Raccoon River Valley Trailhead in Jefferson Honors History and the Lincoln Highway

Raccoon River Valley Trailhead in Jefferson Honors History and the Lincoln Highway

Coming from the east along the Lincoln Highway through the town of Jefferson, there is a location where the car seems to be drawn to a stop and the traveler is compelled to get out and explore. On the north side of the road is a beautiful, landscaped area with plants and sculptures while on the south side there is the restored and welcoming Milwaukee Railroad Depot (along with the county Freedom Rock!). Both sides of the road are part of the Raccoon River Valley Trail (RRVT) trailhead.

north trailhead park

The Railroad Years

The Chicago & North Western Railroad brought the railroad tracks to town in 1866, and by 1906 the Milwaukee and St Paul routes ran through Jefferson as well connecting Des Moines and the Iowa Great Lakes Region. Replacing smaller versions of a depot, the current depot was built from a standard Milwaukee plan between 1906 and 1909. There was once a cast iron horse trough that was attached to the building. Because Jefferson was the county seat of Greene County, the depot here was larger than most with two waiting rooms, indoor plumbing, and an express and baggage room. Greater ornamentation was also given to the structure.Jefferson Milwaukee depot historical photo

Milwaukee depot now 2023 Jefferson2023 Milwaukee depot JeffersonThe Lincoln Highway Cruises In

By 1913, the Lincoln Highway was proposed and its paving across Greene County came soon afterward from local and city funding. The city square was just a few blocks west of the Milwaukee Depot, and in 1918 a grand Classical Revival style building made of limestone was built to replace the brick county courthouse. In that same year, resident E.B. Wilson donated a statue of Abraham Lincoln to honor the Lincoln Highway and the new courthouse. This new ease and popularity of automobile travel became the preferred way to get from place to place. By 1952 the passenger service on the Milwaukee RR was discontinued. By the middle of the 1980s freight service ceased operation as well.

A New Use

It was time for a new use for the old railroad right-of-way. Through a vision of the Iowa Trails Council and the Conservation Boards from Dallas and Guthrie counties, the Raccoon River Valley multi-use Trail (RRVT) was born in 1987, with the first paved trail in 1989. The 12-mile addition from Jefferson to the south was completed in 1997 after Greene County joined the group. Today, the trail is an 89-mile paved surface running from Jefferson to Waukee, with plans to connect to the High Trestle Trail by the end of 2024.

One of the goals of the Raccoon River Valley Trail Association was to keep the history alive in the towns along the trail and to give new life to the communities. There are signs noting historical points of significance along the entire route, several restored or remaining train depots, and signs that remain from the railroad days.

The Jefferson Trailhead

The addition of the Milwaukee Depot Trailhead in Jefferson has been significant to telling the story of the Lincoln Highway. Thousands of bicyclists, joggers, walkers, skaters, campers, cross-country skiers, birdwatchers, hunters, fishermen and naturalists from all across the state are drawn to the Raccoon River Valley Trail.  The Lincoln Highway interpretive signs at the trailhead are only the beginning to how Jefferson tells the Lincoln Highway history.

Freedom Rock Greene County

Jefferson and the Lincoln Highway

Adjacent to the Raccoon River Valley Trail is the Greene County Freedom Rock, the 53rd in the state, and completed in 2016.  The Lincoln Highway is one of four subjects painted on the rock. In the Greene County News, October 28, 2016, artist Bubba Sorensen states that the rocks are to thank veterans for their service and to tell the unique stories of each county. The Lincoln Highway scene depicts the 1919 U.S. Army motor transport corps convoy across the Lincoln Highway and then LTC Dwight D. Eisenhower looking toward the convoy.

Approximately one block to the west of the RRVT is the Deep Rock Gas Station.  Built in 1923, the building was in use until the 1990s. The site was given to the city in 2007. Using federal EPA “brownfield” funds, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources removed the station’s seven underground tanks. Using other grants and fund sources the station was restored and rededicated in 2014. An interpretive sign is located at the station to provide more insight on the historic Lincoln Highway.

A few blocks farther to the west is the Greene County Museum and Historical Center housing Lincoln Highway memorabilia. A sidewalk painting of the Lincoln Highway roadway leads from the museum to the Thomas Jefferson Gardens and ends at the town square. An interpretive sign along the sidewalks speaks of the Lincoln Highway.

Mahanay carillion TowerAt the center of the town square is the Greene County Courthouse, the Abraham Lincoln Statue, a 1928 Lincoln Highway Marker, and the Mahanay Memorial Carillion Tower. The tower allows for elevator rides to a 128-foot-high observation deck with views to rooftop art, to the surrounding counties and to… the Lincoln Highway.interpretive signs Lincoln Highway

The Raccoon River Valley Trail is nationally recognized as an exceptional rails-to-trails conversion and was a 2021 inductee into the rail-trail Hall of Fame. It has the longest paved loop trail in the nation and connects 14 Iowa communities with a unique outdoor recreational experience. Visit their website to plan your next railroad biking adventure and to support the communities built along railroad and Lincoln Highway history!Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway in Iowa

What It Means to Be Native

What It Means to Be Native

Bringing Nature Home, published in 2007, is the first book by Dr. Douglas Tallamy, Professor of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. The title says it all. Dr. Tallamy argues that we can make important contributions to the conservation of native wildlife by what we choose to plant in our backyards. Much of the world’s landscapes are dominated by humans, leaving little space for Nature. Iowa has lost over 99% of its native prairies, 92% of its native wetlands, and 75% of its native forests. Where Nature still exists, non-native and invasive species wreak havoc by taking up space and disrupting natural ecosystem processes that support native species.

More than 50,000 foreign plant and animal species have established in the United States. About one in seven is invasive. Damage and control costs are estimated at more than $138 billion annually (USDA/APHIS, 2001). Native species are under siege everywhere. So where is Nature to go? Dr. Tallamy invites us to make a place for Nature in our backyards and gardens. By doing so, we will help make a brighter future for Nature.

What does “native” mean?

Dr. Tallamy has published nearly 100 research papers on insect ecology, behavior and physiology. His work shows that insects prefer to eat plants with which they share an evolutionary history. If you add plants to your yard to benefit native wildlife, native plants should be your first choice. The evolutionary connection between them is a powerful concept. So what does it mean to be native? All species have a natural biogeographic range, a map that shows where the species exists under natural conditions. This is where the species is indigenous and native, where natural population processes and migration have permitted the species to live, and where it has adapted to the environment.

What is “local ecotype”?

The term local ecotype is often used in discussions about what is native. However local ecotype does not mean the same as native. It addresses a different population concept. If a species’ biogeographic range is very large, like several hundred miles in diameter, then it is possible that ecotypes are present. An ecotype is a genetically-defined subpopulation within a species’ range. They form through evolution. Consider the common grassland species big bluestem. Its range includes 45 states and provinces in North America. It is likely there is a Texas-ecotype, an Ohio-ecotype, a North Dakota-ecotype, and others. Because ecotypes are a result of evolution, they are the version of a species that is best-adapted to the environment where they exist. The challenge is what constitutes a “local” ecotype, meaning the ecotype best adapted to your location. Not nearly enough research has been done to answer all the questions we have, but we do know using a “local” ecotype is important in restoration.

The most important step in ecological restoration, no matter the size, is choosing what to plant and acquiring the right seeds. It can be intimidating. So here is a three-step guide to help:

1) Select species native to your place; usually your county works well. This is very important and often difficult. Accurate information can be hard to find, in part because many species have been moved outside their range by humans. Those troublesome invasive species we battle were initially introduced to a place beyond their native range. If you do the same, you could be contributing to the massive problem that invasive species present.

2) From the list of native species, select those that are correct for the environment where they will be planted. Soil moisture and light level are important factors. Consider the soil type, topography and local geomorphology. Is the planting site on a slope? Is it in a swale or on a ridge? Is the soil sandy? Or, will you be planting seeds in pots on your patio? Will the species in the pots need frequent watering, or perhaps your patio is very shaded?

3) Steps 1 and 2 will result in a list of species that are suitable to plant. Obtain seeds of those species that are “local” ecotype, which means from a supplier within 100 to 150 miles of your planting site. How will you know the seed they are selling is local? You don’t know for sure unless you ask questions. If the seed is Iowa yellow tag, then it is certified to originate from an Iowa prairie. Therefore, if you use yellow tag seed from a grower/supplier located within 150 miles, it is very likely you have local ecotype seed.

This hypothetical example may help. Suppose you live in Boone County and discover that Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop or blue giant hyssop) is great for pollinators because it’s a favorite nectar plant of many native bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds. Anise hyssop is also widely available commercially as an ornamental plant. At least eight cultivars have been developed, which means it has been genetically altered into forms that are more pleasing to humans. It is native to western South Dakota, North Dakota, parts of Minnesota, and northwest Wisconsin. Northern Iowa is the southern limit to its range (see maps below). Although listed as an endangered species in Iowa, its true status is more likely extirpated. There are probably many cultivar plants bought from nursery stock growing in gardens throughout Iowa, but they do not have the same genetic makeup and characteristics as the native plants. For someone living in Boone County, anise hyssop fails to pass the first step outlined above: it is not native to Boone county. But there is an alternative option, one that is much better ecologically. You can plant Agastache nepetoides (yellow hyssop), a close relative of anise hyssop and equally as valuable for insects. It will do well in semi-shaded moist sites and is native to Boone County and most of Iowa.

BONAP distribution maps for anise hyssop (left) and yellow hyssop (right). Dark green means the species in question is native to the state. Light green means the species is present in that county and not rare,  while yellow indicates that the plant species is present but rare.

Native plants are the best choice for supporting native biodiversity. They are better suited to Iowa’s environments than non-native species, they are easier to establish and maintain, and they are just as attractive and more enjoyable than non-native species. They belong, ecologically, to any place where they are native. But just because a plant species is native to Iowa, that does not mean it is necessarily native to your county. The majority of Iowa’s native plant species are only native to a subset of Iowa counties. That is what makes Iowa’s botanical diversity uniquely interesting!

Inch Your Way to Loving Worms!

Inch Your Way to Loving Worms!

The pretty cecropia moth caterpillar!


We won’t be talking about love or flowers this Valentine’s Day, but we will talk about some love-able critters that can eat flowers! They’re squishy, fluffy, or prickly, and sometimes called worms. They can be striped, spotted, or elaborately camouflaged. They are mini bird burritos, have secret appendages, and can trigger gag reflexes. They will become tomorrow’s moths and butterflies. We’re talking about CATERPILLARS!

What exactly is a caterpillar?

These curious creatures are the larval stage of growth in butterflies and moths. The term “caterpillar” is colloquial, and almost exclusively refers to moths and butterflies (although some moth caterpillars are also called “worms” or “inchworms”). Other insects have different terms for their larval stages, such as “maggots” for fly larvae and “grubs” for beetle larvae.

Most people know that the caterpillar/larval stage is one step in the development process called metamorphosis. But did you know that there are two general kinds of metamorphosis: “complete” and “incomplete”? The big difference between the two is that insects using complete metamorphosis go through a pupal stage (a period where they are inactive for a bit). Butterflies and moths go through complete metamorphosis because a caterpillar forms into a pupa when it develops into a chrysalis or rests inside a cocoon. Insects that go through incomplete metamorphosis do not go through a pupal stage (some examples include dragonflies, praying mantids, and crickets).

A black swallowtail caterpillar with beautiful warning stripes that say “don’t eat me”.

Why so squishy?

Back to caterpillars: why would any animal want to be small, slow, and squishy for a period of their life? What is the advantage, considering how tasty caterpillars are to birds, rodents, and many other animals? About 80% of insects (including bees, ants, fireflies, and more!) use complete metamorphosis to grow, which requires this vulnerable phase. Why is this?

Besides the pupal stage, another hallmark of complete metamorphosis is that the larval stage and adult stage have virtually nothing in common. Most scientists agree that this difference is key to the success of complete metamorphosis: young and adult insects don’t have to compete for the same resources. Caterpillars munch on leaves and grow in vegetation while moths and butterflies sip nectar and fly around looking for mates. But what about the fact that most caterpillars are specialists? Why would caterpillars evolve to be picky?

A lucky four-leaf clover.

The brightly colored cloudless sulphur caterpillar!

Luna Moth

A red admiral caterpillar feeds on nettles in Brookside Park!

Why so picky?

To name two examples, monarch caterpillars can only eat milkweed, and red admiral caterpillars will only eat nettles. Wouldn’t it be much more advantageous to be able to eat any kind of plant, or at least a more general group of plants? Not necessarily. Specialist caterpillars seem to have better defenses against predation than generalist caterpillars: monarch caterpillars eat poisonous milkweed plants, and red admiral caterpillars hang out in nettles that sting – most animals will learn to avoid these caterpillars. Scientists also think that specialist caterpillars are better at identifying and choosing plants, and consequently eat more. Because so many caterpillars are specialists, it is imperative to plant as many native plants as possible if you want to help butterflies and moths. It’s surprisingly beneficial to be a picky, squishy caterpillar, but it’s still a dangerous world.

Worm weapons!

Plants can’t supply all necessary defenses – many caterpillars must deploy their own wacky weapons to defend their soft, protein-filled bodies. One tactic is coloration. Caterpillars can be camouflaged to look just like bird poop, or have colorful patterns to warn their predators they are poisonous or bad-tasting. Eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillars look almost exactly like miniature snakes, frightening off birds with their life-like eye spots. These caterpillars also have secret appendages, called osmeteria, that they strike out of their head to mimic a snake’s tongue! Other swallowtail species also have colorful osmeteria they can stick out in conjunction with nasty smells and sometimes irritating secretions (not harmful to humans). Other caterpillars take defense to new lengths: fecal firing.

You read that right. To help hide their smell from parasitic wasps, silver-spotted skipper caterpillars catapult their smelly frass (excrement) 38 body lengths away, a distance equivalent to 228 feet for a six-foot human! Curiouser still, some caterpillars like the walnut sphinx moth can squeak or whistle. The whistle sounds like a bird warning call, causing the hungry bird to drop the caterpillar. But let’s get into some hairier defenses.

A snake-mimicking eastern tiger swallowtail, with its osmeterium acting like a snake’s tongue!

Many caterpillars are hairy enough to make some 1980s bands jealous. Sometimes the fluff just means the caterpillars are cute; other times it means they shouldn’t be touched. Many fuzzy caterpillars can have hairs that break on contact, causing irritation on the finger or mouth that touched them. This doesn’t always affect humans; if you’ve handled woolly bear caterpillars before, you’ve handled these kinds of irritating hairs. Other caterpillars can have more irritating hair, or have specialized hairs that can actually deliver mild venoms. Puss caterpillars get a lot of media attention for the sometimes blistering results they can give to human skin, however there have been no sightings of these caterpillars in Iowa (puss caterpillars grow into a particular species of flannel moth). The buck moth and some slug and saddleback moth caterpillars can cause serious irritation, but sightings and encounters are very rare in central Iowa and symptoms normally do not need medical attention (for specifics on venomous caterpillars, read here). Most fuzzy caterpillars in Iowa are harmless or merely have irritating hairs. Removing hairs with tape, washing the area afterwards, and ice or baking soda paste is the best care for minor rashes from caterpillar hairs.

Pictures: Above, a touch-friendly woolly bear caterpillar. Below, a slug caterpillar that may irritate the skin. While not seen often in Iowa, some slug caterpillars can deliver more of a sting. Besides that, they look SO STRANGE! In nature they look like a spider’s shed exoskeleton, and are well-camoflaged in leaf debris. Read more here!

The last caterpillar defense tactic is one that we hope you aren’t dealing with this Valentine’s Day: manipulation. Some caterpillars can trick animals that are usually predators into being their caretakers! Many gossamer-winged butterflies (a family of butterflies comprised of hairstreaks, blues, coppers, etc.) exude pheromones as larvae that trick ants into thinking the caterpillar is a fellow ant. Some of these dainty blue butterflies use this trick to commit social parasitism! Exactly how they utilize ants varies for each species of this butterfly family; for today we will focus on Edward’s hairstreak, a species of special concern in Iowa. This species of butterfly munches oak leaves as a caterpillar, and utilizes mini shelters created by ants. As a young caterpillar, it stays in the trees. But as it grows older, the Edward’s hairstreak caterpillar eats in trees only during the night; as dawn approaches it drops to the base of the tree to hide in ant-made shelters called byres, which are small piles of thatch created from leaves, sticks, and other forest floor materials. The caterpillars secrete a honeydew as a reward for the shelter and protection the ants provide. This relationship is much more in the spirit of the holiday, giving us a loving mutualism rather than parasitism.

Above, an inchworm on my kale plants this year. Below, a monarch caterpillar that could be harmed by garden pesticides!

From beautiful colors to shooting feces and feeding ants, caterpillars are worthy of love and appreciation! To support this wonderful world of worms, be sure to plant a variety of native plants in your yard, and most importantly do not spray pesticides! Yes, many caterpillars will chew on your garden plant leaves. I suggest allowing a part of your garden to become a “nursery”, a subset of plants that you don’t mind getting eaten by caterpillars. You can “babysit” the caterpillars by moving them off the plants you care about and place them onto the plants in the nursery (using gloves if they are fuzzy). By not spraying pesticides and allowing caterpillars to stay in the garden, you win the fun of watching the caterpillars that ate your dill and carrots turn into black swallowtails! Keeping from spraying pesticides also allows you to enjoy bumble bees visiting your tomato plants and bees sleeping in your flowers. By tolerating the presence of insects and a few munched leaves, you can support an entire little ecosystem with your garden, and witness all the drama the insect world has to offer while pulling weeds and watering plants. Let the backyard garden be your gateway to the curious world of caterpillars!

Visit the following links to dive even deeper into the curious world of caterpillars!

– A list of butterfly/caterpillar host plants: https://henderson.ces.ncsu.edu/2021/05/plants-that-host-butterfly-larvae/

– More information on the importance of caterpillars: https://extension.psu.edu/a-case-for-caterpillars

– A fun read on caterpillars in the US: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/03/20/the-little-known-world-of-caterpillars

– More on metamorphosis: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/insect-metamorphosis-evolution/

– More on ant-butterfly relationships: https://sites.tufts.edu/pollinators/2019/07/the-butterflies-who-are-raised-by-ants/

A Novel Way to Preserve a Historic Dining Experience

A Novel Way to Preserve a Historic Dining Experience

Lizzie's Dining Car Marengo Depot

Lizzie’s Dining Car & Caboose Bar is a new dining experience based upon the historic passenger cars that frequented Marengo from 1860-1970.  Located at 1041 Court Ave, Marengo, Iowa, the immersive experience Elizabeth Colony has created is that which can be compared to a movie set created in Hollywood. The transformation of blank walls in a brick and mortar building into a trip back in time on a railroad dining car is enhanced with “windows’ ‘ showing outdoor scenes that move at the speed of a locomotive. Only the smells and tastes of the home cooked food and drink give away the truth that this is not an actual passenger dining train. 

Elizabeth (Lizzie) was inspired to create this dining experience from the rich history of the town in which she lives. The Mississippi & Missouri (M & M) Railroad Co extended its rail line from Iowa City to Marengo in 1860. A short 18 months later the railroad line was continued to Wilson (present day Victor) and finally Council Bluffs. The train brought thousands of passengers and freight through the Iowa Valley including presidents Truman and Eisenhower and even the Liberty Bell.  The local newspaper reported in 1899 the anticipation of an Orphan Train to arrive in Marengo; several children were received in homes in Koszta, Blairstown, South Amana, and Marengo. Although Marengo received its last passenger train in 1970 and the depot was destroyed sometime in the 1980s, a portion of the original depot from Wilson (Victor) can be seen at the Iowa County Pioneer Heritage Museum

Lizzie’s Dining Car & Caboose Bar is not a historic train car. What is preserved at Lizzie’s is the atmosphere of a historic moment. It is an immersion of the senses into a time when the world was opened up to new possibilities through train travel.

The unique atmosphere was created within two walls of a downtown storefront.  As you enter the dining car, layered drapes of vintage fabric frame windows which are actually televisions. The televisions display movement through woodlands, beaches, or winter scenes.  The visual creates a sensation that you are on a moving train. On each side of the aisle are small booths igniting an intimacy for quiet conversation. Boxcar Meatloaf or Atlantic Railroad seafood and a drink from the bar completes the scene.

At the end of the railroad car is the Caboose Bar. The countertop is a single piece of cut tree that adds a natural element to the traditional “L” bar configuration found on a passenger train. The illusion is complete. 

Marengo is located in the heart of the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway where a rich collection of cultures, stories, activities, and historic scenic views remain today. The preservation of our stories is only limited by the creativity used in choosing how to tell them.   

Information for this article was informed by articles written by Bob James for 98.1 KHAK published May 16, 2023 and Marilyn Rodger, Guest columnist for the Southeast Iowa Union published Sep. 14, 2023 and Elizabeth Colony, owner/operator of Lizzie’s.  For more information on Lizzie’s Dining Car & Caboose Bar visit Facebook.

Prairie Rivers Wins Grant to Help Pollinators and Farmers

Prairie Rivers Wins Grant to Help Pollinators and Farmers

Prairie Rivers of Iowa has been protecting Iowa’s natural resources for over 20 years. We recently received a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to support our work! The grant is awarded through the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinators Conservation Fund. Prairie Rivers of Iowa is one of 18 organizations to receive this grant, including The Nature Conservancy, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, and the Pollinator Partnership.

Helping with Habitat
Prairie Rivers’ project, titled Pollinator Patchwork: Enrolling Private Working Lands into Monarch Butterfly Habitat, focuses on providing technical assistance to farmers and landowners motivated to help pollinators while receiving on-farm benefits as well. Our project, in particular, focuses on women landowners and farm operators, a group that has been historically left out of conversations and under-recruited for beneficial programs for decades. This group is also an un-tapped source for converting low-quality cropland out of production and into beneficial pollinator habitat. To address this issue, Prairie Rivers is creating general and women-specific field days, webinars, and effective outreach materials while partnering with area experts to accomplish these tasks! Our partners include Story County Conservation, Dr. Jean Eells of E Resources Group, area farmer Jim Richardson, Boone and Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and the Story County Water Quality Monitoring Planning Team.

Dr. Jean Eels during a Women Caring for the Land event in 2019.

Dr. Jean Eells is excited to partner with Prairie Rivers of Iowa for this project. Eells received her PhD in Agricultural Education and is highly experienced in effectively creating field days and outreach materials for women:

“This funding will allow us to hold events for landowners that will answer their questions and let them see directly how monarch and pollinator habitats can be created on their acres. I’m especially excited to hold meetings for women landowners where they can get their questions answered in a very friendly forum, whether they are very experienced or just beginning to make space for monarch butterflies.”

Jim Richardson, as a grain farmer and president of the Hamilton County Conservation Board, holds unique insight into farmer attitudes:

“As a farmer, I always like to participate in programs that are a “win-win,” relates Richardson, “I consider Prairie Rivers’ new project to be a “win-win-win.” It’s a win for the landowner who will get maximum revenue off of low-productive ground. It’s a win for the tenant, who will not have to put expensive inputs into marginal land. Lastly, it’s a huge win for our monarchs and all of our pollinators, who will find food sources where they have never been able to before.”

PRI Pollinator Conservation Specialist Jessica Butters

“UPDATE 2023-03-31: Prairie Rivers of Iowa is currently hiring for a pollinator conservation specialist to manage the project. Jessica Butters, outgoing pollinator conservation specialist and lead grantwriter had this to say about the potential of the project.

“It is exciting to start pollinator-focused projects in rural areas.  Prairie Rivers has started many successful pollinator projects in urban areas. Given that over 85% of Iowa is agricultural land, pollinator conservation on farmland is an enormous piece of the puzzle in supporting monarch butterflies and pollinators. Creating pollinator habitat in agricultural areas will allow us to connect pieces of pollinator habitat together, allowing monarch butterflies and other pollinators to move throughout the state.”

After 100 Years, Preston’s Station is Now in Its Preservation Era

After 100 Years, Preston’s Station is Now in Its Preservation Era

Preston's Station 1927 - 1928

Mary Helen’s great-grandpa George W started something when he purchased a Standard Oil station for his four boys in 1923.  Little did he know what his then 12-year-old son, George H, would do to create a legacy for the family.

The building bought for a mere $100 (“well that was all that it was worth in 1923” – George H. Preston – The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson) was built in 1912, just before the start of America’s first transcontinental roadway, the Lincoln Highway. The Highway originally went past the Standard Oil Station but was relocated to the south around 1927, so the family decided to move the station.

One sunny day in 1928 (ish), if you were walking down 8th Ave or 13th St in Belle Plaine, Iowa, you would have witnessed a mule team pulling a building loaded on a sleigh down the street to where Preston’s Station would remain to this day. Eventually, the family would turn the original garage behind the house into a cabin and add a larger garage and a three-room motel.

George H loved more than anything to bend the visitor’s ear.  Running a gas station, sometimes bus station, and garage for 60 years gave him plenty of stories about life along the Lincoln Highway.  George was so taken by his life along the Lincoln Highway and the stories he heard from travelers he became a strong promoter for the Lincoln Highway and for the town of Belle Plaine. George would tell his stories to anyone who would listen, and much like the game of telephone, over time, it became hard to know what stories were true and which were tales that simply grew taller through repetition.  George was a collector as well as a talker and his signs covered the station.

George H. Preston at the station.

George and his sign-covered station had unwittingly become a staple stop along the Lincoln Highway from New York to California well after they stopped selling gas in 1989. The station ran as a Standard Oil station for approximately 40 years and as a Phillips 66 station (Preston’s 66) for 30 years. George saw the value in storytelling through antique items such as signs and matchbooks long before it became an American pastime. To this day, people stop to have their pictures taken at the station with George’s signs.

Eventually, his roadside museum became famous along the Lincoln Highway; however, it was catapulted to a new level of fame when George was invited to be a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson show in 1990. Johnny was so taken with George because he couldn’t get a word in, and suddenly, his five-minute segment became 15 minutes. George and Johnny exchanged Burma Shave jingles, talked about Greorge’s 900 number to hear Lincoln Highway tales, and the Belle Plaine, Victor, and Deep River trail (today’s HWY 21).

George H. Preston on the tonight Show in 1990.

When George passed away, his oldest son, Ronald, began to carry on his father’s legacy and continued to tell the stories and collect the antiques (or junk, as some would call it). Ronald got involved with the re-invented Lincoln Highway Association tasked with preserving the stories of the Lincoln Highway and spent his final years becoming a part of the Belle Plaine Community like his dad. Unexpectedly, Ron passed away in 2011, and it was time for the next generation of Prestons to decide what to do.

Ronald Preston

In steps, Ronald’s eldest daughter, Mary Helen, and her husband, Garry Hevalow, now the fourth generation Preston family, made a plan to continue the legacy.  Before they even moved to Belle Plaine from Kansas City in 2017, they got to work clearing the extra, inventorying the museum, and planning for the buildings to be inspected for restoration. The station building is now over 100 years old (remember it was built in 1912) and has significant deterioration. Additionally, Mary Helen jumped into her father’s footsteps by joining the Lincoln Highway Association and has served as President of the Iowa Chapter for several years now.

Mary Helen Preston and Garry Hevalow with interpretive panel highlighting the station's history.

Finding the right grants, writing them, and qualifying for state, federal, and local funding for restoration is a long and arduous process. Mary Helen and Garry created a non-profit organization for the station and then began the process of applying for national recognition. In 2020, they were ecstatic to announce that Preston’s Station Historic District was now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The District includes the station, the garage/museum, a two-room cabin, and the 3-room motel. Their desire to not just restore the station but to contribute to the identity of the Belle Plaine area begins with this.

Soon after designation, the grant writing process began. In July 2021, the signs had to come down so that Martin Gardner Architecture could begin preparing a Master Stabilization and Rehabilitation Plan to preserve and restore the property properly.  In that same year, a grant was secured from the Benton County Community Foundation (of Northeast Iowa) for funds to hire Wadsworth Construction to access, stabilize, repair, and restore seven original garage windows. A grant for paint to paint the garage was obtained from Paint Iowa Beautiful. Other grants received to date include $5,000 from the Lincoln Highway Endowment, $10,000 from the Mansfield Charitable Foundation, and $10,000 from the MidWestOne Foundation.

The Master Plan includes looking at structural issues first at an estimated $150,000. The cost to restore the motel is estimated at $116,000 and the station, which includes the reconstruction of the front canopy, is expected to be $180,000. A two-room cabin is estimated at $69,500 for restoration and the Garage Museum comes in at $57,000.  

Restoration efforts thanks to a Paint Iowa Beautiful grant.

At an estimated total cost of $500,000, there is still a long road ahead before restoration will be complete for the future generations of Prestons, Belle Plaine, and Lincoln Highway enthusiasts. The storytelling that George H began and the legacy he created will continue to live on in the telling of stories and the artifacts left behind.

If you would like to contribute to the restoration efforts of the Preston Historic District or if you know of grant opportunities that are a good fit, visit Preston’s Station’s website or send your donations and ideas to Preston’s Station Historic District at 402 13th St, Belle Plaine, IA 52208.

Paul, Mary Helen, and George H. Preston.

A young Mary Helen Preston sitting on Grandpa George’s lap along with Paul Keisel.

Editor’s Note: Preston’s Station District is located near one of the intersections where both of the state byways that Prairie Rivers of Iowa manage for the Iowa Department of Transportation — the Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway and the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway

Many thanks to Preston’s Station Historic District for providing photos and information that contributed to this article.