Orton Caswell Walker
Orton Caswell “Cas” Walker was one of the most flamboyant politicians in mid-twentieth century Knoxville as well as a major force in promoting country music in East Tennessee. Born in Sevier County, Walker grew up in a working family, and he never left these roots as he met with success in his later career. He left home at the age of fourteen to work at the Champion Pulp and Fibre Company works in North Carolina, where he regularly sent back money to help his family. In his twenties Walker took jobs in various Kentucky coal mines, saving his money to the amount of $850, which he then invested in a Knoxville grocery store in 1924.
His career in Knoxville is the stuff of modern legend. Known for his low prices, the rural atmosphere of his stores, his aggressive marketing, and innovative advertising, Walker soon parlayed one store into a prosperous grocery store chain. His success in business led Walker into the stormy turmoil of mid-twentieth century Knoxville politics, where he glorified in his image as a hick, redneck, or just plain idiot. Melding his advertising for his stores and for his political views into a consistent image of the downtrodden underdog working mightily to displace the “elite,” Walker won a seat on the Knoxville City Council in 1941 and immediately began to build a powerful base of political support within the city, especially with working class whites and blacks. In 1946 he became mayor of Knoxville, but within months he faced cries for his recall due to his fight with his own city manager. In that fall’s city council elections, he lost his seat on the council and therefore could no longer serve as mayor.
Walker, however, soon made a political comeback, winning back his council seat in 1947 and reestablishing his formidable political machine by the early 1950s. In 1956 Walker, during a heated council debate, engaged in a fistfight with fellow council member J. S. Cooper, a former supporter. While the fight brought negative publicity to the city from regional and national media, it did little to undermine Walker’s local popularity. In the late 1950s he played a pivotal role in defeating the city’s and county’s consideration of creating a metropolitan government. When the issue resurfaced twenty years later, Walker still opposed and helped to gather the opposition to defeat it. There was no more powerful single individual in Knoxville politics between 1940 and 1970 than Cas Walker.
His popular radio and television programs were key parts of his success. Advertising his weekly specials through both radio (WIVK-AM) and television (WBIR), Walker hosted an extremely popular daily program, the Farm and Home show. The programs helped to launch the careers of the Everly Brothers and introduced the twelve-year-old Dolly Parton to a wide East Tennessee audience. Thus, when Walker died in 1998, many commentators spoke more of his role in country music and bluegrass music than his turbulent years as a politician.