in receivership, and Walker told the News-Sentinel that he wanted to come out of retirement to salvage his business: "You can't smile at your funeral."
By 1987, his mind was clear and his doctors were admitting that he had been misdiagnosed. Peggy Savage, administrator of the nursing home where he was living, said Walker had been suffering from stress and depression complicated by overmedication. She said he had taken the Alzheimer's patients at the home into his care, taking them for walks and trying to cheer them up.
"He is just the most loving, generous person. He is a real force for good here," she told the Knoxville Journal that December.
The following December, Walker, back home, gave his annual Milk Fund interview to the Journal—but he was lacking the old fire.
"I lost Ginny, you know," he said. "She died at 5 minutes to 7 on Saturday morning, November 3rd. If she'd lived till the next day, we'd have lived together 62 years... It'll be an awful hard Christmas without her."
There's a welcome mat with a raccoon on it at the front door of the modest Gaston Avenue homeplace he never left, even when he was the richest man in town. He is lying there on a hospital bed in the living room, heart monitor attached, being fussed over by three women who call him Dadaw.
His nurse, Blanche Breeden, has known him for most of her
62 years and likes to joke that she was his original Blondie, long before Dolly Parton. He hasn't spoken for three months. That voice—the one that sounds like somebody scraped out his vocal cords and replaced them with rusty ten-penny nails—is still.
He is bedfast, locked inside a body that failed him two years ago on his 94th birthday, as Blanche was taking him out to David West's Ciderville Music Barn for a party in his honor.
"He walked out of the house out to the car, opened up the car door, got in and sat down. Right in front of the Wal-Mart on Clinton Highway he just quit talking, and that's not like Mr. Walker. He had a seizure of some kind. I don't know what happened to him and the doctors don't know what happened to him."
He communicates by blinking his eyes. Blanche translates. The old man whose colorful life overflows and spills out of fat brown envelopes in a library drawer downtown has approved a "Do not resuscitate" order.
Howard Dalton visits Cas Walker often. He wears a watch on the back of which is engraved "H.V.D. — 1939-1985 — Food Plus Inc."
He grimaces at the "Food Plus" name.
Stevie Dalton doesn't understand what happened.
"I always thought the stores would be here from here on out. Cas always said he'd have a store on the moon one day."
Walker doesn't make it out to Homecoming at the Museum of Appalachia anymore, but museum director John Rice Irwin says when he did, he caused the most stir of any celebrity who was ever there.
"People just wanted to touch him, see him, talk to him," he says. "Almost everybody who talks about Cas Walker talks about what they've heard other people say about him. I'd always heard everything he did was self-serving. But when we started the Homecoming 19 years ago, I asked him to promote it. And he took this thing up and promoted it every morning instead of selling groceries. He let us come on as much as we wanted to for years. I kept thinking this wasn't consistent with the popular portrayal of the man."
Asked if he likes Walker, Irwin thinks a minute, then recalls something John C. Calhoun said about Henry Clay:
"He said, 'No, I don't like Henry Clay. He's devious and he's treacherous and you can't trust him. I don't like Henry Clay—I love him.'
"And I love Cas Walker."