Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
A TOUR OF HISTORIC BENTONSPORT
The thirty minute tour of tiny Bentonsport that now delights visitors from all across the Midwest and other regions is a fascinating adventure, as the past glory of this once thriving village is currently on display at every corner.
A wonderful website provided by the Villages of Van Buren is responsible for attracting many curious tourists. Information about every village is available to those who visit the site at villagesofvanburen.com . For a preview of an actual visit to Bentonsport, scroll down to the listing of the villages, choose Bentonsport, then take the Historic Tour and enjoy the photos and aptly described presentation. Or go directly to bentonsport.com .
Whereas other villages of Van Buren had their heyday between 1870 and 1910 due in part to the railroad economy, Bentonsport thrived earlier as a steamboat town, then declined as river traffic ceased during the Civil War. It appears that Bentonsport reached its peak in both population and popularity in 1857, the best river boating year on record. River traffic came to a sudden halt after the railroad invaded Van Buren County.
|Population of Washington Township and Bentonsport Village|
The Keokuk, Ft. Des Moines and Minnesota Railroad first arrived in Farmington in 1857 and reached Bentonsport in 1858--the end of the line until after the Civil War. Several hundred traveling men were employed in building the railroad, and it is possible (though not proven) that many of the temporary workers lived in Bentonsport during this initial phase of railroad construction. This probably explains why Washington Township’s population surged by more than 200 in 1856, then fell back by 200 in 1860. Officially, the highest population attained by the town of Bentonsport is 515 in 1867, but local experts believe that it swelled to 700 in 1857, during the township’s brief flurry of extra growth.
At its zenith, Bentonsport sported several four- and five-story mills along the riverfront, had installed a crib dam, boasted several hotels, and established a Main Street twice as long as the restored village version seen today. The tour now offered invites you to explore the existing shops, then takes you across the river to see the old Vernon school and cemetery. In the 1850s, Vernon was an independent village of 300 with its own newspaper, the Democratic Mirror (1852), printed on locally made paper.
Bentonsport restoration features the oldest steamboat hotel along the Des Moines River (1846), an old wagon factory built by Mormon stone artisans (1846), the Bentonsport Academy (1851), early homes in town dating back to the 1830s and 1840s, remains of the old lock and dam, and a perennial/rose garden nestled in the basement ruins of the mills.
However, one of the most fascinating things about Bentonsport can be found on display at the Mason House Bed and Breakfast. Behind glass is an authentic two-dollar bill issued by the "Town of Bentonsport" in August, 1857. On the left is a sitting Indian looking up at a woman holding a flag, and on the right is the depiction of settlers felling trees, with an onlooking surveyor. Invoked in these engravings on the Bentonsport currency are many subtle concepts, as the designs depict our freedom, the pursuit of liberty, frontier life, and a friendly companionship with native Americans.
Bentonsport sets itself aside as being the only village in Van Buren County (and quite likely the state of Iowa) to develop and print its own currency! Since Section I of the U. S. Constitution forbids states to print their own money, this venture was no doubt short-lived and may have been thwarted by state or federal authorities. It is another colorful chapter that adds to the uniqueness of Van Buren County history, and is just one of many illustrious accounts preserved on the website provided by the Villages of Van Buren.
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick