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.

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