Elmer and Henry Nickle stand in front of the airplane filling station in a photo dated ca. 1931.

photo by: McClung Historical Collection

March 11, 2019

How a Tennessee Town Saved an Airplane That Never Flew

Nearly two decades of work by residents and preservationists saved an iconic plane-shaped gas station outside Knoxville, Tennessee.

  • By: Emma Sarappo

If you drive west on U.S. Route 25W in Powell, Tennessee, just outside of Knoxville—known as the Clinton Highway in this part of the state—you’ll head up a slight hill. As the road curves north, you will see on your left something strange: an airplane. As you approach, it faces you, looking like it’s about to take off and fly over your head. As you get closer, you’ll notice the lack of propellers and the stairs leading to its right wing. You’ll probably realize it’s not an actual airplane, but you might pull over to get a closer look. That’s exactly what the Nickle brothers wanted you to do.

Around 1930, Elmer and Henry Nickle built the airplane as a novelty gasoline service station. The pumps sat underneath its wing. Neither one of them was a pilot; reportedly, Elmer just liked planes—but the Nickles were savvy businessmen hoping to capitalize on the business of automobile travel.

The front view of the airplane filling station.

photo by: Airplane Filling Station Preservation Association

The restored airplane sits atop a curve on the Clinton Highway, U.S. Route 25W.

In the ʼ30s, automobiles became more affordable and highways began to stretch across America, making car travel a feasible and fashionable option for tourism and adventure. This created a demand for on-the-go gasoline dispensing. (Previously, drivers would buy fuel somewhere like a hardware store and pour it themselves.) Scores of mom-and-pop roadside gasoline service stations—or, in this case, brother-and-brother—competed to fill those tanks, and owners had to do what they could to attract traffic. So Elmer and Henry collaborated with engineer Wayne L. Smith to design their station in the shape of an airplane.

The Clinton Highway was the perfect spot for their scheme. It was part of the eastern division of the Dixie Highway, an influential early interstate association that stretched from Miami to Detroit. Thanks to projects like the Dixie and the thousands of miles of roads built under Tennessee Gov. Austin Peay, U.S. Route 25W became a hotspot.

“Back when our city started to grow and these commercial highways were developing, there was really cool architecture,” says Todd Morgan, executive director of Knox Heritage, which now owns the plane. “These guys, they wanted to catch traffic, so they created this airplane as a novelty—but it was really good for business.”

Today, the airplane stands out as a well-preserved example of a fading roadside past. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004 based on its strength as one of East Tennessee’s last remaining examples of “fantastic architecture.” Novelty attractions like the airplane station, especially ones that mimicked other structures and objects, were popular in the 1920s and ʼ30s. There was even another airplane-shaped station on the other side of the state, in Paris, Tennessee, though it no longer exists. The Powell plane nearly met the same fate.

The Nickle brothers closed and sold the station by the 1970s. After that, it was used at various times as a liquor store, produce stand, bait and tackle shop, an office, and a used car lot. Local rumor says it may have been a moonshine distillery. Then, for a while, it was nothing but an abandoned curiosity.

The airplane filling station as it looked in 1984.

photo by: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by John Margolies

This 1984 photo shows the station beginning to degrade.

The airplane filling station before it was restored.

photo by: Airplane Filling Station Preservation Association

By the time the AFSPA stepped in, it was covered in kudzu and had structural damage.

By the early 2000s, the airplane was in bad shape. Although it remained an area landmark, it was out of use, falling apart, and covered in kudzu. Its second life began in 2002, when Powell resident Tom Milligan passed by and noticed bulldozers outside. Although its roof was leaking and its wooden interior was rotting, Milligan convinced the owners to sell him the property, and preservation efforts began in earnest. He and other residents formed a nonprofit group dedicated to saving the plane, the Airplane Filling Station Preservation Association (AFSPA).

Meanwhile, Tim Ezzell, a political science professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, assigned his graduate students a class project: Research the history of that old plane on the Clinton Highway and get it on the National Register. Jennifer Lehto and Micah Wood prepared the final nomination, and in 2004, it was officially listed.

The AFSPA continued its restoration project. It was slow going: The AFSPA had to solicit grants from local and state organizations, such as the Tennessee Historical Commission, and sell memorabilia to raise the money they needed. Community donations—of cash and materials—went toward fixing the plane’s structural damage.

The restored filling station as seen in a real estate flyer.

photo by: Airplane Filling Station Preservation Association

The airplane has been faithfully restored to its 1931 condition. The main door remains, but now people enter by walking around to the other side.

Today, the beautifully restored airplane is home to John’s Barbershop, run by John York. York cuts one customer’s hair at a time; others wait their turn in the plane’s tail, near a TV that often plays Westerns. The interior is small—300 or so square feet, according to Morgan—but it’s cozy. There’s an old Coca-Cola cooler and other memorabilia from its ʼ30s heyday, and though they’re not operational, the pumps outside have been restored. “They’ve been so very careful about recreating this that if you went back in time, the only difference would be the steps,” Morgan says: The entrance used to face the road, but now customers walk up stairs on the opposite side of the plane.

“It’s such a neat piece of roadside Americana. When these places are there for a long time, people create emotional attachments with them, and when they start to decline or disappear there’s a hole there.”

Todd Morgan, executive director of Knox Heritage

The building also got a new steward. Knox Heritage, an East Tennessee preservation group active in Knoxville and the surrounding area, assumed ownership of the building in November of 2018. When the AFSPA approached them about selling the plane two years ago, Morgan says, Knox Heritage initially suggested a preservation easement. “They said, ‘Well, I think we would just feel better turning it over to an organization like Knox Heritage,’” Morgan repeats. “We’re just proud they thought of us! It really is an honor for us.”

An easement through the Tennessee Historical Commission protects the plane through 2025; in the future, Knox Heritage will continue to preserve it, Morgan says. The airplane is the group’s first commercial property, and the rent it generates will help fund its other preservation efforts.

“It’s such a neat piece of roadside Americana. When these places are there for a long time, people create emotional attachments with them, and when they start to decline or disappear there’s a hole there,” Morgan says. “Folks approach me and say ‘Oh, yeah, I get my hair cut out there!’ There’s nothing else like that. It’s a nice little blast from the past.”

This story was updated on March 12 and 18, 2019.

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Emma Sarappo is an Editorial Intern at the National Trust. She can be found writing or in the kitchen of her century-old DC rowhouse.

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