Ernie Freeburg, Eugene Debs, and the Coon-Hunting–Groceryman–Politican–County Music Impresario Who is a Knoxville Legend

I love reading human interest stories about historians, especially historians who I know.

I spent six or seven years grading Advanced Placement United States History exams in San Antonio with Ernie Freeberg, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee. We did not get to know each other very well, but I always enjoyed chatting, however briefly, about his scholarly work on Laura Bridgman (which won the prestigious Dunning Prize from the American Historical Association in 2002) and Eugene Debs.

I recently discovered this article about Ernie from a Knoxville, TN newspaper. He discusses his recent biography of Debs, Democracy’s Prisoner: The Prisoner, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent. Ernie’s book has been on my “to read” list for some time now. I developed an appreciation for Debs after reading Nick Salvatore’s wonderful Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist and Ernie’s book seems to be another well-written account of the Socialist leader. Here is a snippet from the article:

Democracy’s Prisoner reads in places, like a novel, with swift pacing. History scholars aren’t known to be graceful writers, but Freeberg is an unusually good one. “It all has to do with being a journalist,” he says, crediting his background as a radio reporter in Maine. Full time for three years, part time for five, he had to file multiple news stories each week, and he learned how to tell a story. “So many people who have written about Debs are admirers who put him on a pedestal. I was determined not to do that.” Though he worked on the book for close to 10 years, he claims he never tired of his subject. Part of it was the engaging cast of characters: He mentions economist/activist Scott Nearing, American Communist John Reed and writer Max Eastman, who shaped Debs’ life and times. “And I have to admit I was seduced by Debs’ personality,” he says. He enjoyed finding each new anecdote that added to his subject’s complexity.

But another part of the article deals with the house in which Ernie and his wife now live. It apparently once belonged to a Cas Walker (there is a picture of his bust below). I have never heard of Cas Walker, but he seems to be a local Knoxville celebrity. The article describes him this way:

Groceryman and provocateur, country-music impresario, coon hunter, and longtime city politician, Walker was a reputedly millionaire, but lived in this relatively modest house in a working man’s neighborhood, with dog kennels and a small stable for a pony in the back yard.

Here’s more:

Walker died in 1998, but his house wasn’t completely cleared out, about six years ago, when Freeberg moved in. “I had read Bruce Wheeler’s history of Knoxville by the time I moved here in 2003, and knew something about Cas Walker’s mystique,” he says, smiling. Walker is a major character in Wheeler’s book, which details the grocer’s genius for spectacle. Freeberg was impressed, the first time he saw the house, by the previous owner’s security measures. “There was a ton of locks on the doors,” Freeberg says. “And floor safes.” Contrary to rumors of fortunes stashed in the house, Freeberg says the safes were empty, and he didn’t find anything of obvious value. There was a good deal of paper records, and Freeberg was going to donate it to the East Tennessee Historical Society. But when he moved in, most of it had been cleared out. A few interesting artifacts remained. One is a copy of a play called The Book of Job, by the Children’s Theatre Press, produced in Kentucky, personalized to Cas in 1960.

Take a few minutes and read this article about three very interesting guys: Ernie Freeberg, Eugene Debs, and Cas Walker.

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