It’s the classic story of an American man in his twilight years.
A retired business owner and Cessna pilot who helped build Shoney’s restaurants all over the country returns to his hometown with a Big Boy in his trunk and buys an old gas station shaped like an elephant.
Welcome to the tale of Wally Gladney, the man who took his “blow-it money” and saved a local landmark.
Wally Gladney graduated from Handley High School in 1956, so he always knew the elephant gas station as a piece of Roanoke’s local identity. The structure was built by E.O. Kitchens in the early 1930s and remained open in some capacity until the mid-1990s.
Some of the earliest existing photos of the building show it with a lighthouse on top, implying that the unusual shape of the building was meant to be a rocky base on which the lighthouse sat, serving as a beacon for passersby to stop and fill up and maybe take a photo.
At some point along the way, folks noticed that the archway on the right side of the building resembled the trunk of an elephant. An eye was painted on the structure and it has been known as “the elephant” ever since.
There are apocryphal stories of the structure originally being intended to look like a tooth and that the building was built as a dentist office, but there is little to no evidence that that was the case. An article from the Roanoke Leader dated May 6, 1931, stated that Kitchens bought the home at the corner of Lebanon and Main Streets and was remodeling it, and “in the meantime Mr. Kitchens has purchased of Mrs. Carrie Randle a strip of thirty feet adjoining his new possessions, and will at an early date begin erection thereon of a modern gas filling station.”
The station eventually came into the possession of W.L. Graben, who operated it as a gas station until the late 1980s, and then as a small convenience store and produce stand until his death in 1995.
And until Wally Gladney rode into town in the spring of 2021, the elephant sat empty, faded, dingy, overgrown and slowly rotting away.
After graduating from Handley and going on to earn an engineering degree from Georgia Tech, Gladney settled in Lexington, Ky., where he operated Lexington Tent and Awning company and became a season ticket holder for the University of Kentucky basketball team.
The majority of his business came from installing awnings on newly constructed Shoney’s restaurants.
“I did all of Shoney’s custom awnings at 940 stores in 41 states between 1975 and 2005,” he said.
He earned his pilot’s license and traveled to almost all of those locations by flying himself in a Cessna 172. He said the materials for the awnings would be shipped to the construction location, he would fly in on the 61st day of the building project, hire some local help and be done with his portion of the work in about four hours.
After 55 years in Lexington and well into his retirement days, Gladney looked around and realized there was very little keeping him Lexington. His wife had passed away five years earlier, his daughters were grown and had families of their own. So he decided to sell his house and his business and return to his roots in Roanoke.
He had no specific intentions for the money he earned from the sale of those possessions. He had paid for his daughters’ college education, and told them that he would also put money toward his grandchildren’s college education.
As for the rest, he decided, “I’m going to take this money I’m making from the business and the home, and I’m going to blow it.”
Once he was back in Roanoke, with his blow-it money in hand, the elephant began to call out to him. So he reached out to Jean Graben, who had inherited the building from her mother, but had developed a reputation for rebuffing all offers from prospective buyers.
Gladney said that one of Graben’s conditions for letting go of the elephant was that the buyer would also have to purchase the Main Street home that sits behind it, next to the parking lot of Southern States Bank.
Gladney agreed, and a deal was struck. They closed the sale last November, and Gladney immediately began the renovation that the building so desperately needed.
Any building that sits empty for 26 years is going to need a lot of work, and the elephant was no exception. When Gladney got inside he realized that the roof and three of the four exterior walls were either mostly or completely fallen in and unsalvageable. Trees and plants and vines had almost completely pulled the structure into the earth, with the trademark front faade all that remained relatively untouched.
“In my 61 years away from Roanoke, I haven’t had the kind of challenges that I had with this place,” he said.
But as the cleanup and renovation continued, he found pieces of the building’s history.
The crumbling remnants of the lighthouse that once sat atop the building were still inside as part of the collapsed roof. When he was pressure washing the front of the building, he uncovered a sign that read “Kitchens Pet…,” which was all that remained from the original Kitchens Petroleum Company sign that once adorned the building.
In the crawl space of the house up the hill, which he was also renovating, he found a portion of a wooden campaign sign from W.L. Graben’s failed attempt to win a seat on the county commission.
In all Gladney said he spent seven months and more than $100,000 renovating the elephant and the adjacent home.
“It’s more than I paid for it,” he said. “And I think it’s worth it.”
And he very possibly saved it from a much different fate. Not long after he began his renovation, the former gas station next door to the elephant was purchased and leveled. Gladney said the group that bought that property approached him about buying his new pet project as well.
“One Saturday I was in here working on it and eight people came in here, in four different cars, and they said, ‘We want to buy this,'” Gladney recalled. “I said, ‘It’s not for sale. Why? What would you do with it?’ They said, ‘We’re going to tear it down and make a parking lot for our new service station we’re going to put over here’.”
Thankfully for Roanoke, Gladney politely refused that offer and continued the business of saving the elephant, extending the life of Roanoke’s most recognizable building for potentially decades to come.
“This thing is set up to last a long time now I think,” he said.
That project came to its fruition last Thursday, when The Elephant Coffee Shop held its ribbon cutting with the Chamber of Commerce.
Gladney leased the building to the husband and wife team of Susan and Jud Cox, who opened the coffee shop on July 1 and have been serving high-quality coffee, frozen drinks, milkshakes, ice cream and Krispy Kreme doughnuts and have been very warmly received in the community.
So that’s the story of Wally Gladney and the elephant. The only question left to be answered is: What’s the deal with the miniature Big Boy statue that sits at the foot of the driveway to the Main Street home?
That is Gladney’s nod to all of the work he did with Shoney’s restaurants over the years. He purchased that particular Big Boy while he was in Wylie, Texas, on the way to his honeymoon at the Grand Canyon with his new wife Shirley last summer.
He bought it from a man who had several of the smaller statues. Gladney told the man if he could load it up in the trunk of his Cadillac he would buy it. So the man measured Gladney’s trunk, and it had room with about a half inch to spare. The problem was that the trunk was full of Wally and Shirley’s luggage.
So Wally put the luggage in the back seat, and they continued on their way. In the course of their time out west, he encountered someone who told him that his luggage might get stolen if he leaves it in the back seat.
“He said, ‘You better put it in your trunk’,” Gladney recounted. “I said, ‘No, there’s a Big Boy in my trunk.’ He was confused, so I opened up my trunk and that Big Boy was just a-smiling.”