James Earl “Doc” Webb was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1897 or 1898 and his family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee when he was 10 years old.
In 1925, as a self-taught pharmacist by profession, he moved to St. Petersburg, Florida to make a fortune.
A small man standing only 5’2” and with only a partial high school education, he was possessed by an insatiable desire to be successful and achieved his goal in style after starting a small 17×28 foot drug store in St. Petersburg known as “Webb’s Cut Rate Drug Company”.
From that beginning, he developed the “Most Unusual Drug Store in the World” known as “Webb City”.
The one-stop shopping complex would span 10 city blocks on the south side of downtown St. Petersburg that would include 72 individual stores within the complex that ranged from a standard grocery/drug store, barbershop, tire shop, etc. and at its peak employed over 1,700 people and included parking for 3,000 cars.
The story of Orton Caswell “Cas” Walker (1902-1998) is better known in Tennessee history. In addition to giving country star Dolly Parton her first television debut with Porter Wagoner on his early morning television show, he also built an empire in the grocery business.
Born in Sevier County, he also had a limited education and left East Tennessee at age 14 to work in the coal mines of Kentucky.
He returned to Knoxville in 1922 and in 1924 opened his first store which would eventually grow into a chain of 27 supermarkets in Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia.
Cas Walker’s start in the grocery business in Knoxville in 1924 and Doc Webb’s departure to the sunny climes of St. Petersburg in 1925 may be just one of many coincidences of two dedicated businessmen of that era becoming successful entrepreneurs with ties to the city of Knoxville.
Both were consummate showmen in the style of PT Barnum and Chattanooga Lookouts owner Joe Engel of the Chattanooga Lookouts minor league baseball team in the Southern Association.
Each had similar characteristics of willingness to engage in any promotion or gimmick to attract low-priced customers through heavy advertising campaigns.
The practice of buying products in bulk at low prices led Doc Webb to establish one of his mottos “Stock ‘Em High and Sell ‘Em Cheap” which could equally apply to Casa Walker.
There would be no limit to unusual and sometimes bizarre promotions that would attract large audiences with particular appeal to both whites and lower-income blacks looking for a bargain to feed their families.
From Cas’s stunt with O’Dell’s “Digger” being buried underground in the parking lot of one of his grocery stores in Knoxville and Doc’s famous “3-cent Breakfast” fare during the post-depression 1933 period consisting of “One Egg, Two Strips bacon, three slices of toast, semolina and ham sauce” shocked and attracted the public to their business.
Both were embroiled in controversy during their lifetimes, but the turmoil only increased the daily footfall, which averaged 12,000 visitors each day at Doc’s Webb City, “the world’s most unusual drugstore,” and a similar number at Cas’ locations with his scissors sign showing that he was “cutting prices” outside each store.
Cas has worked in Knox County politics for over 40 years and has been involved in many battles with his colleagues. He gained the reputation of “always for the little man”.
Doc Webb would gain prominence in his legal battles against fair trade laws that allowed “price fixing” by large corporations.
Although the legend of Cas Walker is well known in East Tennessee and Knoxville history, the story of “Doc” Webb in Sunshine City on Florida’s west coast on the Gulf of Mexico is also legendary in St. Petersburg.
In 2003, a graduate student, Pamela D. Robbins, wrote a “dissertation submitted to the Department of History (Florida State University) in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy covering the life of a doctor in St. Petersburg from 1925 until his death in 1982. Googling her name , you can get a hard copy of said dissertation under the aforementioned title “Stack Em High and Sell Them Cheap”. Doc’s business travel is equally applicable to Casa.
Luckily, Doc didn’t live to see the destruction of his beloved creation by the wrecking ball in 1984, as the former St. Petersburg haven for senior tourists transitioned to light industry and away from the dependence on tourism and less reliance on the citrus fruit industry.
The empires built by Cas Walker and Doc Webb were products of a bygone era, but one cannot discount the idea that they will be able to adapt to the 21st century with their determination and creativity.
(The possible theory that Walmart and Sam’s Club founder Sam Walton may have picked up a few tips from Cas and Doc’s life stories is another reason to reconsider his business path to becoming a billionaire?)
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