Villages of Van Buren
My weekend in southeast Iowa was filled with fascinating history, winding two-lane highways, fall leaves, a 115-year-old hotel, and some really tiny towns.
This was a weekend I’d been looking forward to for a long time: The Scenic Drive Festival in the Villages of Van Buren County. Basically, I wanted to visit this area and figured that A) the leaves would be pretty this time of year and B) shops would be open if there was some kind of festival. I really didn’t much care about the festival itself, which involved a lot of soup suppers and flea markets.
Like most of my weekend explorations, this one started with some basic research. I downloaded a copy of the Scenic Drive Festival brochure and added that to the Villages of Van Buren 2014 visitors guide and Iowa Byways brochure I’d picked up on some other trip. And I pulled out the Sept. 25, 2011 Des Moines Register feature by Mike Kilen about driving the 110-mile Historic Hills Scenic Byway.
I sort of combined the Villages and the scenic byway and tried to hit the best of both in about 24 hours. I didn’t see everything, but I did the best I could, and I had a lot of fun trying.
So here goes: The western edge of the Historic Hills Scenic Byway starts in Moravia, a good two hours away from my home in Ames. And I had to work Saturday morning, so I didn’t get started on the byway until 2 p.m. (If I had one thing to do over again it would be to get a very early start on Saturday, because a LOT of good stuff in this area are closed on Sunday.)
I’d been to this part of the state before, when I was covering RAGBRAI for the magazine back in 2003 (and another trip or two to visit a friend who lived in Keosauqua). My memory of the RAGBRAI route was that it was hilly and beautiful, that the towns were very small, and that Bloomfield had a mighty pretty courthouse. Other than that, most things looked completely different back then – which isn’t surprising, since it was 11 years ago and there were 10,000 bicycles everywhere I went.
From Moravia, the route is county road J3T to Drakesville, with one or two pretty views along the way. I remembered Drakesville for its split street around the tiny town center – and for its Amish culture.
My first stop was at Rysdam Pumpkin Patch, where I talked to Mark Rysdam. He’s not much of a businessman – he sells everything on the honor system (“Just put money in the jar over there on the table”), but he more than makes up for it as a grower. He told me he planted 70 varieties of pumpkins, gourds, and squash. I bought a yellow pumpkin from him – I’ve never seen one quite that color. He said that earlier in the season he grows sweet corn and tomatoes.
I was back on the road for about two seconds when I saw Hershberger’s Bulk Food and Groceries, an Amish store with a horse and buggy out front and Amish children across the street. I stopped – I hadn’t taken the time to eat either breakfast or lunch – and walked through the aisles of bulk foods before choosing a $2 bag of trail mix to munch on in the car.
But I had again no more than pulled back out onto the road than I spotted my next stop: the Bakery Barn. This tiny Amish-run shed was filled with the most delicious-looking pies and cookies and bread and caramel pecan rolls. For $1.25 I walked away with four freshly baked cookies that I bought from a barefoot girl in a blue cotton dress.
I know the rules about photographing the Amish, but it’s so hard not to take pictures of people who look so wonderfully simple and old-fashioned. I snapped a couple of images of the buggies from a distance and hoped it wasn’t rude. Throughout the weekend I probably encountered a dozen horse-drawn Amish vehicles on the county roads. Drakesville clearly has a large population of Amish farmers and craftsmen – there are signs for shops at each gravel road off the main byway. The Register article mentioned that you can get a map of these businesses, but I didn’t know where to find one. (This is not Kalona, and definitely not the Amana Colonies. Promotion is at a minimum here.)
From tiny Drakesville, J3T takes you to U.S. 63, which leads you to Bloomfield. Bloomfield is a real town, population 2,640. It’s the county seat of Davis County and has the aforementioned pretty courthouse and a nice town square. It was an overnight town on the 2003 RAGBRAI route, and I can still clearly remember the tents and bicyclists all over the courthouse lawn and the nearby schoolyard.
After Bloomfield I left the Historic Hills Byway for two reasons. First, the damn road was closed (same problem that I had on the Loess Hills Scenic Byway!) and second, I wanted to get to the Milton Creamery before it closed.
I took Hwy. 2 through Pulasky to Milton. The Milton Creamery is located right on the highway in a big, nondescript pre-fab building. Inside there were samples of about a dozen kinds of cheese curds (smoked, tomato-garlic, chive, chili pepper, pizza, dill) and a variety of cheeses: flavored cheddars, Colby, and the popular Prairie Breeze and Prairie Rose. I’ve heard about this cheese and was eager to try it. I tasted a lot of different ones and chose two bags of cheese curds and a chunk of Prairie Breeze.
At this point, if you’re following along on a map, you see that you’re only about three miles from a town called Cantril. Why I didn’t just go those three miles is a mystery to me, because by not going to Cantril I missed out on shopping at Dutchman’s Store.
Dutchman’s Store, I now know, takes up a full city block (if you can call Cantril – population 222 – a city, which it is not) and carries bulk foods, baking supplies, shoes, books, sewing supplies, baked goods, clothes, kitchen wares, and grocery items – pretty much everything you’d need if you lived in Van Buren County, because there are no Walmarts here (which is a good thing). At Dutchman’s, you can pick up an Amish-made hickory rocker for $128, a hand-made rug for $26, or an ice cream cone for 50 cents. The store also has a gazillion pumpkins and ears of Indian corn and wreaths and other fall decorations just sitting out on the front porch.
I really do try to do my research before I embark on these little journeys, but I totally missed this one. I really wish I’d gone on Saturday afternoon, even if it turned out to be a total tourist trap, and even though I heard it was crazy crowded with the Fall Drive Festival people. I still wish I had gone. And, of course, like everything else in this county, it’s closed on Sunday.
Instead of going to Cantril, I stupidly turned around and headed back toward Bloomfield to find the detour that would get me back on county road J40, part of the Historic Hills byway that takes you to Troy (I have a great story about RAGBRAI stopping in Troy for breakfast, but I’ll spare you), through tiny, unincorporated Lebanon (with more Amish businesses), toward Keosauqua.
I wanted to visit Lacey-Keosauqua State Park today. In my planning I found that there was to be a “fun run” in the park on Sunday morning, and I wanted to avoid that. In fact, I figured I couldn’t even drive through the park on Sunday because of the event. So I went there late Saturday afternoon. There was something called a Buckskinner’s Rendezvous Camp going on – a scary, manly-looking thing – and there were a lot of tents and RVs. But the main park road was open and the trees were all turning gold.
The entrance to Lacey-Keosauqua is right across the Des Moines River bridge from the town of Keosauqua. This is the county seat and the largest town in Van Buren County. Its population is 1,066. (In the 2010 census, the whole county only had a population of 7,570.)
The view as you enter Keosauqua – with the bridge and the river and the little town nestled on the riverbank – is made more dramatic with the presence of the 115-year-old Hotel Manning. This is where I spent the night.
When I made my reservation the week before, the hotel was all but sold out. Of the 16 rooms (8 with private baths), only one room remained – a room with a twin bed and shared bath. Knowing that the Hotel Manning was pretty much the only game in town (or county, as it were), I booked it. The cost: $50.
When I got to Keosauqua at about 5 p.m., vendors in a large flea market/food truck area were just starting to pack up for the night. I didn’t mind missing this, but the presence of all these additional people (and not a small amount of road construction, on top of it) made it rather difficult to get to the hotel. The road I should have gone down was barricaded for the event. The next road was blocked with construction. I tried to go around the back way but there was more construction. Finally, I went down the original road, driving between the barricades, and parked illegally in front of the hotel. I later heard a local man say he’d never seen so many cars in Keosauqua.
I entered the empty lobby, rang the bell at the front desk, and an elderly man emerged to check me in. As luck would have it – and I really can’t believe just how lucky this was – someone had cancelled a reservation for a room with a queen-size bed and private bath. Would I like to upgrade? he asked. Heck, yeah! So for $25 more I got a cute little room with absolutely no modern amenities – no television, no phone, no alarm clock, no wi-fi, no hair dryer – with antique furniture, creaky floorboards, and a radiator that made noises straight out of a horror film. I loved it.
Once I got checked in, I walked through the downtown and found a number of bars and a couple of restaurants. I stopped first at the Town and Country Tavern, right across from the VFW. It was rather busy, with a mix of locals, vendors, and tourists. I found a seat at the bar between an odd couple from Burlington and a large man with a broken arm. My guess is he fell out of a tree while hunting. Or maybe I just think that because he was wearing an orange vest and a camouflage jacket. There were the usual televisions turned to all things sports – yes, it’s that magical time of year where you can watch baseball and football at the same time – and there was a lively discussion around the bar about a poster of Pamela Anderson in the men’s room.
But the tavern had a decent selection of beer, and I found the bartenders and clientele quite entertaining. I drank two Sam Adams Oktoberfests before moving on to find some supper.
The Riverbend Pizza and Steakhouse was kind of a disappointment after the bar. I ordered a calzone and tried to people-watch, but it was pretty boring.
My night in the Hotel Manning was mostly uneventful. The historic hotel is said to be a classic example of Steamboat Gothic architecture. It was built in 1899. I think it’s a really special place, and I’m really glad I stayed there. I’m also really glad that I never travel without sleeping pills, because that radiator would have kept me up the whole night.
The next morning hotel guests were expected to go through the free hot breakfast buffet between 8 and 8:30 a.m. After that, the restaurant would be switching over to a large Sunday brunch. I was fine with that, because I wanted to get on the road. Breakfast consisted of biscuits (with gravy, if you like that sort of thing), buttery scrambled eggs, hashbrowns, and a few other items that I didn’t try. The basics were very good indeed. And a server brought around coffee.
I left Keosauqua at around 8:30 under cloudy skies and continued on J40 to Bentonsport. This is a great little historic town with an old (now pedestrian-only) river bridge built in 1882, a couple of historic B&Bs, pretty churches, and a historic district that contains antiques shops and a museum. I walked across the bridge and back. A small group of antiques dealers and food vendors were just starting to set up for a 10 a.m. opening of the antique show along the main street. It was chilly out. I bought a cup of coffee from a nice man and his grandson in a food truck, and I visited with one antique tool seller. I asked him why he chose to set up in Bentonsport when there was a show in Keosauqua and another in nearby Bonaparte and he just said simply, “This is the place.” It did appear to be a small but high quality group of antiques dealers.
At this point it started to rain. I drove to Bonaparte, another wonderful, small historic river town.
Bonaparte has a series of mill buildings. The pants factory, built around 1892, is now home to the Bonaparte Inn. The grist mill houses the Bonaparte Retreat Restaurant. There’s also a woolen mill and the Bonaparte Pottery archaeological site. The whole area is designated a National Historic Riverfront District. According to one brochure, Bonaparte is the smallest Main Street Community (population 465) in the United States.
Since I was there on Sunday morning, there wasn’t much movement along the main street. I enjoyed the historic buildings, visited one antiques shop, and walked past a vendor selling pumpkins and baskets of mums. In the city park along the river, there was a small group of vendors making up a sort of flea market for the Fall Drive Festival.
From Bonaparte I drove along Hwy. 2 to Farmington and then Donnellson, where the Historic Hills Scenic Byway ends.
Based on Mike Kilen’s recommendation, from there I drove some of the gravel roads through the Shimek State Forest and saw the prettiest fall color of the whole trip.
It was still raining. I drove Hwy. 2 west through Cantril, where I stopped to take pictures of the outside of Dutchman’s Store. On my way out of town, I saw a group of Amish families in their Sunday clothing standing outside their house of worship. That was a truly memorable scene.
Hwy. 2 takes you back to Bloomfield, and if you follow the scenic byway up to Drakesville, the tiny Amish community where I bought my cookies and yellow pumpkin yesterday, there’s a fork in the road that leads slightly more north than the route I took to get here. This is also a part of the Historic Hills Scenic Byway, and I wanted to drive it to its end in Blakesburg. This is a very scenic part of the byway and also the most surprising – it’s a gravel road. But you should drive it anyway.
HERE ARE MY TAKEAWAYS from my 24 hours in Van Buren County and along the Historic Hills Scenic Byway: This is an area of the state that’s a long, long way from an interstate highway, and although its history and beauty and architecture and culture rival (if not best) the Amana Colonies, it suffers a bit from its lack of marketing and from its location. But in a way, I think that makes it more special. It feels more real.
If I had to do this weekend again, I would not go during the Fall Drive Festival, because it really didn’t add anything I wanted to see or do, and it just made for some extra tourists, something I prefer to avoid. I’d stay more than one night, try to visit some of the museums, spend more time in Bonaparte and Bentonsport, definitely go to Cantril when Dutchman’s is open, drive up to Stockport and over to Douds, and take the historic barn tour. I’d do more research of the history of the area. I feel as though I just scratched the surface.