Cas Walker: Hillbilly Colossus

Why the legends of ornery grocer-politician Cas Walker still haunt Knoxville

On a hot afternoon in late September 1998, I was sitting in the back seat of Johnny Strange's Cadillac in the parking lot of Mynatt's Funeral Home. Bobby Toole was riding shotgun and we were five or six cars back from the hearse that would carry Cas Walker's body across town to South Knoxville to be buried in Woodlawn Cemetery next to his wife, Virginia. Bobby and Johnny were two of Cas's closest friends, and they'd kindly offered me a ride.

Bobby "Coaldaddy" Toole was one of the original keepers of the flame, a job he took on while Cas was still alive. Back when I worked for the Knoxville Journal, I'd been instructed to be on the lookout for this quintessential Friend of Cas, because he was always up to no good. He lived up on Black Oak Ridge in C.H. Butcher's mansion, "Butch View," which he bought at auction after the Butcher banking empire went under. He was a notorious old-timey ward-heeling political boss who had a shock of white hair, shaggy black eyebrows and an unlit stogie that he chewed until cigar juice dribbled down the front of his shirt.

It was his habit to call everybody—even other men—"honey," and he'd stuck with Cas through good times and bad. After Cas got sprung from the nursing home where Genny had stashed him when he was misdiagnosed with Alzheimer's, Bobby and his running buddy, KPD detective Don Wiser, would pick him up at his Gaston Avenue home and take him riding in one of Bobby's old police cruisers (also bought at auction). Some Tuesday evenings they'd take him downtown so he could stand up at City Council and denounce Victor Ashe, which always perked Cas up.

Cas had served on City Council longer than I'd been alive, and had been among the first to grasp the power of television not only for selling stuff but for fighting off fluoridation, metro government, bad check writers, shoplifters, dog thieves, civic improvements of any sort, and police officers who hung around and drank coffee in establishments other than his own. This hillbilly colossus lived to be 96 and bestrode the Knoxville landscape for nearly 70 years—an East Tennessee version of Huey Long (minus, of course, the Kingfish's massive building program and spectacular exit). His domination of Knoxville's politics, business and media was so complete that his name remains a household word for most any East Tennessean over the age of 35 or so.

My younger self would have been surprised to see my middle-aged self riding in his funeral procession, in part because my generation suspected that Cas Walker would never die, but mostly because I never figured I'd care if he did. East Tennessee Baby Boomers were raised on thumpin' good watermelons and bad Cas Walker jokes (e.g. ‘What happened when Cas Walker's caught on fire? He grabbed his meat and beat it.'). We mocked his gravelly voice—"Say, Neighbors"—and we repeated stories about him putting formaldehyde in his hamburger. We looked down our rock 'n' roll noses at his countrified ways, but we figured he'd be right there on the TV at the end of world, flogging Blue Band Coffee and Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks and having little blond-headed cloggers flouncing around in big skirts and showing their panties, embarrassing the living crap out of us when our cousins would come from Connecticut and Texas to visit.

I hadn't known any of them in their heyday, and by the time Cas died, Johnny was just a pretty nice guy who offered me a ride in his Cadillac and Bobby was a living relic of old time city politics and a crazy old coot with a million stories, maybe a quarter of which were true.

We'd just sat through a surprisingly brain-numbing service that wasn't even livened up by the presence of the Rev. J. Basil and Mrs. Mull (at least that's what I like to say since I recall so little of it). I was glad when it was over.

Cas had outlived most of his friends and colleagues, and the funeral procession wasn't near as long as it should have been, but I was keenly aware that this was a historic event, so, as we started off down Broadway, I made a point of counting landmarks along the way. The first one didn't involve Cas at all, but is too good a story not to tell and happened on a spot down in front of what Fountain Citians call the Hill's shopping center where one of Bobby's employees was attempting to drive a giant excavator called a Gradall down the road and plowed into an innocent motorist.

Wiser remembers the incident well:

"Bobby had an old Gradall (an oversized truck equipped with a huge hydraulic excavating bucket) he'd bought from the city, and he'd dug out the side of Black Oak Ridge where he was wanting to put him in a Quonset hut. He liked Quonset huts."

A lot of people thought C.H. and Shirley Butcher had turned their once-stately mansion into the godawfulest white trash wet dream imaginable, but they couldn't compare to Bobby, who collected heavy equipment and old police cruisers and liked to park junked cars on the tennis court. There came a time when Bobby decided to move the Gradall out to Andrew Johnson Highway, and unaware that his mechanic had disconnected the air brakes, he got a guy called Long John to drive it.

"They started down the hill," Wiser says, "Long John right in back of Bobby, old Long John a'blowin' that horn. Bobby got to the bottom of the hill and turned right on Broadway with old Long John speeding up and Bobby speeding up and they're going faster and faster with old Long John hittin' that brake and blowin' the horn and finally Bobby got out from in front of him and Long John went on down the road and hit a man in the oncoming lane right in front of Hill's."

Another block south on Broadway is the cutoff to Old Broadway where the Fountain City Cas Walker's store used to be. My Granddaddy, Ralph Bean, aka the Singing Mailman, used to take me in there when I was little, and I still remember the smell of overripe bananas and decaying meat, a world removed from the cinnamon bun and stargazers ambiance of a modern-day Fresh Market. That was where Cas caught my brother, John "LeRoy Mercer" Bean, scooping up an armload of Watchdogs to give to his friends to study. He told Cas he was taking them to shut-ins at the nursing home.

The next surviving landmark was Eddie's Auto Parts on our left, which still sits on the little stub of Walker Boulevard that survived the construction of I-640. Eddie Harvey bought a couple of lots from Cas to build his iconic store. Some years later, Eddie embellished it with a sign from the Italian Pavilion at the World's Fair.

A mile or so down the road we passed the intersection of Edgewood where you turn off to go to the WBIR TV station. That's where Cas got into a fight with a politically active Democrat named Mary Tindell (mother of former County Commissioner Billy Tindell, grandmother of state Rep. Harry Tindell) when she came down during the Farm & Home Hour studio one morning to confront him about some political something or other and he booted her out the door, literally. A lot of people think the resulting assault charge was enough to leverage him out of running for re-election to City Council, something the silk-stocking crowd had been wishing would happen for decades.

Here's what he told me about the incident in a 1988 Knoxville Journal interview:

"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."

My second husband had, for a time, been the news reader on the Farm & Home Hour, and he'd come home with outrageous stories about the goings-on there, like the time Cas pulled a little curved stick that appeared to be made of ivory out of his pocket.

"What's that?" the Ex asked.

"A coon pecker," Cas said.

It was not until the age of Google that I decided this was a plausible tale, since not believing the Ex was always a prudent default position. I did, kind of, believe the story about "peter peppers," the penis-shaped red peppers that ukulele player Honey Wilds allegedly grew in his garden, but that was after I saw Cas showing off some tubular produce he kept calling "Honey's peppers" one morning. They were a salty bunch.

A few miles south, we rolled into the Western Avenue intersection at the L&N Station where Broadway becomes Henley. The old City Hall on the left is where Cas made Knoxville a laughing stock in the '50s by getting into a fistfight with fellow City Councilman J.S. Cooper during a council meeting. A Journal photographer got a good shot of the action, and the picture ended up in Life Magazine. Although this is an indivisible part of his legend, Cas told me that the whole thing was "a put-up deal" that he'd faked.

The Sunsphere loomed on the right a block south, a reminder of how Cas fought the 1982 World's Fair with all his waning power. And although the fair was pretty much a hell of a party, the collapse of the Butcher banking empire that was its aftermath surpassed even Cas's dire predictions. But he was out of office by then and people had pretty much quit listening to him, although the Farm & Home Hour did continue until March 30, 1983.

The gigantic convention center that sits in front of the Sunsphere was just a gleam in Victor Ashe's eye by the time Cas died, but it's not hard to imagine what he would have had to say about that money pit if he'd been around when it was built.

Another block south on the left was the intersection of Main Street on the way to the City County Building, which, Cas, of course, opposed, mostly because he opposed anything new, but specifically because he worried that it would lead to metro government, fluoridated water, and probably godless communism.

We got on the Henley Bridge and crossed the Tennessee River (Cas would never have called it Ft. Loudoun Lake) into South Knoxville. Over on the right, down on the Vestal side of Chapman Highway, stood the dumpy little building that used to be his corporate headquarters. He had a snarly stuffed raccoon in the reception area along with an equally mean-looking, life-sized painting of himself. There was a desk for a secretary, but it was never occupied. Visitors just looked for his car (generally a Nash Rambler that he'd take the back seat out of so he could haul his coon dogs around), and went on in and hollered for him.

A block south, in a spot at the base of Ft. Dickerson where the kudzu threatens to cover everything in its path, we passed by what used to be Cas Walker's Chapman Highway Supermarket—probably the biggest store in the whole chain. Disc Exchange and some other businesses are there now, and they draw a pretty different clientele than the customers who used to Stop, Shop and Save at the Sign of the Shears. Maybe it was my imagination, but I thought I could make out that patched-up spot in the parking lot where Cas buried Digger O'Dell alive in 1960 as a unique promotional event. I'm pretty sure I went to see Digger one Sunday when I went home from First Methodist Church with my best friend Sylvia Stout, who lived over in Lindbergh Forest a couple blocks away. Cas figured that was his second-best publicity stunt, surpassed only by giving away copies of Elvis Presley's will with $10 grocery orders.

It wasn't far from there to the south end of Woodlawn, and we pulled into the front part of the old cemetery where an open grave next to Genny's awaited. Granddaddy Bean and my brother John are buried there, too, up on the hill overlooking the Walker plot. Granddaddy bought his plots from a guy named Roe Ford, who sang in the Dixie Gems quartet with him. Maybe Cas knew Roe. I bet he got a deal.

We all piled out of our cars and gathered at the graveside for a brief final prayer service. Bobby, Johnny and I were among the last to leave, and just before we did, Bobby walked over to the casket, which was sitting on a swatch of artificial turf while the gravediggers waited for us to leave. He put his hand on the smooth wood and gave the benediction:

"He was a good son of a bitch."

We got back into the Caddy and Johnny and Bobby took me back to Fountain City and dropped me off at Mynatt's. On my way home, I wondered what it was going to be like in a Cas Walker-free world.

But going on 11 years after his death, he's still with us. Cas Walker lives not only in our oral tradition, but in 232,000 Google hits, dozens of YouTube clips and on the Dolly Parton Heartsongs album where she sings his Farm & Home Hour theme song just like she used to do when she was on his radio show as a kid. Precocious dirty trickster Tyler Harber, a Farragut High School junior when Cas died, appropriated Cas's name for an infamous website set up to punish Mayor Mike Ragsdale's political enemies a few years back. My son the lawyer has a photograph of the "Three Best Things in the World—watermelon, possum and Cas Walker" sign hanging in his San Diego home.

Call it the mystic chords of memory or shared tribal experience, but no matter how far we travel, we just can't shake Cas, and we probably can't even tell you exactly why, any more than we can say why we like our tea sweet and our chicken fried. It's an East Tennessee thing, and unless you can answer me with the second line of the Farm & Home Hour theme song when I sing "Pick up the morning paper when it hits the street," you just wouldn't understand.


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