Old Stories for a New Year: a Flag, a Ghost, and Cas Walker

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I had a bit of a flashback moment last week, the sort of thing fellows over 50 suffer occasionally when we can’t remember what year it is.

Picture a businessman who, despite decades of rumored questionable practices, becomes a very wealthy man, a multi-millionaire. Despite that detail, he holds himself forward as a simple, straight-talking man of the people. He shoots from the hip, speaks his mind. Some folks respect that, even when he seems reckless. He has a knack for insulting rivals, hitting them harder than they hit him.

He denounces the elite power structure and is outspoken in his disdain of the press. However, he is irresistibly attracted to show business, and even develops his own sort of reality show. He becomes a familiar brand. He parlays his business and show-business celebrity into an unlikely political career. He lacks the usual qualifications, but is proud of that fact. He insists he knows how to proceed without much study. He warns us that crime’s getting out of hand, and that foreign ideologies are creeping into American life. He has a quick temper, but makes it seem like an asset.

And soon after he takes the oath of his government’s top administrative job, he’s already facing murmurings about his removal.

Cas Walker was one of a kind. (Who’d you think I was talking about?)

For those who just joined us, Cas was an extremely successful grocer from Sevier County who sponsored a country-music radio show and later a TV show. He was well known as a self-promoter for years before he was elected to Knoxville City Council. In 1946 he became mayor, by the rules of the day, as the most popular vote-getter on Council. But things started to go wrong right away, after he got angry at various colleagues, and within a short time citizens were calling for his removal. He served as mayor less than a year. But he remained on City Council for another quarter century and was a popular TV personality longer than that.

Is Donald Trump America’s Cas Walker? There are, of course, some differences. Cas wasn’t born rich. He didn’t have a nuclear bomb, or Twitter. And he helped nurture a new form of country music called bluegrass. He’s mentioned in many scholarly histories of country music. For populist demagogues of the future, Cas set a high bar.

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Courtesy Anthony Norris

Knoxville Flag Design by Anthony Norris

There’s been lot of flag-waving lately. If you want to wave Knoxville’s own interesting and complicated flag, you can.

That Victorian-era flag I described in a column a few weeks ago was designed by artist Lloyd Branson and first unfurled in an 1896 ceremony on Market Square. Today it’s available in just one place I know of, the Allen Sign Co., at 2408 Chapman Highway.

Or you can design your own.

I asked if there might be other proposals to update the flag for a new century, and got a few interesting responses. Anthony Norris apparently disagrees with my assertion that a Knoxville flag, being a municipal thing, shouldn’t necessarily emphasize the color orange. What he came up with does indeed shout a hearty “Go Vols!” with its main color, but with two shades of blue and white forming a design suggestive of the state flag. And one Caleb Hrothgar shared a design he’d already come up with, sketched in crayon in his biology notebook, and is arguably a simplified version of the 1896 flag, with golden wings encircling a suggestion of the state flag, over crossed double stripes of violet on a field of green.

I’m no vexillologist, but I’m not sure we’re there yet.

Courtesy Caleb Hrothgar

Knoxville Flag Design by Caleb Hrothgar

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Finally, I got a surprising response to my Halloween story about the “ghost house” at 309 East Cumberland that preoccupied the city in 1923. The house is long gone, as is the entirety of East Cumberland Avenue. The owner of the troublesome house, as I mentioned, was Austrian immigrant Joseph Ahler, a practical man who did what he could to dampen the superstitious hubbub. The gray man who kept showing up at the house gave the place a very high tenant turnover rate, and landlords never like that.

When you write about someone who was born in the 1860s, you don’t alwyas expect to hear from someone who knew him well. But Mary Sue Hamilton, who lives in Maryville, does remember Mr. Ahler. He was her grandfather.

Ms. Hamilton was born in Knoxville, to an itinerant Prebysterian-minister’s family, and spent most of her life away, in Chicago, Kentucky, and Missouri, where she lived with her husband and taught elementary school for years. In retirement, she finally circled back to her ancestral home.

She turns 90 this year, and remembers visiting her grandfather, who lived on East Church. Joseph Ahler was born near Vienna during the long and eventful reign of the Emperor Franz Joseph. She recalls him as “a thin, very wiry person” who had a little mustache and always wore white suits in the summer. People called him “the colonel.” He came to America as a teenager in the 1880s, and first settled with his family in the Oliver Springs area, where there were some other Austrians. His parents spoke mostly German at home. He gravitated to Knoxville, where he opened a plumbing and electrical business, and eventually owned a little shop on Gay Street, where he sold appliances.

“I think he Americanized rapidly,” she says. In her memory he had no obvious accent. He liked to eat lunch at the S&W Cafeteria. She remembers crossing an iron bridge on foot to get to Gay Street. The first big concrete viaduct was built in 1937.

He also owned a good deal of land on the east side of downtown, and in the ’50s sold much of it to the city for the construction of the Civic Coliseum. By then, Ahler had moved to Fountain City, and the East Church neighborhood was pretty run down, she recalls. She thinks his own home was approximately where the Coliseum’s sign is, at the corner of Hall of Fame and Howard Baker Jr. Boulevard.

She recalls he liked to tell stories, but she never heard the one about his tenant who was a ghost.

Contributing Editor & Writer | jack@knoxhistoryproject.org |

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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