This article is published in Explore Magazine’s fall & winter 2018 issue, featuring Iowa’s scenic byways. This week, The Gazette will publish articles featuring one byway each day online. You can pick up a hard copy of the magazine at area businesses, convenience stores and grocery stores. You also can pick up a copy at The Gazette.
It would be difficult to imagine a more storied roadway than the Lincoln Highway.
Stretching from Times Square in New York City on the east coast to Lincoln Park in San Francisco on the west and bisecting Iowa from Council Bluffs to Clinton, passing through Cedar Rapids along the way, the Lincoln was the first improved transcontinental highway in the United States, changing the face of long-distance automotive travel in the process.
Indiana entrepreneur Carl Fisher, who also helped create the Indianapolis 500, conceived of the Lincoln Highway, dedicated in 1913, as a “Coast To Coast Rock Highway.” Formally dedicated on Oct. 31, 1913, it became affectionately known as the “The Main Street Across America,”
The Lincoln Highway was named as a tribute to Abraham Lincoln just before the construction of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and helped demonstrate the power of good roads for transportation and interstate commerce. Travel became a new kind of adventure, as the highway provided travelers with a safer and easier way to explore the nation.
The Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway is Iowa’s portion of the historic highway, stretching more than 450 miles. Jan Garman, coordinator of the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway and secretary of the Iowa Lincoln Highway Association, said the roadway’s history remains a strong draw for travelers from across the United States and globally.
“People have shipped their cars from Europe to drive the entire route,” Garman said.
Portions of the original Lincoln Highway route have been realigned through the years to the more modern Highway 30, and the original Lincoln Highway Association was disbanded in 1927 as state and federal governments took increasing responsibility for roadway construction.
However, about 85 percent of the original highway still is travelable, albeit some stretches on gravel, and is marked with hundreds of modern road signs that echo the familiar red, white and blue concrete markers along the original highway route. And it remains rich with opportunities to explore some of the state’s most beloved treasures.
“That’s a big part of my job, to show that communities are all connected by this invisible thread,” Garman said. “People have told me that their kids have moved to another state, but those same kids end up living just a mile or two from the Lincoln Highway. It’s like they’re just a few miles away. That’s what makes the Lincoln Highway a living road.”
There are many more sites to see and explore than we could name here on the Lincoln Highway’s route through Eastern Iowa, from Tama to Clinton County. Boasting more than a century of memories and experiences, the Lincoln Highway experience is limited only by the explorer’s curiosity.
A bridge worth noting
Built in 1915, just two years after the Lincoln Highway opened, the distinctive Lincoln Highway Bridge in Tama features the words “Lincoln Highway” spelled out in cutout concrete letters along the bridge rails.
Strawberry Point contractor Paul Kingsley was contracted to design and build the bridge by county supervisors, who envisioned a small concrete bridge structure to carry the Lincoln Highway over Mud Creek. The supervisors decided to add the extra architectural expressions, including the lighted globes and eye-catching letters, as a means of distinguishing the bridges from dozens of others being built along the route.
Today, markers and an interpretive plaque document the history of the bridge, which continues to carry local traffic. The bridge was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, and Tama hosts an annual Lincoln Highway Bridge Festival each May. In July, the State Historical Society of Iowa awarded a $50,000 grant to Prairie Rivers of Iowa Resource Conservation and Development to restore the bridge.
In Belle Plaine, curiosity attracts many drivers to Preston’s Station and Preston’s Corner on 13th Street. It’s hard to miss the landmark — the building, virtually covered in antique automotive signs and memorabilia, stands out to even the most casual visitor — and there’s no mistaking its historical significance.
“If you knew my dad and my grandfather, it’s very much their personality,” said Mary Preston, who now lives in Belle Plaine with her husband and owns the larger property known as Preston’s Corner. “It’s a conversation piece, that’s for sure.”
The building dates to 1912, the year before the Lincoln Highway was dedicated, and was moved to its current location in 1921 when the highway was rerouted through town. Mary’s great-grandfather, George W. Preston, purchased the business, then a Standard Oil station, in 1923 for $100. Mary’s grandfather, George H. Preston, started working at the station at age 13, and it operated continuously until it closed as a Phillips 66 station in 1989.
The building remained in the family after the younger George died in 1993, and George’s son Ronald was caretaker until his death in 2011. Now Mary is intent on preserving and enhancing her family’s legacy.
The building itself is virtually frozen in time, Mary said, with an old refrigerator, office chair and other equipment in place just as it was when the business closed. “It’s literally a walk back in time when you open that door,” she said.
Preston said she has formed a 501c3 nonprofit and is working with preservationists from Kirkwood Community College to determine the extent of restoration needs. She said she hopes to renovate the main building, as well as a three-room hotel and garage on the property, and open all the buildings to visitors and provide an economic boost to the city.
“It’s certainly a labor of love to continue my family’s colorful legacy here,” she said. “This is strictly a labor of love for me. I was destined to be in Belle Plaine. Whatever it takes, we’ll do it. My grandfather put this station and Belle Plaine on the map.”
Pie and history
Among the best-preserved of all historical buildings along the Lincoln Highway is the Youngville Station and Café, at the intersection of Highways 30 and 218, northwest of Watkins. It looks as if it could still be operated exactly as it was decades ago, complete with the antique gas pumps out front.
The building, constructed in the Tudor Revival style, was built in 1931 by Joe Young on his pasture land so his widowed daughter, Lizzie Wheeler, could support herself. She and her children lived upstairs in the living quarters and operated the station and cafe. The operation also included three rental cabins for travelers.
Wheeler moved to Cedar Rapids in the late 1960s and leased the business to others, but by 1969 the business had closed due to parking and other issues. The building was later used as a residence into the 1980s before it was abandoned for many years.
Jim Hanke of Cedar Rapids is president of the Youngville Highway History Association, which acquired the Youngville Café in 1995 as a restoration project to celebrate Iowa’s sesquicentennial. He said he never had the chance to visit the cafe when he was working, but after he retired he became a regular customer.
“I came so much, they just asked me, can you make yourself useful?” Hanke said. \
“It’s one of those remnants of a bygone era,” he said. “That connection of trying to keep a little roadhouse open — that’s the main draw. For those of us still here today, it’s just a step back in time.”
A group of dedicated volunteers operates the cafe for lunches on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., seasonally from the first Tuesday in May to the last Thursday in October, serving up a large selection of homemade pies, along with a limited menu of sandwiches, soups and salads.
The cafe is now listed on the National Register of Historic Place. To make a reservation for groups of five or more, or for more information, contact Rita Sebastian at (319) 981-8051 or (319) 393-1688.
The ultimate goal of the Lincoln Highway Association was the construction of a permanent, paved roadway. By 1914, then-LHA president Henry Joy, convinced of the need for concrete paving of the entire roadway, came up with the idea of a Seedling Mile program to encourage communities in rural states like Iowa to pave milelong sections of the highway, in an effort to persuade states and counties of the need for such improvements.
As part of the program, the LHA required these paved miles be located in rural areas, at least six miles from any town, in areas where the landscape might make road travel difficult. The notion: If a driver proceeded from a paved mile of highway onto an unpaved, often muddy, road, the contrast would dramatically demonstrate the wisdom of paved roads on a larger scale.
Linn County’s Seedling Mile, the first in Iowa, was built halfway between Cedar Rapids, Marion and Mount Vernon in 1918 and opened to traffic the following summer. It would be among the last of the seedling miles built along the Lincoln Highway, and by 1919, the LHA had refocused its attention on other concerns as state and federal governments assumed responsibility for paving roads on a larger scale.