In a jiff, Nora Lee became the star of Gasser’s Flying Circus, which featured 13 different acts. Adorned in rubber-soled boots, a skin-tight wool flying suit, soft, leather gloves, a helmet and goggles, she performed “a death defying feat of skill and bravery.”
For seven years, from the late 1920s into the mid-1930s, Nora Lee, billed as America’s only female wing walker who performed without a tether or parachute, titillated crowds from Augusta, Ga., to Louisville, Ky., and all points between, in towns like Chattanooga, Clarksville and Gallatin. As long as there was a clear patch of ground safe enough to land and take off from, the show, which evolved into Louie Gasser’s Thrill Drivers and Sky Circus, would go on.
The first time the daredevil feminine star walked a wing over Cumberland Park in Nashville, a crowd of 6,000 stretched their necks to the sky. After returning to terra firma, Nora Lee said, “It’s easy, I’ll do it again.”
After dozens of performances, Gasser said, “We hardly ever think of the danger and the chances she is taking in an act where one mistake would mean certain death.”
Nora Lee described her game plan, “Two steps out and I look at him to see that everything is all right. If his signal is right I go on, looking back each step, my hands on the wires between the wings.”
The pretty, petite high flyer performed approximately 100 wing walks before hanging up her goggles to raise two sons and a daughter.
Today, the children, residents of Rutherford County, reflect upon their late parents, and son Juan, 68, notes, “Daddy was just doing whatever he could to make a living. He flew a lot delivering mail and passengers.”
“That was his moneymaker—flying passengers and the thrill shows,” said daughter Gwen Miller, 65, of Christiana.
“Most of the passengers were just joy riding. They would go into a town where people were not used to airplanes, land in a field and had passengers pay to ride just for the fun of it,” said Juan, who lives in Smyrna.
Nora Lee was born May 21, 1909, in Woodbury (Cannon County) to Bertha (Logan) and Eliza Coleman Davenport. Her family soon moved to Oklahoma, where Nora Lee’s mother died when she was a year old. Her father returned to Woodbury and became a traveling salesman and an undertaker, thus Nora Lee was raised by her grandmother and grandfather.
Later in life the wing walker pondered, “Maybe it was the fact that my father was in the undertaking business, and I learned to accept the idea of death early. I’m always afraid when flying is rough and bad but I never have been frightened enough to turn back.”
The girl completed the eighth grade and left her hometown at 16 to seek her fortune in the big city 50 miles to the west.
“She moved to Nashville to work at Werthan Bag Company. She and some girls lived together,” Gwen recalled. “They went down to Club Dreamland (a Murfreesboro Road nightspot), and that’s where she met Daddy.
“Albert Gasser, Daddy’s brother, first asked her to dance, but she wanted to dance with Daddy. She pointed and said, “Him—and that’s when it all (the romance) began.”
George Louis Gasser was born Oct. 29, 1904, in Nashville. By 14 he had constructed his first airplane, “Speedy No. 1,” which he hoped to propel off the ground with a motorcycle engine.
“His dad saw he was gonna try to fly it, and he took an ax to it and chopped the wings off,” Juan said. Years later, Gasser reflected, “It’s probably lucky for me that Dad wrecked the plane. I probably would have killed myself with it.”
But the youngster had other ideas for the leftovers.
“He took the motorcycle engine out and the fuselage and made them into an airboat, Speedy No. 2. He put rocks on each side to balance it, but when he made a sharp turn and the rocks all slid to one side, the boat sank in the Cumberland River,” Juan laughed.
A couple of years later Gasser left for the Windy City, where he learned to fly a real plane and returned to Nashville with his rating. In 1923, a teenaged Louie Gasser initiated commercial aviation in Nashville.
For several years he was operations manager of Nashville Flying Service at McConnell Field near the Sylvan Park area of Nashville, but in the 1930s, he bought the business and brought brothers Albert and Monk into work with him. Later, he moved Nashville Flying Service to Berry Field, and after being displaced by military activity brought on by World War II, he moved his business to Lebanon in 1943 when he purchased the airport from Cumberland University for $5,000.
It was in 1945, near the end of World War II, when a tornado struck the Lebanon Airport and demolished the hangar and destroyed more than a dozen planes. In 1946, Gasser sold the airport to Paul Crockett and James Driver.
Lebanon’s J.J. Tomlinson, 81, who learned to fly at the Lebanon Airport and served on the Airport Commission for 15 years, recollected, “Louie Gasser was extremely well liked. I first met him in 1939.
That tornado in 1945 about put him out of business. He taught a lot of people I knew how to fly.”
Tomlinson, who served 24 years in the Air Force as a mechanic and flight engineer working on B-29s, P-51 Mustangs and C-97s among other aircraft, also remembers the first air mail flight out of Lebanon.
“Louie Gasser did the first airmail out of Lebanon to promote a new airmail stamp. He flew in here and picked up mail from the postmaster, James Richard (J.R.) Hobbs, in 1944. He flew a Meyers OTW, probably to Nashville. It was more symbolic than anything. Homer Shannon, who owned Shannon’s Drug Store, was also involved and he really got a kick out of it,” Tomlinson said.
Gasser had numerous businesses running in between teaching others how to fly and maintaining hangers for other plane owners. He still holds the patent on advertising banners that are towed aloft behind planes.
“There are only two places that build those banners today. One of them is in Nashville, and they still use the name Gasser Banner Services,” Juan said.
From the 1950s into the early 1960s, he operated Louie Gasser Air Service at Cumberland Field, north of Nashville, the present site of MetroCenter. Louie and brother Albert also owned and operated Gasser Harness and Saddlery on Second Avenue in downtown Nashville for years.
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: the first of a two-part series. The second part will appear in the June 15 edition of The Wilson Post.