BELLE PLAINE — The Lincoln Highway gas station that George Preston made famous in Belle Plaine isn’t going anywhere. Just a lot of the stuff he collected is.
When I first heard there was to be an auction at the old place — you know the one, it’s covered with old gasoline advertising signs — I could hear George groan all the way from heaven. He died in 1993, but collected stuff virtually all 83 years of his life. His son, Ron, who died last August at 77, had continued the tradition.
“I don’t know who collected more, my grandpa or my dad,” laughs Mary Preston by phone from her home near Kansas City, Mo. “We’re just trying to de-clutter, so others can enjoy what’s there. The family’s wish is to keep the corner. We want to preserve the legacy grandpa started.”
I’d be the first to admit The Preston Corner has been an eyesore to some. But, to anyone who appreciates old highway signs, old gas stations, the Lincoln Highway, television shows like “American Pickers,” and folklore to the max, The Preston Corner is the purest form of Americana.
I first saw it half-a-century ago when my dad would drive by on trips from Marshalltown to southeast Iowa. I became reacquainted with it more than 30 years ago when I began Ramblin’ around Eastern Iowa. I came to love it after I spent a day with George Preston himself — that story ran in The Gazette Jan. 16, 1984 and is included in my book, “Ramblin’: Reflections of Hidden Iowa.”
For the next decade, I’d stop on occasion to chat with George, but only if I had at least an hour to listen to his stories. He was full of them and in 1990 wowed a national audience and Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.
George felt right at home on national TV, in part because he regularly called area talk radio shows, but mostly because he was a natural born talker. And if George loved to talk about anything it was his dream to keep the Lincoln Highway alive forever.
His love for the highway began in 1923 when his father paid $100 for the service station and moved it along the highway for his four sons to operate. By the time the Lincoln Highway left Belle Plaine in 1936 (realigned north of town as Highway 30), all but George had left the station. His collections of stories and memorabilia were well under way.
I have no idea how George decided which signs to tack where on his station and nearby garage, but the haphazard arrangement of tire and motor oil signs adjacent to those advertising seed corn and root beer gave the place panache. His granddaughter says all those signs will remain. (Other signs will be kept as future replacements.)
At auction you’ll find everything from gas signs to a 1-cent gum machine to a Model-T and horse-drawn equipment including a 1919 school bus.
George’s infamous two-headed stuffed calf — he’d pull it in parades in Belle Plaine and Cedar Rapids — will remain in the family as would the huge steam-engine tractor that used to front the garage if it can be found.
The rumor, Mary says, is that Ron sent it out for repairs but didn’t tell anyone where. Or, she adds, he could have sold it.
Mary hopes the station can be put on the National Register of Historic Places and receive grants to keep it intact as a Lincoln Highway/Belle Plaine tourist attraction.
“Now that I’m older and we have to go through this process, it’s been interesting,” Mary says. “It’s just too bad the historians are gone.”
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FYI: AUCTION INFORMATION:
The auction of signs and other memorabilia collected by George Preston and his son, Ron, begins at 9 a.m. at the old service station along Highway 21 (13th Street) on the west side of Belle Plaine. For more information about the auction handled by Duwa’s Auction Service see: www.auctionzip.com/Listings/1495719.html
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