- [S106] The Mountain Press, 16 Jul 2017.
Casey Oakley recalls old mountain days
By JULI WATSON NEIL
Casey Oakley (center) is joined by daughter-in-law Lisa Oakley and son Brad Oakley at Twin Creeks on July 8 for his 87th birthday celebration. Doug Mills (not pictured), who previously served as a camera operator for WBIR's "Heartland Series," filmed the event for the family.
GATLINBURG - Casey Oakley looks enough like Willie Nelson to be regularly asked for an autograph. He once lived on an island - just outside Gatlinburg. As a youngster, he stood with others who had gathered to hear President Franklin D. Roosevelt formally dedicate the new Great Smoky Mountains National Park that had been established just six years before. And, perhaps most reflective of growing up in the mountains years before phone service arrived, he'd much rather talk face-to-face than chat over the phone.
On July 8, Oakley celebrated his 87th birthday with family and friends. A professional videographer, Doug Mills of the long-running "Heartland Series," was there - but Oakley's used to that. "I knew about it," Oakley said of the party. "They told me. I didn't know Heartland would be there. He did all the videos for (show host) Bill Landry."
Mills goes back decades with the Oakley family: for the first episode of the "Heartland Series," he filmed Lucinda Oakley Ogle. Both Casey and Lucinda are children of Wiley Oakley, well-known in the Appalachians as the "Roamin' Man of the Smokies," and she was the subject of the pilot of what was supposed to be a limited-run series created in 1984 in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The show aired until 2009.
"We did one with a recording of Wiley telling his cow barn story," Mills said of his long history filming the Oakley family. The story involves a newly-married Wiley getting into an argument with his wife at their homestead on Britches Mountain, then storming off to his cow barn.
Fast-forward 33 years, and Mills finds himself filming another of Wiley's children as part of Casey's 87th birthday.
"Most of them had Casey stories to tell," said Mills. "There was a lot of, 'What's your favorite Casey story?' The general consensus is that Casey is quite a character. For awhile, he lived on an island in the Greenbrier area in a tee-pee. He's the last of the mountain-man types."
Mills proceeded to share the story that's been told - in person and in print - about Oakley for decades: At the age of about 12, Oakley and a buddy set off for Florida because they wanted to swim in the ocean. They packed a suitcase with a jar of mayonnaise and got as far as Georgia.
Ask Casey Oakley to explain how they made it that far and how they got caught running off, and he jumps right into the story as if it just happened last week. "I had a great big suitcase, a loaf of bread and mayonnaise," Oakley said. "We'd stop and get in tomato patches. We hitchhiked almost to Georgia. The highway patrol picked us up ... I'm the Roamin' Man, too. I got that roamin' itch, too."
Ask if he got in trouble for the stunt, and Oakley laughs. "I did, but it didn't make no difference ... They put us in a holding cell. I was small enough to slip in and out of the bars. We just walked through the bars."
He gives the same laugh when recalling more recent stories, such as gladly giving an autograph when he's mistaken for Willie Nelson - which happens on a fairly regular basis.
Daughter-in-law Lisa Oakley helped organize the July 8 birthday celebration at Twin Creeks. "There were about 40 family and friends who came. We were a small but happy group, " she said. "This is the one, and probably the only, birthday party. There were Oakley reunions in the past, but not since the elder generation has passed on. I just thought it would be good to have Casey in one place for family and friends to come and visit with him, and quite a few did.
"Casey is chronicled in a lot of the photographs from the area as a boy because he was often tagging along with Wiley," Lisa Oakley continued, "and the national and regional photographers loved to take pictures of him. He was a character from the start. There are photos and stories about him nationally as well as locally, plus images in the Tennessee Library and Archives from the Conservation Department when they came to go along with Wiley in the mountains, and Casey was along with him."
Lisa Oakley is the curator of education for the East Tennessee Historical Society.
"Yeah, I was up at the dedication with Roosevelt," Casey Oakley said. "I was nine years old ... My dad, Wiley, was very instrumental in (establishing) the park. He took John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford there. He told them it had to be preserved. It was sacred."
Daughter-in-law Lisa Oakley perhaps best summed up Casey Oakley and his legacy. "Lucinda Oakley Ogle, Casey's older sister, always said Casey was the most like Wiley of all the kids, " she said.
Contact Juli at email@example.com or on Twitter at @NeilWatsonJ.