Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


On the north side of the Des Moines River Robert Coates found a small clearing where he built his homestead in 1836, surrounded by a vast forest of sugar maples. His purpose was to farm, thus he soon moved on and sold his claim to Robert Moffett (often spelled Moffitt or Moffatt.) Late in 1836, this homestead was again sold to Judge William Meek who was searching for a mill site with abundant water and timber. Once the claim was purchased, William returned to Michigan for his family.

In 1837, Meeks built a sawmill, a small dam, and a grist mill. Up the river from the mill was New Lexington where William Fallis was postmaster. According to twelve-year-old Sarah Welch who worked for the Meeks family as a cook, most of the men who worked at constructing and operating the mills located in New Lexington.

A loosely constructed community also sprang up around the two Meek mills as the massive sugar groves were gradually cleared. Some people called this nucleus Meeks Mills, while William Meek himself would refer to it as "Bonaparte," in honor of Napoleon Bonaparte, a character in history that Meek had long admired.

It was not until April 8, 1841 that William McBride surveyed and laid out the town of Bonaparte consisting of five and one-half blocks in Township 68, North of Range 8, West. A few cabins already existed and were occupied by settlers. Others, who had been waiting for this moment in New Lexington, purchased lots and built homes near the mills. The proprietors of Bonaparte wished to keep the village small, thus the town was not incorporated until 1899, but by then Bonaparte had attracted more than 900 residents.

With Judge Meek’s permission, William Welch made sugar each year on the Meek claim until the groves were cleared. Welch began making pottery in 1836 near Reed’s Creek, the first pottery making operation in Van Buren County. Then from 1837 to 1841, Welch had a pottery shop in New Lexington.

In 1841, Welch sold his claim and pottery shop and pioneered in Jefferson County, about two miles east of Fairfield. Sarah married Wellington Nossaman and relates that when they harvested their crops they had to bring grain to Meeks Mills, as this was the closest mill. A couple of years later, they pioneered near Pella and were forced to bring their grain almost 100 miles for grinding. It is hard to believe that Bonaparte was the closest mill in the territory.

Bentonsport and Vernon mills were not in operation until the mid-1840s and Pittsburg’s steam mill did not begin operation until 1854, but Keosauqua opened a mill as early as 1837. For some reason it must have been out of service when the Welch and Nossaman families came to Van Buren County to mill their grain.

This is just one of several accounts of pioneer families from other counties that brought their grain to the Bonaparte mills in spite of tedious travel. It was a two-day journey from Pella to Fairfield, perhaps longer to Bonaparte. One of the problems was finding an easy, safe way to cross creeks and rivers, particularly when wagons were loaded down with precious cargo. Many miles of detours were often required to find shallow fords or to bypass streams.

Once in Bonaparte, processing required waiting in long lines. Often seventeen or more wagons would be waiting for their turn at the mill for processing. Horses and oxen must be cared for, as well as the physical needs of exhausted people in the waiting line. Thus, these trips were stressful and required great stamina.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick