History Made in 1995 as the 1st African American Woman Elected as a Mayor in Iowa 

History Made in 1995 as the 1st African American Woman Elected as a Mayor in Iowa 

LaMetta Wynn etched her place in Iowa history in 1995 by becoming the first African American woman to be elected as mayor in Iowa and only the second African American to hold that office in the state. Wynn was first elected at age 62 as mayor of the now Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway community of Clinton, Iowa after working a career as a registered nurse and raising 10 children. She served three terms in office. Television crews came from as far away as Germany and The Netherlands to interview her, finding her election remarkable in what was then 97-percent-white Iowa. She served three terms in office.

Iowa's first African American female mayor LaMetta Wynn being sworn in on January 3, 1996 as mayor of Clinton, Iowa.

Clinton Herald photo.

LaMetta Wynn shown on November 8, 1995 after Clinton, IA mayor election win.

Clinton, Iowa mayor-elect smiling after her election win in 1995.  Clinton Herald photo.

Iowa’s governors recognized her talent too. Gov. Tom Vilsack appointed her to the ground-breaking Vision Iowa board, Gov. Terry Branstad named her to the Commission on the Status of African-Americans, and Gov. Chet Culver appointed her to the State Board of Education. One observer commented that Wynn “carries a hammer in her purse; important doors open to her and she has the ability to bring government together.” Wynn made many other contributions to her family and community before passing away June 24, 2021.

The Lincoln Highway Bridge Over Mud Creek in Tama in Need of Repair

The Lincoln Highway Bridge Over Mud Creek in Tama in Need of Repair

One of the most iconic bridges in the 3,389 mile length of the historic transcontinental Lincoln Highway is in Tama, Iowa, and its structural integrity is in need of repair. As manager of the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway, Prairie Rivers of Iowa has been working with the City of Tama to restore and protect the bridge, but process delays and COVID have slowed progress to a near standstill.

Tama Bridge showing state of disrepair
Military Vehicle Preservation Association crossing Tama Bridge in 2019

The Tama Lincoln Highway bridge holds an important place in the history of transportation in our country. It was constructed in 1915 when Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States and before we got tangled up in World War I. It was the year Babe Ruth hit his first career home run. Half of the US population lived on the farm, and most transportation was still by foot or horse. The Model T was popular and promised increased mobility but roads could be treacherous, especially after a rain. 

The idea for the first improved transcontinental highway generated support across the country and gave birth to the Lincoln Highway Association. Towns along the roadway’s charted path were grateful for the honor, anticipating an influx of travelers and hence growth in commerce.

Tama’s now-famous bridge was constructed to attract interest and burnish the town’s image as a destination. Designed by Iowa Highway Commission architect Paul N. Kingsley, the Lincoln Highway Bridge is distinctive for spelling out the name of the roadway in its railings. Concrete lampposts topped by globe lights decorated the bridge’s four corners, adding to its graceful charm.

The Tama bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, nominated by the Tama Bicentennial Commission. The nomination included a quote from the July 1919 Lincoln Highway Forum, a publication of the Lincoln Highway Association, asserting that the bridge is “a good example of up-to-date highway advertising. Tourists over this section of the famous road cannot fail to be impressed with the advertising values as well as the pleasing and distinctive appearance of this unique feature of bridge construction.”

While the bridge has continued to attract admirers over the years, time has taken its toll. Prairie Rivers of Iowa has worked with the City of Tama to assess the integrity and safety of the bridge and put together a plan for its restoration. In 2018 PRI applied for and received a grant from the state Historical Resource Development Program of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs to help cover the costs. Additional support and funding has come from the Iowa Lincoln Highway Association, the Mansfield Foundation, and other donors, but a series of delays and the advent of COVID have held up progress. In October of this year, the Iowa DOT informed Tama that Iowa Code necessitates yet another delay to gather additional information and rebid the work. Meanwhile, the original cost estimate of $115,000 has mushroomed to over $300,000.

The Tama-Toledo News Chronicle reported in October that the City of Tama is planning to re-bid the project and complete the repair by August 2022, but the situation is being closely monitored by PRI, the Iowa Lincoln Highway Association, and history buffs across the nation.


Introducing Our New Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway Coordinator

Introducing Our New Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway Coordinator

My introduction to historic preservation began with the “Condemned Building” sign posted on the door I passed through to get to my desk when I was a graduate student at Iowa State University. The building was Agricultural Hall, then called Old Botany. Despite its state of disrepair, I was enchanted by the red brick with limestone trim and stately architecture. I imagined the stories of myriad students who passed through the same doorway in earlier days, on their ways to classes, degrees, jobs, and careers.

Shelly Orngard

Disturbed by the prospect of the building’s demolition, I volunteered to research and write an article about it for the student newspaper, perhaps stir up some interest in its preservation. In an interview with the staff person responsible for Old Botany, I asked about saving the structure and was told “why would we invest money in repairing this building when we could build a new one for the same money?” I countered, “you can build a new building, but you can’t build an old one.”

I don’t think I had much to do with the salvation of that beautiful old building, but I do know it now graces the north side of ISU’s Central Campus. Now named Carrie Chapman Catt Hall, it is one of the jewels of the campus.

Not every old structure has the intrinsic qualities of Catt Hall, but they all have a story, and many are worth preserving, protecting, and promoting. That is why I am so pleased to be given the opportunity to do this work along the Lincoln Highway as the Iowa Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway Coordinator.

As I said to my son this week, one of the blessings of getting older is the feeling that everything I’ve done previously in life has prepared me for the work I’m now doing. The stories my grandmother told me of growing up in Buena Vista County in the early 20th Century gave me an appreciation of history and preserving the stories and artifacts of the past. This paved the way for my advocating for preserving the historic Catt and Morrill buildings on the Iowa State University campus, and then serving five years on the City of Ames Historic Preservation Commission and supporting the Ames Main Street District. I bought a circa 1915 house in the historic North Old Town of Ames and am continuously working to restore its historical integrity while adapting it to modern convenience. And my work at WOI Radio and the Iowa State University Press, teaching writing in ISU’s Department of English, helping teach and coordinate the place-based education course Life in Iowa, and editing the Agricultural History journal have helped me think and communicate on living well on this land between two rivers.

Running 460 miles through 13 counties and 43 communities, not to mention some of God’s most fertile green earth, the Lincoln Highway contains beautiful one-of-a-kind structures like the Lincoln Highway Bridge in Tama, restored tourist stops like Youngville Station near Watkins, and vestiges of a bygone era like Watson’s Grocery Store in State Center. But for every one of those that is preserved and protected, there are many that are not and whose stories remain buried. Every year, cities are rebuilt, all too frequently destroying the opportunity for restoration.

I hope you’ll join me in this process of discovering our shared history and preserving it for future generations.

Youngville Station
Lincoln Highway Bridge Tama, Iowa
Watson's Grocery