Exploring Iowa: Bonaparte

All Rights Reserved Megan Bannister

All Rights Reserved Megan Bannister

If you head south of Fairfield, through Keosaqua and along rustic Route J40, you’ll find yourself in the heart of Bonaparte, Iowa. I’d be lying if I said I was expecting to be charmed by this tiny, riverfront town.

But at this point, charmed may be an understatement.

According to the 2010 census, Bonaparte’s population is 433, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s shrunk in the last five years. Named the smallest Main Street community in the U.S., most of historic Bonaparte is preserved as part of the National Historic Riverfront District.

The catch? A good chunk of the town’s storefronts sit vacant. But that doesn’t make them any less fun to explore. I’m still particularly weak-kneed over the Christy Mercantile Block and the Fowler Home.

A quick history of Bonaparte, Iowa

The area now known as Bonaparte was established in 1837 by William Meek, who modestly named the area Meek’s Mill. In 1841, the area was resurveyed and the name was changed to Bonaparte (of whom Meek was an admirer), and was officially incorporated in 1899. Fun fact: Another site across the Des Moines River was named Napoleon but it was never developed.

In the early days of Bonaparte, area settlers would come from as far as 100 miles to have their grain ground into flour at Meeks Mill. However, when the Industrial Revolution came about Bonaparte’s booming population (once more than 1,000) began to diminish.

By 1960, the population was hovering around 575. Bonaparte Main Street, a nonprofit dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the town, formed decades later. In 1989 much of its downtown district was named to the named to the National Register of Historic Places.

For a more complete look at the history of Bonaparte, check out the Van Buren County Historical Society’s Bonaparte History Book

All Rights Reserved Megan Bannister

All Rights Reserved Megan Bannister

All Rights Reserved Megan Bannister

All Rights Reserved Megan Bannister

All Rights Reserved Megan Bannister

All Rights Reserved Megan Bannister

All Rights Reserved Megan Bannister

All Rights Reserved Megan Bannister

All Rights Reserved Megan Bannister

All Rights Reserved Megan Bannister

Want to know more? Take a virtual tour of Bonaparte, Iowa’s National Historic Riverfront District.

More on Bonaparte’s culinary hub, the Bonaparte Retreat, and the Villages of Van Buren coming soon!

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Comments (8)

[…] in a historic mill (remember, Bonaparte’s entire riverfront district is on the National Register of Historic Places), Bonaparte’s Retreat is the perfect pairing […]

[…] created as part of the Des Moines River Improvement Project, which began in the early 1800s. Like up-river Bonaparte, Bentonsport was home to many mills, including the first paper mill in the state of Iowa. […]

[…] Exploring Iowa: Bonaparte (Bonaparte, […]

[…] in a historic mill (remember, Bonaparte’s entire riverfront district is on the National Register of Historic Places), the Bonaparte Retreat is the perfect pairing to […]

I spend some time in Van Buren County each year and Bonaparte is one of the places I visit on each trip – particularly if I am traveling with a friend – to eat at the Bonaparte Inn. This adorable and somewhat abandoned town grows on you. This location on the river is just waiting for the right artist community to move in and make it their own. Fortunately many of the buildings in the photos now have antique and unique country collectible stores as of 2017. If you are looking for a low key laid back visit away from it all with good food and atmosphere at the Inn, an incredible view of the Des Moines River (you can also pack a picnic and eat at the park on the river), and well stocked antique stores all within walking distance this is a must. I usually pair up this trip with historic Bentonsport visit which is 5 or so minutes away – also on the river.

Thanks so much for reading and for the recommendations, Marianne! It’s been a few years since I visited Bonaparte and Bentonsport, but it definitely sounds like it might to time for a return trip. I’m so delighted to hear that many of the historic storefronts featured here are now home to new shops. Happy traveling!

[…] Exploring Iowa: Bonaparte (Bonaparte, […]

[…] created as part of the Des Moines River Improvement Project, which began in the early 1800s. Like up-river Bonaparte, Bentonsport was home to many mills, including the first paper mill in the state of Iowa. […]

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