Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
The Bonaparte Inn
When citizens of Bonaparte finally got around to incorporating the village as a “city” in the late 1890s, some of its leaders wished to replace Keosauqua as county seat. Streets adorned with elegant looking Tudor-style and large, elaborate, gingerbread-trimmed Victorian homes reflected a wealth superior to rival villages. An elaborate, fancy, marble and limestone courthouse was planned to compliment a new, impressive, six square block business area that evolved around a riverbank full of mills, which had provided full employment for the past sixty years.
When donated to the county, the structure would be a symbol of the town’s wealth and progress. Ah! But it was never built! Protests from Keosauqua citizens were so loud, that the supervisors did not even consider the late upstart bid.
Responsible for getting the village started were Dr. Roger N. Cresap (1835) and William Meek (1836). Meek selected a site for his mills which was surrounded by thick sugar maple forests. Settlers came from miles around, to work, but lived a half mile west in New Lexington for several years, while clearing the land for their claim cabins.
Meek and his men built a sawmill in 1837, followed by a dam and grist mill. In their spare time, they cleared land. Once cabin building began, they moved to the new site called Meek’s Mill, and New Lexington disappeared. The post office erected at New Lexington in 1837, was transferred to Meek’s Mill in 1842, and was called Bonaparte.
Roger Cresap is probably responsible for the name Bonaparte. He built a hotel along the river in 1840 called The Tavern, and in the lobby placed a life size portrait above the fireplace, of Napoleon Bonaparte crossing the Alps. On April 8, 1841 when the town was laid out by William McBride, it was named Bonaparte, perhaps because Cresap suggested the name.
The town had its own brick kilns, including the Meek Brickyard located just west of the cemetery. Many of the business structures were built from brick manufactured in the area. Meek Brothers built a stone masonry lock and dam that was part of the Des Moines River Project in 1846. This allowed navigation up and down the river, and replaced the wing dam that had first been built across the entire water way. Meek and his sons had a saw mill, grist mill and woolen mill operating within a few years, employing many people. Each generation of the Meek family continued milling operations.
The pants factory began in 1889 turning out 20,000 pair per year from 20 machines. Later, 40 machines turned out over 30,000 pair. When Meek Brothers became insolvent in 1909, the mills were sold. The old 3 ˝ story pants factory was being used for storage when the Fairfield Glove Factory took it over in 1920. They continued operating until 1999.
Bonaparte is on the National Register of Historic Places, due to the active role of Bonaparte Main Street. By the 1970s, Bonaparte was dying and decaying, only kept alive by the mitten factory. Amidst the shades of its glorious past, a group organized themselves in an effort to restore some of Bonaparte’s treasures. In 1996, it was one of 5 winners of the “Great American Main Street Award” and with a population of only 450, was named the smallest Main Street Community.
A butterfly garden exists within the walls of the historic locks, the bandshell is refurbished, and two mills have been restored. Across the street, the old pants factory has become the Bonaparte Inn. In all due respect to the other overnight establishments in Van Buren County, the Bonaparte Inn is architecturally awesome, and is elegant and perhaps the most unique.
The lobby in itself is very impressive. Nine rooms and four spacious suites are available, ranging from $75 to $175 per night. Each room or suite is named either for one of the town fathers, or for someone who contributed a great deal to Bonaparte’s history. Rates include full breakfast buffet each morning, free High Speed Wireless Internet, Satellite Television and afternoon refreshments.
The Parker & Hanback Room, and the General Charles Kelly Room are cheapest, at $75 per night, and each features only one bed. The Auntie Green Room, Boss Entler Room, Howe Academy Room, Doc Bogle Room, Rees Carriage Room, Thomas Christy Room and J. W. Whiteley Room are all priced at $95 per night, some of which have two beds--either king and queen or double queen size.
The Eason House Family Suite and the Dr. R. N. Cresap Family Suite cost $120 per night, while the Isaiah Meek Riverview Suite is $150 per night. Most expensive, the William Meek Parkview Suite is $175.
The Bonaparte Inn is directly across the street from the former Meek Grist Mill (1878), which houses the Bonaparte Retreat. Mr. And Mrs. Ben Hendricks have run this popular eating establishment for more than 30 years. A half block east is the antique filled former Meek Woolen Mill (1863) which supplied the pants factory with raw materials.
Meek’s Mill came about when this virgin area was part of Wisconsin Territory. The river provided the action and livelihood for the residents. Residents and visitors alike now enjoy the scenic beauty of the river, which also is a site for recreation. Meek’s woolen mill was once internationally known for the quality of the wool it produced. The Bonaparte Inn is already widely known for its service and comfort, with a reputation as a class act in the proud tradition of Bonaparte and Van Buren County.
Just one thing--hardwood floors in an old building are said to carry the sounds of those who tread upon them. Who knows? Sounds may translate to some the echo of busy machines turning out pants by the thousands.
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick