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.
Zahs is the man behind the award winning documentary "Saving Brinton". If you have not seen it yet, you are missing out. I could have listened to Mr. Zahs speak for hours. He brought information from the collection of Brinton memorabilia.
The Brintons were Iowans who traveled around showing some of the earliest motion pictures in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Zahs, a local historian and collector, ended up with a lot of their stuff and the collection contains thousands of artifacts and some of the first movies ever made. Much of what is in the collection, which has since been donated to the University of Iowa, is extremely rare. He talked about his experience with the documentary but also spoke a lot about the Brintons. He showed several of their movies as well.
This projector is original and well over 100 years old.
If you ever get the chance to enjoy Zahs' presentation, do not miss it. It's fascinating.
Morrow-Pope also provided a presentation about the hotel and the ongoing efforts to raise the money to get it finished. She had a number of pictures of the building at various stages.
The local theatre showed the Saving Brinton film after the tea. I had already seen it so I did not go.
Check out the Facebook page about the group and also consider making a financial donation to their efforts, if you can. This is a significant piece of Iowa history and it is exciting to see the plans that are ahead for it. I greatly enjoyed my afternoon in Belle Plaine and left inspired by the good work being done. I cannot wait to go back in a few years when it is done and stay in one of the hotel rooms. In the meantime, I look forward to getting back to Benton County in the near future as there is much more to see and do.