Historic Preservation Month

See the many sites in Benton County

May is Historic Preservation Month, celebrating historic places and the stories behind them.
Tired of being cooped up? Take a beautiful Benton County road trip! Get out of the house, hop in the car or pickup, and check out the local historically significant places that matter to us. You could make it a group caravan, practicing safe distancing, and educational for kids craving get out and about. Hey, gas is a bargain these days, and the weather’s nice!

Benton County Courthouse

First stop might be the Benton County courthouse, 1903-built architectural gem listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its 4-faced clock, again chiming on the half-hour and hour and lit at night, was restored five years ago.

While the building’s wonderful interior is temporarily closed to the public, you can step up to the outdoor bust honoring Sheriff Leland “Sam”Fry, killed in the line of duty in 1938.

Another National Register site is the privately-owned Iowa Canning Seed House, reminder of Vinton’s one-time Sweet Corn Capitol of the World claim, producing nearly 20% of US canned corn and other products. Also on the National Register are the Vinton Public Library, one of hundreds originally funded by the Carnegie Foundation; the 1900-built “county seat” Vinton depot, now a rail-theme museum with outdoor display of Hawk-built farm equipment; the Ray House (in need of expensive restoration and repainting); and its neighboring classic homes.

Another storied site is the Iowa Braille and Sight-Saving School, soon to be repurposed. Honoring Vinton’s heritage are the “wall dogs” living color billboards. Seeking them out, along with Brian Parr’s chain saw creations and the corn ear art, have the makings of a car tour contest.

Every Benton County city or town downtown offers great architectural variety and style. Shellsburg’s downtown “starred” in “The Final Season.” movie. Its nearby concrete bridge is another National Register site. So is the Youngville Café, great example of roadside gas stations that once refreshed and refueled Lincoln Highway travelers

Norway, proud of its unbeatable baseball history made famous in “The Final Season,” boasts a ball field and downtown baseball museum. One apocryphal story claims the longest home run ever hit was in Norway, when a batter lopped one over the fence, over the highway, and into a passing coal train car, traveling hundreds (or a 1,000!) miles to somewhere!

Once common along every rail line, most Benton County towns still have classic working “prairie skyscrapers”—grain elevators. “Back in the day” the local train depot and the elevator were the “go to” places, for commerce and socialization. Elevators not only dealt with ag goods, but were often coal (almost everybody once heated with coal) lumber retailers and more. Vinton’s west side towering elevator is the only one still filling rail cars with corn and beans.

The Belle Plaine Museum is one of Iowa’s finest — worthy of a stop, when it reopens. The city’s downtown is a designated Historic District. The Sankot Motor Co. is a National Register site, as is the Zalesky House, a private residence. Preston’s Garage hopes to be. (The late George Preston, final owner-operator, became something of a celebrity, including appearances on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.) Once a major railroad town,

Belle Plaine was a “division point” (where trains changed crews) and once had a steam locomotive-era roundhouse and large freight yard. Long gone, trains now breeze through town without stopping. Remaining is the privately-owned empty 3-story brick depot and a Chicago & North Western caboose displayed nearby. Several thousand swarmed the tracks a July morning last year when Union Pacific’s restored “Big Boy” steam locomotive paused briefly, interrupting its across-Iowa 150th Anniversary of the Golden Spike ceremony trek.

Belle Plaine Depot

Bruce Township boasts two National Register-listed round barns, privately owned—one, on low maintenance 11th Avenue, north of D65. Once common dairy farm barns of any style are vanishing. Round barns are rare!

Two surviving country church edifices no longer serving congregations but preserved by local supporters are the Bear Creek Church, on CH V71, in Harrison Township, and Spencers’ Grove Church, on SH 920, in Polk Township. Both have cemeteries. Gravestones, too, often tell (brief) “stories” of the lives of those who once populated Benton County.

And, getting out of our car, you can enjoy nature at its best on one of the abandoned railroad nature trails. The one-time Rock Island (later, Iowa Northern) rail line from Vinton to Dysart via Garrison segment is now the popular Old Creamery Nature Trail. Part of the Waterloo-to-Cedar Rapids Cedar Valley Nature Trail extends through Harrison and Polk Townships, including Urbana. Except for some farm field tree lines, little remains of the Milwaukee Road’s across Iowa route through Atkins (once a “division point” with roundhouse and freight yard), Newhall, Van Horne (named for William Cornelius Van Horne, local rail official who rose to become president of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in Canada, knighted for his efforts) and Keystone.

Begun in 1973, Historic Preservation Month celebrates not only places worth saving but the stories behind them.

So, get out of the house, hop in your car or pickup and enjoy and experience some of beautiful Benton County’s living history! See you on the road!

Benton County Historical Society

— Phil Borleske, Benton County Historic Preservation Commission chair; Benton County Historical Society vice-president

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