Knoxville nighthawks: A picture worth a thousand words

Beth KinnaneDowntown, Our Town Stories, West Knoxville

It is simply one of the coolest pictures of downtown Knoxville I’ve ever seen. Posted in a history group, it breathes film noir, with a hint of Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks, and looks like you could step right through the looking glass onto Gay Street in 1947.

The photo is the Burwell building at the corner of Clinch Ave. and Gay that most famously houses the lobby of the Tennessee Theatre. It has had many occupants of its corner space over the last 98 years. Presently held down by Clancy’s Tavern & Whiskey House, it has been the location for Clancy Optical, a newsstand, a Southern Railway ticket office, JC Bradford & Co., and, of course, The Knoxville Banking and Trust Co. which originally owned and built it in 1907. It was expanded in 1928 around the construction of the Tennessee.

Rowena and Harold Mears (KNS digital archives)

The photo was taken in 1947, but the neon signage for “MEARS: Sodas – Cigars – Candies” wasn’t ringing a bell. The marquee for the Tennessee featured Ramrod, a noir western starring the peek-a-boo girl, Veronica Lake. Whether the guys and dolls out in front of the store were just loitering or waiting for a show, who knows? But the tableau makes old Knoxville look somewhere not exactly here.

Mears Store had just been opened that same year. It was a second, larger location than the original at the corner of Clinch and Market Street just a few blocks away. The stores’ owner, Harold Arthur Mears, had signed the lease on the Burwell building in February, copying his first luncheonette and cigar store, just in a larger space.

Mears was an interesting fellow. Born in 1902 in North Carolina, he first came to Knoxville in 1928. A pioneering aviator in the region, he was a World War II veteran of the Army Air Corps, predecessor to the Air Force. His first plane was a Curtiss JN “Jenny” which he used to fly stunt shows across East Tennessee. His wife, Rowena Castle, often flew with him in the double open cockpit bi-plane. She recalled in a Knoxville News Sentinel feature from 1974 that they used to fly out of the first McGhee Tyson airport on Sutherland Avenue (where West High School is now) to do night tours of Knoxville. They would leave their car’s headlights on in order to see the landing strip on their return.

His regular business was as a sales representative and, eventually, regional manager for the Hav-A-Tampa cigar company, founded in 1902 in Tampa, Florida. So having a couple of cigar/soda stores downtown certainly fit into Mears overall business plans. Mears even flew a Waco-10 bi-plane with the company logo and slogan “That’s My Business” on it.

The affable Harold Mears after surviving a plane crash (KNS digital archives).

The Mears family lived in Sequoyah Hills, and both Mr. and Mrs. as well as their children made regular appearances in local society pages. When the Air Force came to McGhee Tyson Airport, he was made mobilization deputy group commander. He stayed on after the Air Force departed at the state’s request to organize the air guard as group commander.

In July 1959, by then a colonel, Mears survived a horrific crash, his first in 15,000 hours of flying, at the McGhee Tyson Air Base. He was flying a North American F86-D Sabre fighting jet, what you usually take on a cross-country trip. Attempting an instrument landing during a violent thunderstorm, his odds worsened with runway lights off and out markers not working. He was also running low on petrol. There was no time to attempt another pass.

Mears’ crashed F86 Sabre jet at McGhee Tyson Air Base (KNS digital archives)

“Visibility was practically zero,” he said. “I knew there was only one thing to do, put it down wherever I could.”

The rain-soaked runway made braking pretty much pointless. His emergency braking parachute, made for exactly this type of scenario, failed to deploy. So, he bounced onto and down the runway, crashed through the instrument landing building, toppled the fence and came to a stop on the road to the base. He walked away from the mess without a scratch, and was mostly thankful no one else was hurt.

By the time of the crash, Mears had gotten out of the soda and sundries stand business, which eventually grew to him owning four stores. In 1960, he received his brigadier general stars at the air base. He died in May 1991 at the age of 88 and is buried in Highland Memorial Cemetery.

It’s amazing the stories you find from staring into a picture.

Beth Kinnane writes a history feature for It’s published each Tuesday and is one of our best-read features.

Sources: Knoxville News Sentinel digital archives¸ McClung Historical Collection digital archives/Knox County Library

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