By Mike Steely
Those of you too young or too new to our area may probably wonder what’s all the hubbub about that old man, Cas Walker?
For those of us from this area old enough to remember black and white television and 45 rpm records, the old man was an icon on local television and in local politics and a supermarket chain owner. He used his stores and his television program not only to sell groceries but also to sell himself and his sometimes controversial opinions.
To say that Walker was a character is a huge understatement.
On Thursday, October 24th the East Tennessee History Museum is hosting a book launch, panel discussion and musical presentation for the new book, “Cas Walker: Stories on his Life and Legend,” published by the UT Press and written by Joshua Hodges. Hodges recorded oral stories from friends, employees, rivals and allies of Walker.
As a child I remember watching Cas Walker’s “Farm and Home Hour” that aired on local TV from 1954 until 1971. The show, with Walker’s grocery pitches, politics, and warnings to shoplifters, served as a springboard for Dolly Parton, the Everly Brothers, and many others. Walker served on the Knoxville City Council, briefly as city mayor, and eventually owned supermarkets in Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia.
In the early 70s Cas Walker opened a store in Rogersville, Tn., where I was Bureau Chief for the Kingsport-Times News. I arranged, prior to the grand opening, to meet “the old coon hunter” at the store. I didn’t know what to expect but he met me in front of the store and showed me around, explaining his merchandising policies. After a couple of hours I grew to respect the fellow, as country as he was, for his business wisdom and his in-your-face attitude.
Cas Walker was a merchandising genius. He designed his stores with the merchandise he wanted to move right there when you first went inside. He designed his “cash wraps” with merchandise the suppliers wanted to push and paid for the space. That’s two selling techniques almost all of the nation’s modern supermarkets now use.
The history museum program begins at 7 p.m. and is free and open to the public. The evening program includes a performance by members of the Cas Walker Band, led by Walker’s friend and banjo player David West. There’s a collection of video clips from his show and some rare footage of a young Dolly Parton. It’s only fitting that Dollywood now has a “Cas Walker” exhibit within that theme park.
A story swap will also be held with some of Walker’s friends and family. The event is presented by the UT History Department, the East Tennessee Historical Society and the Appalachian Media Archives.
You can get more information about the Museum and the Historical Society programs and events by calling 865-215-8824 or online at www.EastTnHistory.org.