Long before the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System came about in the 1950's, the Lincoln Highway was one of America's first transcontinental highways for automobiles. Iowa was fortunate to have the highway cut right through the heart of our state. You could get from Missouri River to Mississippi River by just staying on this one road.
Of course, people did more than drive. They stopped because they needed places to fuel up, sleep, eat, and be entertained. Great restaurants, hotels, and venues sprang up along the route and many developed spectacular reputations. One those truly special places was the Herring Hotel, a beautiful building in Belle Plaine in Benton County with a very rich history.
The Herrings were an influential family and their hotel became a place that both the common man and the rich and the famous wanted to stay. It was a true hub of the community.
Unfortunately, as traffic patterns changed, some truly iconic landmarks along the Lincoln Highway lost some of their luster. Many were sadly torn down or fell into various states of disrepair. The Herring Hotel became one of those.
However, there is good news to this story.
An energetic and driven group in and around Belle Plaine is working to bring the Herring Hotel, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places, back to life. They want to once again make it both a hub of the community and a destination spot for Belle Plaine, which is one of Iowa's Main Street communities.
What do those future plans entail? Two non-profits have been set up to raise the millions of dollars necessary to bring it back to life. They have a nice page on their website that details their plans to restore it to how it looked in 1922. They hope that this new modern hub includes hotel rooms, health and wellness facilities, apartments, and more.
On a recent Saturday, the group behind the restoration effort invited me to town to check out the hotel and to attend an afternoon tea fundraiser to aid in the efforts. When I arrived in Belle Plaine, a town with a population of about 2500, I was greeted by Kristine Morrow-Pope. She is the driver behind the restoration efforts. Kristine is an absolute fountain of information about the history of the place and the community. She is passionate about restoring the hotel to it's former glory and to again make it a hub for the greater Belle Plaine community.
Kristine showed me around the lobby hotel for a few minutes. The building is across the street from the famous Lincoln Cafe.
Herring Hotel is still in pretty rough shape..
This is the original front desk from the hotel. It's ready to be put back to use.
There is so much intricate detail, such as the writing using tiles.
Much of it is presently off limits. Hopefully that will soon be a thing of the past after construction can commence in full.
There are some photos and other information to showcase the history of the place.
We also went into the basement, which is part of the rehab plans.
They recently had to do some patch work on part of the ceiling.
Both the inside and the outside are going to get some badly needed attention.
The fundraising tea was held at a local church.
There was a full multi-purpose room full of tables.
The tables were beautifully decorated with china and the food (both sweet and savory) and tea were absolutely delightful.
The annual event had a movies theme this year and so they had some fun decor connected to that. For example, there were stars on the wall representing various famous people who had, at one time, stayed in the hotel. Yes, that included both Ronald Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt.
There was a fun photo booth.
Every guest received a popcorn box (what's a movie without popcorn?) and that was full of various goodies and information.
They also had a silent auction (which included a battle of the pies) and other tables of information about the project.
There was a full program which culminated with a fascinating presentation by Michael Zahs of nearby Washington County.