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Old 10-29-2011, 09:21 PM
 
Location: Des Moines
586 posts, read 2,089,594 times
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Took the 2+ hour trip from Des Moines to the Villages of Van Buren County in far SE Iowa to do some hiking and check out a pretty interesting little rural tourism destination in Iowa. Van Buren County is dissected by the Des Moines River, which played an important part in its history, since this portion of the river is navigable and once had riverboat traffic. There are a series of small towns referred to as the “villages” that are located every 6 or 7 miles along the river. All of the towns in the photos below seem to have historically been focused on the Des Moines River, and all seem to showcase it as its front door.

Van Buren County is extremely rural, with only 7,500 people left. The locals claim is that there are no retail/restaurant chains and no stoplights in the whole county, so they seem quite content with their quiet, rural way of life. I can attest, there are no stop lights in the county and the only chain business I saw was a Casey’s store.

The topography of the county is very hilly by Iowa standards, and there are some good mini-bluffs along the Des Moines River. It’s one of the most forested counties in Iowa, so it makes great topography for park land with several state forests and the gorgeous Lacey-Keosauqua State Park providing good hiking and recreation.

Van Buren County has done a tremendous job of marketing themselves as a tertiary tourist stop with a decent dose of antique shops, boutique stores, Bed & Breakfasts and historical stops. We made a visit on a blustery Sunday where things were definitely much quieter than I expected. I expected more tourists during prime fall color season and towns that had a little more vibrant economy. What I saw were typical economically depressed Southern Iowa towns with a little more interest because of the river history and small influx of outside tourism dollars propping up niche retail. Van Buren County was good for a day trip, mainly because of the nice scenery, but I thought the marketing claims trumped up more of an attraction than what really exists. This was listed in the well-known book, “1,000 Places to See Before you Die.” If I make it back, it will be to kayak down the water trail on the Des Moines River.

The first stop was the largest town and county seat of Keosauqua (population 1,100), which is centrally located in the county along a major bend in the Des Moines River. It’s a very spread out town for its size due to the hilly topography, and is just across the river from the Lacey Keosauqua State Park.

Coming into town on a new bridge across the river




All is quiet on this Sunday afternoon on Main Street Keosauqua.












Old Creamery Building


The Hotel Manning has been a hotel for a very long time.




Every small town needs a rocket slide. This one is on Keosauqua's riverfront park.


The Van Buren County Courthouse sits on a hill on the main drag through town, rather that situated downtown or on a courthouse square.


A few interesting houses, but this never appeared to be too prosperous of a town


County history/heritage museum with oldest school in the county.


This former hotel was a stop in the Underground Railroad


My photo isn't crooked, the barn is.


The next stop and most interesting of the towns along the river is also the smallest. Bentonsport was a former steamboat stop and grain mill town that once boasted over 500 people. Today it is literally a village of 50 or so people. This was a major river crossing point and stop over along the Mormon Trail, some of whom settled in the area and built beautiful all brick residences and businesses that still stand to this day. Bentonsport is more a living museum than it is a small town. It has a great history tour that details the purpose of literally every structure remaining, including the ruins turned public gardens of former mills. There are also some neat shops that are worth a stop, including a real life black smith and metal working shop.



Coming into town on the oldest metal bridge on the Des Moines River, which has been turned into a ped crossing to a twin town across the river named Vernon, Iowa.






The Mason House B & B is the largest structure in town


The adjacent caboose is used as an additional room in the Bed and Breakfast


Flood history of the building


Other commercial buildings in "downtown"






Small cottage along the river


Public gardens within the ruins of former grain mills.


Churches and houses






Beautiful church on a hill overlooking the town.




Next up is Bonaparte, population 468. This is the smallest designated “Main Street Community” in the US, and has the bones of a bigger town (it once had 1,000 people). The downtown is fairly well intact and has the most impressive riverboat area commercial structures of all of the towns. However, the rest of the town looked like a mess, with a very declining old housing stock. This was the site of a former lock and dam across the river that was destroyed by a major flood in 1903.
























Historic bandshell on the riverfront


Not sure what this was historically, but it's a massive two story antique shop and fudge factory now.


The Bonaparte Retreat is apparently the place to eat in Van Buren County.




This building serves as a hotel now


And finally, a view of the American Gothic House and adjacent museum giving all the info you ever needed on Grant Wood’s famous painting

This is located in Eldon, Iowa on the edge of Wapello County next door.


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Old 10-31-2011, 03:41 PM
 
Location: around the way
659 posts, read 1,042,973 times
Reputation: 439
Looks beautiful.

I'd be curious to know about the state of the economy in the area, given that everything is rural and pretty much locally owned and operated. How are they faring compared to the rest of the state and the rest of the country?
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Old 10-31-2011, 03:53 PM
 
Location: University City, Philadelphia
22,634 posts, read 14,032,843 times
Reputation: 15873
Very nice. Thank you for sharing these pictures of villages full of charm and character!
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Old 10-31-2011, 05:04 PM
 
323 posts, read 498,263 times
Reputation: 588
Thanks!! I found it enjoyable looking at your photo's. I was imagining myself there as I scrolled through. I would put this on my to visit list. You should get a kick back for the tourism company.
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Old 10-31-2011, 06:11 PM
 
Location: Des Moines
586 posts, read 2,089,594 times
Reputation: 384
Quote:
Originally Posted by Stavemaster View Post
Looks beautiful.

I'd be curious to know about the state of the economy in the area, given that everything is rural and pretty much locally owned and operated. How are they faring compared to the rest of the state and the rest of the country?
SE Iowa is hurting economically, almost across the board. This county is about 20-30 miles to Ottumwa, Fairfield, Mt. Pleasant and Keokuk, so there's plenty of bigger communities surrounding it that are employment centers. I really didn't see too much industry in the towns I visited, so I'm guessing there are a lot of people used to commuting if they're not making money off agriculture. Looks like unemployment rates are just a touch over 7%. Keosauqua had a good-sized plant for Hill Phoenix Companies, which is a national designer and manufacturer of grocery store display cases and racks.
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Old 10-31-2011, 07:05 PM
 
Location: Wyoming
9,728 posts, read 19,881,944 times
Reputation: 14790
Very nice pictures and captions! Thank you!!
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