Cosby Airstream campground

Tim Thomas and his puffy poodle Riley rest in front of a 1990 model Airstream Excella 1000 at his Cosby Airstream campground.

You can almost hear the dual exhausts from Junior Johnson’s Ford coupe echo through the hot June nights along the Hooper Highway even after 70 years.

White lightning fueled the Cosby economy nestled against the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Today, tourists provide the money, and it’s been a strong stimulus except for the recent shutdown because of the Coronavirus. Current traffic is much brisker for Cosby, and Realtor Tim Thomas, with Cosby Real Estate, is glad to see the uptick.

Particularly because he has just opened a business that harkens back to the NASCAR racer’s early years. Its called Airstream Village at Moonshine Ridge. And yes you still might find a few skeletons of steel and copper stills near the campground.

You might know Cosby Real Estate, and through the Newport Plain Talk I have gotten to know the succession of owners during the past several decades. The ones I recall were Farrell and Shelly Golden, who sold their business in recent years. I came across Tim and his unique idea while cruising along the Hooper Highway myself and happened to see a couple of Airstream campers pulled behind the real estate office. This got my curiosity aroused.

I keenly associate the Airstream with the late Reid and Melba Bailey. You remember him as the manager of the local Parks Belk. One of their favorite things to do every year for vacation was to pull their silver bullet shaped Airstream to the Gulf Coast of south Florida to be with like-minded campers.

It’s been a few months since I first followed Tim turning onto Cricket Hollow where Our Place, a favorite coffee and bookstore, sits on the corner beckoning tourists and locals. In just a few hundred yards we turned off the road into a small forest of trees. He had just begun development, but the idea for an Airstream campground where people could rent, overnight, restored Airstreams swirled in his mind for a few years.

I promised to return to see how things were going and did so towards the end of May. When I drove up a couple of senior citizens sat where they had been burning some branches after raking. Looked to me like Nevin and Shirley Thomas were helping clean up the new campground. They are Tim’s parents, who after retirement chose to live near Crossville.

I always like to ask many questions as a habit from my news reporter days at the Plain Talk. Nevin Thomas had an interesting career in what I would associate with industrial health and safety. He did that work, as a young man born in Pennsylvania, in the oil fields of Bakersfield, California. They are from Ligonier, Penn.

“It’s our working vacation,” said Nevin. Parked and hooked up nearby was their sharp Winnebago. I quickly learned that Tim has a twin brother, Jeff, who lives in Virginia. Sister Debbie Payne and husband Mike vacation just across from the campground, but not in an Airstream. The other siblings are Denise McQuillen of North Carolina, and Cindy Graham of Penn.

Tim started our tour at the front of the campground anchored by a 40-feet-long Diplomat RB, Monaco 2001 model. It is the Ritz of the site and already appreciated by visitors. Tim refers to it is a “diesel pusher” rear engine, heated floors, exquisite. “You don’t hear any road noise.”

When Tim bought the two lots of about 1.5 acres, an old single wide occupied some of the space and it is gone. It took last year and this one to create underground electric, water, and septic. He has six sites some already in use for phase one. Later he will add a bathhouse, and outdoor kitchen/pavilion.

The oldest Airstream he now has for rental is a 1974 Excella 500, 31-feet long. It was the top-of-the-line in its day selling for about $15,000 retail. He found it near Marietta, Georgia and bought it “sight unseen.” Tim is the third owner and he did the total interior renovation.

It must have every option thought of in the 1970s and you can get this feel, as Tim slid out the highball glass holder to show. He has reupholstered but kept the aluminum headliner, original curtains, and table.

The ’74 has propane heating, DC lights, microwave and convection oven—all for $75 a night rental. I think what will also draw vacation renters is the soothing creek noise at the rear. Each site has a fire pit too. He provides seasoned firewood just for a donation that goes to Friends of the Animal Shelter.

We walked a short distance to the nearby 1990 Excella 1000 Airstream, 34-feet-long flashing a like-new polished aluminum skin. He found this and a match at the Punta Gorda, Florida Air Stream Village. I am sure this is where the Baileys and others from Tennessee gathered on vacations.

How did Tim find these 1990 beauties? He helped some folks find property off Rocky Flats Road, Cosby. “I told them of my Airstream campground plan, and they connected me to the owner in Florida.” Tim ended up buying both Airstreams. You could expect to pay $35,000 for such used models.

If you are in the new market for the iconic Airstream, you are looking at up to $170,000 for 2020 models. But Tim continues to look for a few more much older, lower priced ones for his young campground. Airstreams have been rolling along US highways since the 1930s.

It took him over 100 hours to clean and buff out the shining original sheen of the 1990 Excella 1000 from its dingy gray state. All I saw missing was the wrap-around blue stripe, which Tim will recreate. The doorbell is a charmer.

Tim doesn’t mind the work required to pull out all the kitchen and storage cabinets to refinish and reveal the lustrous oak or cherry wood. He tries to keep as much original but fixes what he needs to for comfort and safety.

Both of the Airstreams already have bookings online through his Airstream-Village.com

The 1990 models show a lot of improvements over earlier models that had only dual axles. The new ones feature tri-axle and tow smoother and steadier on the highway at high speeds. “It just glides.” One of these weighs up to 9,000 pounds; older smaller models about 7,000 pounds.

Why did he choose Airstreams? “I think they are cool,” and he is not alone in his admiration.

We left the afternoon shade and peaceful song of the creek with the distinct odor of burning pinewood fire where Nevin and Shirley had been relaxing and drove to Cosby Real Estate about a quarter mile south towards Gatlinburg.

Tim wanted to show me his next project behind the real estate office. There rested a tired 1986 Excella tri-axle, one of the two he bought as a pair. I immediately was drawn to the many windows with their slight radius and riveted attachment.

“They just thought of everything” when they built the Air Streams. This one has two propane heaters, twin beds, and jackknife couch with lots of nostalgia surrounding its 1980s grandeur.

While we toured the gravel grounds, and Tim explained his current and future campground plans, his tall puffy standard poodle Riley disappeared into the woods. I’m guessing the tourists’ pets will relish the outdoors chasing small furry critters and hiding from any black bears that might appear.

Take a quiet trip in time—a time out—with little effort by staying a few nights in one of Tim’s restored Airstreams, off the beaten path at Cosby, Tennessee.

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