Step Into the Sankot Garage for Treasured Bits of Lincoln Highway History

Step Into the Sankot Garage for Treasured Bits of Lincoln Highway History

To get to Sankot Motor Company, or Sankot Garage as it’s known in Belle Plaine, find the Lincoln Café where the Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway crosses 8th Avenue in the middle of town. Treat yourself to the lunch special – it was fried fish the Friday when I was there – then walk east on the Byway barely half a block. The big red Case sign, the neon long gone, reaches out from the old red brick building to show you where you’re going. As you get closer, you’ll notice the large plate glass windows and the plaque that reads Sankot Motor Company has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior. Registered 1995.

To step into Sankot Garage in Belle Plaine today is to step into the bits and fragments of small-town Lincoln Highway history. A massive safe rests alongside a beaten-up wooden table with worn, ornate hardware; racks of aging car parts line the walls up two stories. On one side of the building, a skylight allows the sun’s rays to illuminate bins of car parts, hoists hanging from beams, and a partial tractor body waiting for repair.

Bill Sankot Outside of His Historic Garage
Parts Bin at Sankot Garage

Dust and the faint scent of oil hang in the air. Over a century old, Sankot Garage is a place where the parts and pieces of the decades intermingle.

Owner Bill Sankot greets me. Dressed from neck to ankles in overalls, he’s taking a break from his current Case tractor restoration project. Bill is great-nephew of O.B., Charles, and Sid, the brothers who owned the company back in the 1920s, those heady years when the country’s major coast-to-coast highway ran through Belle Plaine.  This was the era before interstates facilitated travel bypassing towns and their amenities. Before the interstate rest stop, roads were designed to angle through towns, where travelers could stop for gas or get a bite to eat at a local café.

If it was late in the day, they might decide to stay the night at a local campground, spend a dollar for a motel room, or splurge for a room at the Herring Hotel. The Lincoln Highway eventually brought enough travelers to keep 19 gas stations in business, according to Mitch Malcolm from the Belle Plaine Area Museum, “and they all were a going concern.”

Sankot sold Chrysler cars and auto parts and did repairs in the 1920s and 30s. In those days before paved roads, Iowa had the dubious distinction of having both dirt roads that turned into “gumbo,” sucking in automobiles in inclement weather, and the resistance to modern paving methods.

Every town needed a good towing service.  Sankot Garage was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and offered all-night towing and wrecker service. A poster on the wall displays photos from Sankot history. It shows a tow truck hauling a Model T Ford and some of the famous people who stopped by on their travels west from Chicago, including heavyweight boxer Kingfish Levinsky, crouching in a boxing stance for the camera.

Sankot Garage self-made wrecker made from a 1929 Cadillac chassis.

Over the decades, while so many other family-owned businesses disappeared, Sankot Garage continued to reinvent itself to serve the changing needs of its customers. Back in the day before rural electrification, Sankot rebuilt and recharged batteries needed for autos, lights, and radios. People usually brought batteries in for recharging on Saturday, the day they went to buy groceries. Bill shows me one of the claim checks customers were given.

Bill’s dad, F.L. Sankot, purchased the business in 1937, and it switched from selling and fixing automobiles to Case and Oliver tractors and implements. Bill and his brother Jerry bought the garage in 1985, and they continued to repair a variety of autos, trucks, tractors, and farm implements. Once Interstate 80 sapped clientele, things got quieter, but there is still enough business to keep Bill busy.

 What’s next for Sankot Garage? None of Bill’s children are inclined to take over the business, but as long as Bill’s there, he’s minding the store … and the history.   

Sankot Garage Vintage Battery Repair Ticket
Sankot Garage Vintage Decal
Sankot Garage National Register of Historic Places Plaque
Bill Sankot in his garage with a Case tractor restoration project.
Significant Black History Along the Lincoln Highway

Significant Black History Along the Lincoln Highway

During Black History Month we pay tribute to a sometimes overlooked, yet highly significant, piece of African American history that took place along the Lincoln Highway in Ames, Iowa.

Iowa State College founded in 1858 (now Iowa State University) allowed students of color to attend. But up until the 1940s, they did not have access to on-campus housing unless they roomed together. This “unofficial” policy made student housing nearly impossible due to the low number of students of color enrolled during this time. Meanwhile, two caring individuals, Archie and Nancy Martin opened their home in Ames as a place for male students of color to reside and grow while pursuing their college education. Female students of color were welcomed into the nearby home of John and Nellie Shipp at 118 Sherman Avenue. The Shipp’s daughter Mildred married Hubert Crouch, a student who stayed at the Martin home. Crouch later became the first African American awarded a doctorate in biological sciences at Iowa State University.

The Martin home provided comfort to a small but growing community of Black students, roomers, and visitors including the agricultural scientist, inventor, and first Black student to graduate from Iowa State Agricultural College – George Washington Carver.

Like Carver, the Martins were born into slavery. Nancy migrated north at the age of 60 after impressing Drs. Davis and Jennie Ghrist of Ames with her talent for preparing delicious southern-cooked meals. She took a job cooking for the Ghrists and at a fraternity house on campus. Archie soon joined her in 1914 and began working for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad.

Archie and Nancy Martin Portrait in Martin Hall on ISU Campus.

A portrait of Nancy and Archie Martin hangs in ISU Martin Hall in their honor.

From the late 1920s through the early 50s, the Martin household gained a reputation as caring, generous, and supportive of those seeking to better themselves through higher education. Finally, it became apparent to the Martins that they could no longer house all the students of color in need. According to family tradition, Archie used his enthusiasm as a proponent of equal treatment of Black students to discuss the issue with then Iowa State College President (1912-1926) Raymond A. Pearson which eventually resulted in the ability for students of color to reside in campus housing.

For over a century, the Martin-Shipp families have retained ownership of the home. It still stands along the Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway in Iowa. Archie and three of his sons built the six-bedroom, two-bath Craftsman-style bungalow at 218 Lincoln Way sometime around 1919. The home was granted historical landmark status by the City of Ames in 2008. A letter of preliminary eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places was obtained from the State Historic Preservation Office in 2021.

According to former Ames councilperson and Ames Historic Museum Martin House Chair Sharon Wirth, the Martins’ history is important to the Ames community and Iowa State.

Martin House along the Lincoln Highway in Ames, Iowa

The historic home (circa 1920) where Nancy and Archie Martin housed Black students attending Iowa State College. Photo credit: Ames History Museum, Courtesy of the Martin Family.

“Their home symbolizes the family’s legacy,” said Wirth, “This property is an outstanding cultural resource located on the Lincoln Highway and should be preserved. Few resources remain that are tied directly to the early lives of African Americans in Ames. This period of ownership by a Black family is nearly unheard of.”

Besides Carver, other notable guests at the Martin home include Iowa State College African American athlete Jack Trice who tragically died as a result of injuries he sustained during the second play of his second college football game. Additional guests at the Martin home included James Bowman who served with the Tuskegee Airmen and as a Des Moines school administrator, and Samuel Massie who worked on the Manhattan Project and became the first black professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.

In the words of the Martin Legacy Foundation, “The Martins impact on black students in Ames and on the Iowa State campus can be measured in numerous ways. Mainly their legacy is traced by the successful stories of many who stayed with them. There are numerous educators, professors, administrators, presidents of universities, and engineers that fondly remember the Martin home and acknowledge that, if not for the Martins, they would not have had the chance at an education at Iowa State University. Nancy and Archie knew and believed that an education was the only way for African Americans (to achieve an improved) quality of life. They were wholeheartedly dedicated to supporting African American students in their quest for a (higher) education. Their legacy lives on in the achievements of those students and also through their descendants who are doctors, lawyers, decorated military officers, and educators. An amazing legacy for two ex-slaves.”

In honor of the Martins, the Iowa Board of Regents approved renaming Iowa State University Suite 2 residence hall in the Union Drive neighborhood to Archie and Nancy Martin Hall. Additionally, the Martins and their home are commemorated with a brick pier at 5th Street and Burnett Avenue in Downtown Ames. 

Archie and Nancy Martin during the 1940's.

Archie and Nancy Martin outside their home during the 1940’s. Photo credit: Ames History Museum, Courtesy of the Martin Family.

Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway Sign Inventory Completed

Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway Sign Inventory Completed

As the Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway coordinator, I recently had the privilege of seeing every corner of the Byway from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River — crossing every river in between. The Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) asked byway coordinators to inventory every byway sign on their respective byways across Iowa. For me, that meant 1100 miles, including both sides of the road, and the loops through downtowns. The goal was to complete the inventory before winter begins. We finished just before the big pre-Christmas storm in 2022.

Overall the signs are in good condition and help tell the story of the Byway. But in areas, they go missing, especially where there has been redevelopment along a main street or where new highways have been expanded. Some signs even have a few bullet holes in them. IDOT now has the location and condition of all Iowa Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway signs so improvements can be made.

Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway Coordinator Jonathan Sherwood

I can’t take all the credit. I had the benefit of having a Prairie Rivers of Iowa volunteer to switch off data entry and driving. My job would have been made much more difficult without a helper who was so thoughtful and thorough. It also made it easier to take in the beautiful landscape along the journey.

We chose to do the inventory on the weekends from October to December and were witness to the seasons changing. Not only that each town had its own charm and many were decked out for the holiday season. One afternoon an awe-inspiring fog frosted the countryside and town trees. Garland, lights, wreaths, and bows adorned lampposts and store frontages along brick-paved streets. This is not to mention the tenderloin and loose meat sandwiches along the way. (Pictured: Taylor’s Maid-Rite in Marshalltown)

Some folks call Iowa flat, but if you travel the Lincoln Highway in Iowa you’ll see it’s not. In Pottawattamie County, the Lincoln actually goes from north to south for a segment where you can see the sculpted deposits as peaked hills with narrow ridges as the windblown Loess Hills between the divide of the Missouri River Alluvial Plain.

I’m a native Iowan but have never had the opportunity to see Iowa in such a way. The Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway traverses landscape changes from west to east from its landforms. There’s the Missouri River Alluvial Plain, Loess Hills, Southern Iowa Drift, the Des Moines Lobe, Iowan Surface, and East-Central Iowa Drift Plain.

Along the way, Iowa’s byways crisscross, adding to the allure of America’s Byways® in Iowa. One way to understand Iowa and its cultural and natural resources is to travel along its byways. That’s why byway signs are so integral to telling Iowa’s story. They are part of the deep heritage of wayfinding that began in the 1910s with telephone pole paintings and Boy Scout markers.

Iowa Winter Scenes Along the Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway Corridor

Mount Crescent Ski Area Along the Lincoln Highway Corridor

Mt. Crescent Ski Area in Honey Creek

Lincoln Highway Farm Scene near Carroll Iowa

Farm Scene Near Carroll

Niland's Corner Along Lincoln Highway in Colo Iowa

Historic Niland’s Corner Near Colo

Bonus Video

The National Register of Historic Places

The National Register of Historic Places

The National Register of Historic Places, or NRHP, is a federal program administered by the US National Parks Service (NPS).  It was created in 1966 as part of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) to recognize cultural resources that, whether intentionally or accidentally, had withstood the tests of time and human action.  No legal obligations – for owners – are imposed by being listed on the NRHP.  For them, it is an honorific program.

The NRHP places nominations and listings into one of five categories: buildings, structures, objects, sites, and districts.  The most common listings are buildings and districts, or groups of buildings (more on structures, objects, and sites below).

National Register of Historic Places Plaque

The NRHP recognizes four kinds of historic value: association with significant events, association with significant people, outstanding exemplars of architecture, and/or the potential to yield important historical or prehistorical information.

The NRHP places nominations and listings into one of five categories: buildings, structures, objects, sites, and districts.  The most common listings are buildings and districts, or groups of buildings (more on structures, objects, and sites below).

Nominations to the NRHP document many aspects of a place, including its current condition, remaining design features that indicate that it is historic, its own history (in the case of a building, for example, documentation of expansions or renovations), and its historic context.  Nominations provide this information textually and with images such as maps and photographs.  They are written using a wide variety of historic resources – fire insurance maps, newspapers, Census and other genealogical records, any available historic images, archival collections, secondary sources produced by historians, and even other nominations.

The NRHP places nominations and listings into one of five categories: buildings, structures, objects, sites, and districts.  The most common listings are buildings and districts, or groups of buildings (more on structures, objects, and sites below).

Brick Street Historic District Woodbine, Iowa

Youngville Cafe

Youngville Cafe Watkins, Iowa

Lincoln Highway Bridge

Lincoln Highway Bridge Tama, Iowa

Lincoln Hotel Lowden Iowa

Lincoln Hotel Lowden, Iowa

The NRHP requires that nominated properties have integrity – that they themselves convey their historic character and significance themselves.  The NPS breaks integrity down into seven elements: location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association.  Some of these elements are more subjective than others, but over the years the NPS has written many National Register Bulletins now available online, which explain their meaning, the procedure for preparing nominations, and other questions related to historic preservation.

In addition to recognizing historicity, the NHRP provides a framework for how public resources and regulations are allowed to affect the United States’ cultural resources.  Whether a place is listed or eligible for listing informs the federal government’s actions, as do the professional and work standards set forth by the Secretary of the Interior, who oversees the NPS.  The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards guide projects that preserve, rehabilitate, restore, and/or reconstruct historic cultural resources.  As with the National Register Bulletins, these are available online.

A private owner of a place listed on the NHRP is most likely to encounter regulation when they obtain or try to obtain a financial benefit from the federal, state, or local government.  At the federal level, a 20% federal income tax credit is available to recoup up to 20% of the money spent on a certified project to rehabilitate an income-producing building that is certified as historic by being listed individually on the NRHP or by being in an NRHP historic district.  The State of Iowa offers a 25% tax credit for “qualified rehabilitation expenditures” to preserve historic buildings’ architectural elements that give them their historic character.  Counties also may offer exemptions from a few years of property tax increases that result from the value added to historic properties by performing rehabilitation projects.  In all cases, these benefits must be applied for through an officially designated procedure.  The projects they support must be “sensitive” according to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards.  And the affected places must be recognized as historic.

The NHPA imposes similar obligations on the federal government itself – and the spending of federal money or issuing of federal permits.  According to Section 106 of the NHPA, federal “undertakings” – projects that spend federal money or use federal permits, including state, local, and private projects – must evaluate the effect of their proposed work on any places listed on the NRHP or that are eligible to be listed on it, and avoid or mitigate adverse effects.  Section 110 of the NHPA requires federal agencies to manage the historic preservation of their own resources using the guidelines of the NRHP.  Finally, section 402 of the NHPA requires the Department of State to care for the historic preservation of US-held sites abroad if they are either a UNESCO World Heritage Site or eligible for the NHRP equivalent of the country in which they exist.

The “structures” category is one of the harder ones to define.  It is essentially human-made things, some of their buildings or building-like, that were built for some function other than providing human shelter.  The NPS gives some helpful examples, including vehicles; agricultural infrastructure like irrigation systems, canals, and windmills; and, importantly for Prairie Rivers’ survey of historic resources in the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway, bridges.  “Objects” is a similar category, but the things defined in this way have primarily aesthetic value.  They are artistic.  “Sites” are places that are historic whether a building associated with the important historical events that happened there exists or not, or whether it ever existed.  Commonly, these are archeological digs or places where archeologists would expect to find artifacts.

Author Michael Belding is the oral history program manager for the Iowa State University Special Collections and University Archives. He previously worked as an architectural historian for the City of Mobile, Alabama’s Historic Development Commission. Currently, Belding is a Ph.D. candidate in Rural, Agricultural, Technological, and Environmental History and is working with Prairie Rivers of Iowa to help assess the condition of the approximately 319 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places along the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway (LHHB) in Iowa.

Author Michael Belding
Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway Complete Sign Inventory Begins

Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway Complete Sign Inventory Begins

On a recent beautiful crisp fall morning, Prairie Rivers of Iowa staff and a volunteer set out to travel the Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway through urban streets and gravel roads in Story and Boone counties. Byway Coordinator Jonathan Sherwood is starting a new project across all thirteen counties and 43 municipalities to inventory and assess the condition of the Byway’s signage. These signs are a critical part byway infrastructure and have historical significance as an evolution of what came before.

From the beginning of the Lincoln Highway, tools were needed to assist the traveler including guidebooks and signs along the route. In the early era of the established transcontinental route, signs were painted on telephone poles ad hoc by local councils and volunteers.

Today travelers along the historic route in Iowa rely on guidebooks, maps, and signage. These aids are thanks to the efforts of many individuals, organizations such as Prairie Rivers, and government agencies like the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT).

Lincoln Highway Activity Guide and Map
Lincoln Highway Vintage Style Telephone Pole Marker
Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway Signage in Need of Repair After Tornado

Over time all the byway signs need to be maintained. The condition of the signs has ranged from excellent to vandalized, bent, and faded from the sun. Some signs are missing from their original location. The signs are always located at any turn with directional arrows. They are also located after any turn in the route where another sign confirms that the traveler is on the right path.

The inventory aims to improve the quality of the signage out on the roadway network, improve the life cycle of each sign from ordering, fabricating, installing, maintaining, and removing, improve the ability to budget for these key assets on a statewide basis, provide a tool for the decision maker to do signage related scenario planning.

The Iowa DOT has developed a geospatial program to maintain and update data on locations and conditions of signs statewide. Prairie Rivers’ staff are using iPads with ESRI’s ArcGIS Field Maps app loaded with IDOT data to wholly complete the survey. Previously condition reports were recorded based on individual needs, at specific times, in different districts or regions.

According to PRI staff, “This is a great way to see the byway while traveling down gravel roads at 25 mph, much like the original traveler in their Ford Model T.”

The project is expected to run through the fall and wrap up before road conditions deteriorate.

The project is expected to run through the fall and wrap up before road conditions deteriorate.
Lincoln Highway National heritage Byway in Woodbine Iowa
Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway in Marshall County Iowa
Lincoln Highway Natiional heritage Byway in Carroll Iowa
Ames Pollinator-Friendly Practices Pilot Project Completed

Ames Pollinator-Friendly Practices Pilot Project Completed

How can homeowners in Ames be encouraged to increase pollinator-friendly practices in their yards? That was the question addressed by former Prairie Rivers of Iowa Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway Coordinator Shellie Orngard in a recently completed pilot project using Community Based Social Marketing strategies. Now that the pilot is completed, the project will move forward in 2023 to explore ways to apply what was learned to increase pollinator habitat along Iowa’s Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway.

Community Based Social Marketing was developed by Canadian psychology professor Doug McKenzie-Moher, author of Fostering Sustainable Behavior. It is used in developing and implementing community programs that make use of scientific knowledge of human behavior in effecting change. Community programs such as composting and conserving water and energy have used it to increase participation.

According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 70 to 80 percent of Iowa was once covered by prairie, producing rich agricultural soil and a lush environment for pollinators. Now, with 90 percent of Iowa’s land in agricultural production, less than one percent of Iowa’s prairie remains, simultaneously reducing pollinator habitat. “Doing this project I learned strategies to encourage pollinator-friendly practices that can be employed along Iowa’s byways,” says Orngard. “We are now exploring applying these strategies to make the Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway a pollinator-friendly byway from the Mississippi to the Missouri Rivers. Some of Iowa’s other 13 byways have also expressed interest.”

Visitors to Jennett Heritage Area prairie near Nevada Iowa during Prairie Rivers Bees and Berries Family Adventure Day
Urban Pollinator Garden

While a number of groups (including Prairie Rivers) have focused on encouraging farmers, other large landowners, and local governments to improve pollinator habitat, this project will also include urban areas, businesses, and homeowners.

An initial survey was conducted to determine the perceived barriers and benefits of creating a pollinator garden. The results show that homeowners can face some big barriers such as knowing what types of plants to grow that provide diverse and useful habitat during all seasons. Additionally, by implementing pollinator-friendly practices, homeowners may, in some cases, go against societal norms of having a yard consisting primarily of well-groomed turf.

This project focused on strategies to encourage a paradigm shift in what landowners consider desirable, resulting in such practices as reducing pesticide and herbicide use, letting grass grow longer before mowing, and leaving leaves for overwintering insects.

To encourage year-round pollinator-friendly practices, Orngard worked with Xerces Society Farm Bill Pollinator Conservation Planner/NRCS Partner Biologist Sarah Nizzi to create The Pollinator Friendly Yard: A Seasonal Guide informational flyer. Homeowners were asked to commit to increasing their pollinator-friendly practices according to their comfort level.

As a final strategy, Orngard worked with local artist Naomi Friend to create a charming yard sign homeowners can use to educate passersby about why some leaves are being left to provide habitat for overwintering insects.

Pollinator Garden Sign

Pollinator-friendly yard signs are available by contacting our office.

Orngard summarizes the pilot project as a success that will guide Prairie Rivers Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway and Watersheds and Wildlife programs, local community partners, homeowners, other byways, and communities throughout Iowa as they move forward with education and on-the-ground practices geared towards improving the environment for pollinators in our state.

This project was made possible in part by Resource Enhancement and Protection Conservation Education Program (REAP-CEP) funding along with coaching support from the E Resources Group’s Dr. Jean Eells, a frequent Prairie Rivers of Iowa collaborator, and Rebecca Christoffel. The REAP-CEP funding also allowed Orngard to attend an online workshop by Doug McKenzie-Moher on Community-Based Social Marketing and Resiliency and Adaptation to Climate Change and the Iowa Conservation Education Coalition Winter Workshop.

Shellie Orngard also contributed to the content of this article.