Airplane gas station barber shop.
Restored filling station looks almost exactly as it did when it first opened in 1931.

Airplane Filling Station

Field review by the editors.

Powell, Tennessee

The early-20th-century excesses of giddy gas station design are mostly gone forever, with a handful of survivors such as the Seashell and Teapot now considered roadside icons.

Airplane gas station.
Cryptic "Z13" was faithfully reproduced from the original plane, although no one knows what it means.

Less well known, but even more elaborate, is the Airplane Filling Station. You probably haven't heard of it because until fairly recently it was a wreck.

"This place was a mess," said Tom Bruno, president of the Airplane Filling Station Preservation Association (AFSPA), which has been engineering the building's years-long restoration. "It was covered in kudzu," said Ernie Murphy, another member, who recalled that bulldozers were parked outside the weed-encrusted station in 2003. "I expected it to be pushed off the hill and it'd be gone."

It was not pushed off the hill thanks to AFSPA founder Thomas Milligan, who saw the bulldozers, bought the property, and then had the Filling Station added to the National Register of Historic Places. Tom Bruno first saw it shortly after that -- still a mess -- when he arrived in Tennessee from his previous home on Long Island. "I was amazed when I first saw it driving up the highway," said Tom, who recalled how most of New York and New Jersey's similar fantastic structures -- such as the Leaning Tower of Pizza -- had fallen to the wrecking ball. Tom found out about AFSPA and joined. "I told myself, 'I gotta get involved so the airplane doesn't disappear,'" Tom said. "Because things disappear. I've seen it happen."

Vintage view - Airplane gas station.
Elmer and Henry Nickle pose in front of their one-of-a-kind creation.

Ernie, who had seen the airplane his entire life, had a different epiphany. "I didn't pay much attention to it 'cause it was always here," he said. "Then one day I was passing by and there was signs, 'Save the Plane.' I was tickled to death that they was doing something with it. I came up here and I've been here ever since."

The airplane, with a design inspired by Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, opened in 1931. It was the vision of Henry and Elmer Nickle, two local brothers. There's no airport nearby, no connection between airplanes and this part of Tennessee, and no professional link to the brothers, who were not pilots. "They just liked airplanes and said, 'Hey, let's build one,'" Tom explained. Motorists would pull under the left wing for gas, or the right wing for minor repairs.

Propeller work.
Propeller maintenance by AFSPA members Tom Bruno and Ernie Murphy.

The airplane may have also sheltered a DIY distillery. Tom said that elderly residents told him that their fathers would stop for gas and return from the back of the plane with jars of moonshine.

The Filling Station pumped gas for 35 years, then entered its long decline. It became a liquor store, fruit stand, bait shop, and a used car lot office. By the time AFSPA bought the airplane it was abandoned, rotted, leaking, and near-collapse.

Restoration was slow, with frequent halts when money ran out. Despite the uniqueness of the building, AFSPA was frustrated by a lack of commitment from the local community -- the same people who didn't notice or care when the bulldozers arrived in 2003. "Now people around here say, 'That plane looks nice,'" said Ernie. "But people didn't get behind it as much as I thought they should have. That bothered me a little bit."

AFSPA has poured over $100,000 into the airplane's revival -- raised through car washes, t-shirt sales, and occasional grants -- cutting no corners, trying to rebuild it exactly as it was in 1931, with as many of the same materials as possible. New brushed-steel plating protects the outside; the interior is finished with hardwood floors and beadboard paneling on the walls and ceiling. The propeller motor, fashioned by the Nickel brothers from the back end of a Model A Ford, has been repaired, and the propeller itself has been replaced by a wood-and-copper replica crafted by students at a local technical school. It spins at the flip of a switch.

AFSPA's current challenge is to find a tenant who can conduct business inside a building shaped like an airplane, and who won't mind answering questions from curious tourists, or gently disappointing people who stop to buy gas. "We don't want a vape shop, or somebody who'd start banging holes in the walls," said Tom. Turning the Airplane into a tourism office would make perfect sense, except that local bureaucrats don't seem interested.

Tom, Ernie, and the other AFSPA members work on, knowing that the Airplane Filling Station has at least been preserved and restored for the next generation. "You're not gonna see another one," said Tom. "That's what pushed me to do something, because all of a sudden these things get wiped out. You gotta do something."

Airplane Filling Station

Address:
6829 Clinton Hwy, Powell, TN
Directions:
I-75 exit 110 (Callahan Drive). Drive west about a mile, then turn right at the stoplight onto US Hwy 25W/Hwy 9 (Clinton Hwy). The plane is at the top of the hill about a half-mile north, on the left side of the road.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Massacre That Saved KnoxvilleMassacre That Saved Knoxville, Knoxville, TN - 5 mi.
Centaur of TennesseeCentaur of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN - 7 mi.
The SunsphereThe Sunsphere, Knoxville, TN - 7 mi.
In the region:
Millennium Manor, Alcoa, TN - 16 mi.

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