LOWDEN, Iowa - On an Indian summer afternoon, Elizabeth Norton is lazily swinging back and forth, back and forth, in a big white wicker swing. The sunlight is warm on the porch of her Lincoln Hotel, which is out of place in a town of only 789 people.
Here is a 96-year-old hotel of just five rooms in the middle of the cornfields, attracting visitors from all over America. It is a classic place, one of the last - maybe the last - original hotels on the Lincoln Highway, the nation's first coast-to-coast roadway that twisted through Lowden on its way from New York to San Francisco.
"It's a place where you arrive agitated and leave calm," says Norton, who really doesn't need to be an innkeeper. She calls the head-to-toe restored Lincoln Hotel her personal labor of love, a place that had tumbled down so miserably that someone once called it "old McDonald's dump."
I ask Norton, who likes to be called Liz, "What is a hotel like yours doing in such a little town? Why would a visitor from Florida book a hotel room in Lowden for 10 days? Why would a former Indiana state senator stay for two days and sit on your porch swing?"
She answers with affection, "Visitors want quiet ... To experience rural life, the corn harvest, cows in pastures. And small-town cafes where real people come in the morning for coffee. They want a getaway from big city life."
"Maybe they come just to smell Iowa pigs," she laughs.
The Lincoln Hotel, 40 miles northwest of the Quad-Cities, is an epicenter for people who want to see what the Midwest is all about.
"I have a website and there is word of mouth," Norton says. "This past year has been the busiest since we opened 10 years ago."
Norton has just taken time out to rest. She has been persnickety in readying her hotel for the weekend stay of a wedding party. There are fresh flowers in all the rooms - all five rooms - and champagne glasses for sparkling grape juice. Homemade cookies are on plates. All five rooms will be filled for the night.
Swinging in her wicker swing, she says, "People come from everywhere. Lots of bicycle riders. We've even had a veterinarian from Scotland."
The Lincoln Hotel's genesis was 1915, when the highly touted Lincoln Highway - heralding coast-to-coast travel by motor car - was opened. Entrepreneurs picked the corner of Washington and Main streets in Lowden to build the only hotel between Clinton and Cedar Rapids. It was prairie-esqe in style. There were 12 guest rooms that shared one bath. For extra convenience, an outhouse was out back. Rooms were $2 a night; steak dinners, 75 cents.
The railroad was nearby. Drummers - that's what traveling salesmen were called - alighted from the train in Lowden, carrying their wares in suitcases and heading for the nearby Lincoln Hotel to stay.
The place flourished, but when the old Lincoln Highway - now officially U.S. 30 - moved a dozen blocks away to the edge of town, the Lincoln Hotel foundered. Motorists chose the trendy new motor courts and tourist cabins.
After several owners, the Lincoln Hotel fell into disrepair. It sat empty for 10 years.
Along came Elizabeth Norton of Lowden and her husband, Brad, who is an attorney in nearby Clarence.
"We couldn't stand the idea of having that grand old landmark go to pieces, so we bought it to make a bed and breakfast," she says. The place was gutted to the four walls and the original 12 small guest rooms became five big guest rooms. Help came from grants and partners.
To tackle such a building was a big bite, an overwhelming challenge, and now 10 years have passed. The Nortons have received "The Best Preservation Award" from the Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance.
"Come on in," Elizabeth Norton invites, "to talk about the hotel so I can show it off. No one can recognize it."
The lobby is warm and woody; the big spittoon is gone; the old dining room and upstairs rooms have been replaced by oversize guest rooms with a classic feel and amenities unheard of when it was a 1915 hotel. Now, there's air conditioning and TV - and, of course - swell bathrooms in all the five rooms.
We sit at a small table with linen tablecloth. The autumn afternoon becomes warm; Norton brings glasses of lemonade and sugar cookies from somewhere.
She likes to talk about their awesome hotel project.
"The stucco was falling off the outside. Water was running through the roof. It was in terrible shape. I think a hundred volunteers helped us. I have this design thing, a frustrated designer. I studied at the New York School of Interior Design. Sue Licht, an architect with Iowa connections, pitched in."
All the original woodwork was saved and stripped. "Look, my hands have never been the same," she says. She stripped woodwork and painted while her husband gutted the place. Professionals were called in where needed.
Norton loves to cook, and if a guest desires breakfast for an extra charge, she will serve juices, home-baked breads, quiche, eggs florentine with her own sauce, maple nut cake and enough other food to last until supper time.
My wife and I pay more attention than most when we stay at a hotel or motel, so the Lincoln Hotel intrigues and impresses us. We wander up and down the front and rear stairs, quite awed by the largest room (455 square-feet) with a canopy bed, loveseat and velvet wingback chair. We wander the other cozy rooms. They're unlike motel gothic, far departures from any bed and breakfast we've hunkered down in.
Looking out the bay window from the old dining room, I ask Norton, "So someone's staying here for a couple of days. Lowden doesn't have a lot to offer. There are just so many country roads to grasp the ambience of Iowa."
"I have answers for that," she says, bringing out a list of nearby places such as the Amana Colonies, a doll museum, farms that welcome visitors, and just plain small-town quiet.
Only a few cars pass during our visit. No trucks. It is so quiet that we can hear the clocks ticking in each room.
Contact Bill Wundram at (563) 383-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.