One More On the Way: Niland Cafe

I’ve posted about the famous Lincoln Highway (now roughly followed by US 30) before, but it wasn’t more than a few years ago that I learned there was a Jefferson Highway (now roughly followed by US 69) too that went north-south. (The Lincoln Highway goes east-west.) The Jefferson Highway had the advantage of a neat nickname. It was known as Pine to Palm. Where these two once mighty roads cross is the little town of Colo, Iowa.


Bypassed For Bigger Roads

Much like Route 66, in the dilemma depicted in Cars, towns that once made their living off travelers stopping found themselves drying up as they were bypassed and larger and newer restaurants, gas stations, etc were built to cater to the interstate traveler. These Lincoln Highway gas stations establishments were actually small garages – where they could fix cars as well as pump gas – despite being a lot smaller than those we know today.  They had a porch extending out from the building and usually featured those globe top gas pumps that are prized by collectors today. (Those globes lit up and helped guide motorists in at night before the days when it was always as light as daylight by a gas station.) One famous manufacturer of the pumps was the Tolkheim company that designed all sorts of pumps for various purposes right here in Cedar Rapids, Iowa – visit a display on them at Ushers Ferry Historic Village.

The Mom and Pop Cafe

lincoln-and-jeffersonNearby was often a mom and pop style cafe and sometimes the type of motel that was small individual cabins. You will sometimes see these buildings still there or preserved as museums or rotting by the side of the road. It’s much rarer to find one up and working. There is the Youngsville Cafe near the turn off 30 to Vinton, Iowa, but this is the only example I know of where you can actually eat in the real cafe (now themed with Lincoln and Jefferson Highway artifacts) AND stay in the real hotel. The gas station is just a regular type museum that displays artifacts from the two roads that you can view from the outside.

The pole above is inside the restaurant. It dates to a time before roadsigns when highways were designated by painting on telegraph, telephone, or electrical poles whichever were close to the road. The L is the symbol for the Lincoln Highway and the JH symbol is for the Jefferson Highway.

Cabin Type Motel to Stay In

This motel isn’t QUITE that old. This version of the motel was built in the 1940s as one of the first “modern” motels in Iowa which basically meant the cabins were smashed together in a row sharing interior walls. Six units were restored to resemble the 1940s period in 2008, except with updates like bathrooms, wireless access, cable and self-controlled heating and cooling.

Reed/Niland Cafe

Named for two sets of owners, Reed/Niland Corner was originally started in the 1920s. In 2003 it was restored to the 1940s and serves a roughly 1940s style menu. They advertise “hot beef sandwiches, ham and bean soup with corn muffin and homemade pies.” Plus milkshakes from a real milkshake machine.

I’ve stopped there twice and eaten there once. It’s worth a stop, especially if you’re tracing one of the routes or if you’re passing nearby on the modern Highway 30.

If you’ve read  A Little House Traveler, these are the types of places where Laura and Almanzo would have stopped on their journeys, so try it for yourself.

**I will note that service was not great at the cafe when we were there. They were understaffed. I understand that, but we were not offered any of the apologies that servers normally give to customers in that situation (we were there before a large group came in and only got a chance to order well after them). In fact, we were pretty much ignored for long stretches of time. I had to get up and walk over to the waitress for her to take our order. After we finished we had to wait a long time for the check even after hunting down the waitress again to ask for it until finally we gave up and asked at the cash register to get our bill. I have not had anyone else I’ve talked to about the cafe who had had this kind of experience, so we probably just caught them on a bad day, but I thought it was fair to say.

Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales striving to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on  FacebookTwitterGoogle+, LinkedIn, and Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.