Iowa Byways: The Lincoln Highway
The natural beauty, history and culture of the state shines in each of Iowa’s Byways, stretching from the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway in western Iowa to the Great River Road, hugging the Mississippi River in the east. In a series beginning with this edition, Edible Iowa River Valley will highlight local food, unique restaurants and food producers in all nine state-designated and two nationally-designated byways, starting with the longest, the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway.
As the transcontinental Lincoln Highway was constructed through Iowa one century ago, businesses popped up alongside to serve motorists’ needs, including fuel for their cars and food for the drivers and passengers.
Landmarks such as the Youngville Café in Benton County stand as a testament to both. Antique gas pumps remain as evidence of its past function as a filling station, while the café remains open seasonally for hungry travelers.
“Apple pie, blueberry, cherry pie, coconut cream, lemon meringue,” Rita Sebastian, a Youngville Café volunteer, ticks off a list of some of the desserts served at the historic site, at the junction of Highways 218 and 30 near Van Horne.
Joseph Young constructed the café in 1931, the Youngville Highway History Association notes, as the recently paved Lincoln Highway provided a steady stream of travelers in need of gas, food and lodging.
Young’s widowed daughter, Elizabeth Wheeler, operated the business and made her home in the living quarters above the combination roadside restaurant/Skelly filling station during its years of operation, through 1967.
Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the café is operated by volunteers, like Sebastian, who serve up homemade soup of the day, along with a choice of light sandwiches for lunch on Tuesdays; and salads, grilled tenderloins and burgers for Thursday lunch, from May through October. Vendors bring their fresh vegetables and other goods to late Friday afternoon farmers markets at the site, from June through September.
Pie, of course, is always available when the Youngville Café is open.
“Everything is homemade: raisin cream, butterscotch, pecan, peach,” Sebastian said, continuing the list, and adding that several depend on in-season fruit. “Rhubarb is probably one of our best sellers.”
The soup, too, is homemade, “so you never know what we’ll be serving and we don’t know either,” she said with a chuckle. “Everything is strictly homemade food. It’s definitely old-time; no deep-fat frying.”
The Youngville Café is one of many points of interest along the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway, the state’s longest byway, stretching 460 miles from Council Bluffs on the Missouri River to Clinton on the Mississippi.
Cedar Rapids, Marshalltown, Toledo, Ames, Boone, Jefferson, Carroll and Denison are among stops in-between. The byway, which closely follows U.S. Highway 30 through 13 counties, is Iowa’s only “heritage” byway of the state’s 11, recognizing its important history as a portion of the country’s first coast-to-coast highway, which celebrated its centennial in 2013.
Cafés in towns such as Belle Plaine and Mount Vernon adopted the highway’s name, and a century-old bridge in Tama features the words “Lincoln Highway” in concrete guard rails. The byway is marked with Iowa Byways signs, historic Lincoln Highway markers and telephone poles painted with the Lincoln Highway’s distinctive red, white and blue “L” logo.
The many eateries still in business along the highway’s route are known for more than fabulous pie. An Iowa staple, the breaded pork tenderloin, was voted tops in the state at the Lucky Pig Pub & Grill in Ogden, a central Iowa town with a population of just over 2,000 people.
Craig and Carol Christensen, who also farm and raise hogs near Ogden, purchased the restaurant to keep it open for the community, which sits along the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway.
Kelsey Sutter of the Iowa Pork Producers Association said nearly 400 restaurants were nominated for Iowa’s Best Breaded Pork Tenderloin award in 2014. “This was a very competitive year for our competition,” Sutter said.
Hand pounded in-house and double coated in a batter and bread crumb mixture, the Lucky Pig’s tenderloin sandwich provides an ideal meat-to-bun ratio, judges said, and features a unique spice for its one-of-a-kind flavor profile.
The tenderloins were judged on the quality of the pork, taste, physical characteristics and eating experience. Final judge, chef Phil Carey, noted that judges looked for a sandwich that showcases pork first, complimented with a flavorful breading.
At the time, the judges didn’t realize that the Christensens also raised hogs, but later said it made sense that they would know how to prepare pork.
That farming tradition also is evident at a new food enterprise along the byway. Iowa Choice Harvest LLC formed in 2013 with 24 member-owners.
Penny Brown Huber, president and CEO of the Marshalltown-based company, said Iowa Choice Harvest provides a means to keep quality, local farmers’ food in the state. Crops are purchased from Iowa farmers at their peak of ripeness and flash-frozen to maintain the highest quality taste, she said.
Sweet corn, for example, was harvested and frozen on the same day. Grocery stores such as Fareway and Hy-Vee are now carrying Iowa Choice Harvest products in frozen food aisles, as are outlets that include the Des Moines-based Iowa Food Cooperative and Iowa Valley Food Co-op, in Cedar Rapids.
Last year, Iowa Choice Harvest added frozen apples that are cored, peeled and sliced to its selections, along with wholesale aronia berries. Huber said carrots will be offered next.
Iowa Choice Harvest fills a niche in building the state’s local food system, she said, by providing food processing and new markets for farmers to sell their produce.
Huber, who hand-selects farms to participate and notes that the sweet corn uses only non-GMO seed, has a connection to both the farmers and to the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway. She serves as executive director of Prairie Rivers of Iowa, an Ames-based nonprofit that manages the byway.
In that role, she came to know Iowa growers and to understand their needs. “We knew certainly there was a big demand, but there was nowhere for farmers to take their crops to be processed and preserved,” she said.
Apples last year were purchased from 10 Iowa orchards and include some heirloom varieties that are “great for baking,” Huber said, adding that about 193,000 pounds of sweet corn was processed from just two farms.
One of those farms brings the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway full-circle. Eric and Ann Franzenburg farm in rural Van Horne, just a few miles from the Youngville Café.
The two have been farming for 22 years and have gradually expanded and diversified their crops, which now include herbs, cut flowers and 10 acres of sweet corn that was sold to Iowa Choice Harvest.
Ann Franzenburg said the Lincoln Highway remains relevant today in places such as the Youngville Café, where she occasionally sells flowers at its farmers market, and is closely tied to the area’s history, including her family’s.
Her husband’s late grandmother, Lola Holst Franzenburg, told stories of using the newly paved highway near the family farm in rural Belle Plaine for roller-skating as a child. “It’s pretty hilly over there,” Franzenburg said. “They probably got going pretty fast.”
Cindy Hadish writes about local foods, farmers markets and the environment at: HomegrownIowan.com
When You Go:
Find maps and more information about all of Iowa’s Byways at: IowaByways.org
Youngville Café: YoungvilleCafe.com
Lucky Pig: ImALuckyPig.weebly.com
Iowa Choice Harvest: IowaChoiceHarvest.com
Prairie Rivers of Iowa: PRRCD.org