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.
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!