On the outskirts of Knoxville, Tennessee, a 53-foot-long plane sits alongside the Old Dixie Highway. It’s never been flown, there’s no airport nearby, and the region has no history even remotely connected to flight, or air transportation. A guy named Elmer Nickle just liked planes. For a long time, it was his gas station, but today, it’s a barbershop.
One of Tennessee’s most prominent examples of novelty architecture, the plane was built in 1930 as a way to lure motorists off of the newly built Highway 25 into a service station owned by brothers Henry and Elmer Nickle. It worked, and over time, the Airplane Filling Station became something of a landmark and icon for locals who grew up driving by on a daily basis. Drivers pulled under the left wing for fuel and the right wing for oil changes and repairs. Employees, it’s said, would take turns sleeping in the tail of the plane—when motorists arrived in the dead of night, they’d wake up and fill their tanks.
Unfortunately, interstate highways built mid-century diverted the road traffic on which the Nickle brothers’ business depended. The station ultimately floundered, and in 1960 it entered a tumultuous phase, changing hands and roles—from a liquor store to a produce stand to a bait and tackle shop to a used car lot office—before being abandoned in 2000.
Mossy, rotting, and slated for construction, the building was slated for demolition until several members of the community formed the Airplane Filling Station Preservation Association (AFSPA). They held car washes, sold t-shirts, and applied for grants to raise the $100,000 needed to restore the structure to 1931 standards, replacing the brushed-steel plating exterior as well as the hardwood floors and beadboard paneling inside. The propeller and its motor (which turns at the flip of a switch) were replaced and repaired, respectively, by students at a nearby technical school. In 2004, the AFSPA helped their beloved gas station earn a spot on the National Registry of Historic Places.
The structure is now home to a barbershop owned by a man named John York who grew up driving by the airplane as a kid in his parents’ car. It’s filled with nostalgic gas station effects like a retro soda machine and red Coca-Cola benches, while a TV in the “cockpit” runs old movies for waiting customers. Reviews indicate he gives a mean haircut and never refuses to indulge curious customers with the history of the town’s beloved flightless plane.