Bonaparte Once Called Meek's Mills
Editor's Note: The following history of Bonaparte was sent to us by Mrs. Kenneth H. Donnelly of El Paso, Texas. It was written by her father, O. R. Perkins, and published in the Burlington Hawkeye, August 11, 1951. 

This picturesque town situated on the Des Moines river, had its beginning nearly a decade before Iowa became a state. 

In 1837, the year of its initiation as an inhabited village, this settlement was designated as Meek's Mills in the vast Michigan territory. 

Robert Coates was the first white man to make a permanent settlement here when he located a homestead in the summer of 1836 on the north bank of the river. Desiring a more tillable farm he transferred his claim to Robert Moffitt and the latter disposed of what is now the western part of the town to William Meek, who arrived here in the same year seeking a location for timber and water facilities. 

The platting of the town was accomplished in 1837 by Bonaparte's first pioneer citizens, William Meek, Dr. N. N. Cresap P. R. Rice, Joseph Rabb, Edwin Wilson, David Sewell, Lewis Christian and William Welch. By an act of the state legislature in January, 1839, Meek and sons were authorized to build a dam across the Des Moines river for the conservation of water power to operate sawmills, flouring mills and other enterprises. 

In its early years Bonaparte competed with 2 other villages for citizens. Across the river a settlement named Napoleon was started but it did not survive its early state of development. The other rival, Lexington, which was one mile west of Bonaparte, came into a thriving existence as a trading post for Indians but it failed to compete with the industries in Bonaparte and soon lapsed into a farm. 

Another family prominently identified with Bonaparte's early days was the Christy family who came here from Pennsylvania. Thomas Christy was the first banker in the growing village and he was also a large land owner. A fine old stone house on Bridge street has housed the Christy family for 98 years and is now occupied by Christy's daughter, Miss J. June Christy, who has made her home here for over three-quarters of a century. The Christys brought with them the first kerosene lamp, the first refrigerator, and the first piano, a fine rose wood instrument that is still in the old home. 

Bonaparte's manufacturing enterprises were born in a flour mill building in 1844 which was erected by Meek. This was used until the fall of 1878 when the present 4-story building, now occupied by the Bonaparte feed mill, was built. In 1853 the Bonaparte woolen mill factory building was erected by Meek and Sons, and although it was destroyed by fire in 1863, it was immediately reconstructed. In 1892, a 3-story brick building was erected opposite the present feed mill building, to be used as a pants factory where trousers were made from cloth manufactured by the woolen mills. Meek Bros. later built a building to be used for the manufacturing of suits and overcoats and transferred their pant factory to the new building. Meek clothing, yarn, flannels and all wool blankets were shipped far and wide and became famous throughout the United States. In addition to their vast manufacturing business the Meeks also owned a large orchard and a tract of land just west of what is known as Honey creek. 

Dr. Cresap, another of Bonaparte's pioneer manufacturers, owned what is now the east half of Bonaparte in the form of an orchard of large hard-maple trees from which many gallons of maple syrup were made each spring. His business interests centered around a large saw mill located where the Bonaparte lumber yard now stands, and the town's first hotel, known the country over as "The Tavern." 

A large sign, with a painting of Bonaparte Crossing The Alps" was suspended in the yard. This building was erected in 1840 and "Aunt Polly," as Mrs. Cresap was called always kept open house. Many an unfortunate traveler, either white or black, was given a bed, meal or a new start in life. 

The hotel was taken over by Mary Cresap Eason, the doctor's niece, who continued the hospitality, but the building was destroyed by fire in 1895. 

The first school house was built in 1844 and was located south of the Jacob Eich property. Disaster struck in 1859 when the school was destroyed by fire and rooms had to be rented in various parts of town until arrangements were made to use the newly finished stone basement of the Baptist Church for class rooms. The Bonaparte Academy association, an incorporated body, was formed during this time by Isaiah Meek, Thomas Christy, Joseph A. Kean, J. G. Vale, Ben Wagner, John T. Stewart, George Sturdivant, and A. H. Leach. The academy building was used until May 26, 1871, when it was purchased by the Bonaparte Independent school District. Fire again caused the inconvenience of renting rooms until the present building was completed in 1916. 

The first church in Bonaparte was constructed in 1842 by the Mt. Zion Baptist congregation about 3 miles north of town. At this time the organization included the Harrisburg community but the congregation outgrew the building and had to be separated by using a road running east and west past the Mt. Zion school house as a boundary line. In 1853 Dr. Cresap donated land for a Baptist Church in Bonaparte which was completed in 1857. A third church was erected in 1871 with Rev. H. R. Lewis as its Presbyterian pastor. The Bonaparte Methodist organization first used the old school house and later rented the Baptist church until they erected a church in 1862, under the pastorate of Rev. Johnson. 

The Keokuk, Fort Des Moines and Minnesota Railway completed its track and ran trains into Bonaparte in 1858. A picnic jubilee was held in the Cresap grove in east Bonaparte to celebrate this occasion. There was no telegraph service at that time. 

The first ferry across the Des Moines river was that of Joseph F. Perkins. The landing was just south of where the Teeter store now stands. There were interesting stories of the ford across the river at that time, because of the large boulder resting in the river called the "Ford Rock." 

It was possible for e team to be driven across the river when the rock was plainly seen but if it was covered, crossing was considered dangerous and the ferry was used. The boulder was also used as a fixed point from which to survey land. 

Another historic ferry was the one established above the dam by Meek Bros. The tow line was fastened to a large tree near the old T. W. Boyer home which can be identified by a marker placed by the local DAR organization some years ago. This ferry was operated with pulleys drawn by hand. Free service was given to customers of Bonaparte and operation started on April 4, 1876, under a 5-year grant privilege. 

In 1878 the thriving town boasted 4 dry goods stores, 2 drug stores, 4 grocery stores, harness shop, jewelry store, 2 boot and shoe stores, clothing house, general store, 3 millinery establishments, 2 furniture stores, 3 tailor shops, 2 commission houses, 2 agricultural marts, 2 meat markets, 2 hotels and a photograph studio. The manufacturing interest was also thriving and included a woolen mill, pant factory, wagon factory, brick yard, pottery shop, flouring mill, saw mill and a glove factory. 

The town of Bonaparte was incorporated in January 1899, with officers H. H. Meek, mayor; R. E. Meek, city clerk; J. A. Johnson, treasurer; R. G. Rees, C. S. Percival, P. W. Oberg, S. H. Blackburn, and G. W. Meredith as councilmen. 

During its struggle for survival, Bonaparte has survived several costly floods in addition to its destructive fires. The first flood came in 1851, when an ice gorge caused the Des Moines river to overflow into the business houses and residences along Front street. Another flood came in 1903 pushing the water 10 inches higher than the previous one. The levee in west Bonaparte broke letting the water rush down Second street from Honey creek and into the river at the bridge. Two years later a cloudburst dumped from 12 to 24 inches of water on Bonaparte in less than 5 hours. This flood took both the railroad and wagon bridge over Honey Creek and also the rest of the dam that had never been rebuilt since the 1903 flood. 

The Bonaparte waterworks system was installed in 1901 and the Union Telegraph Co. also built their lines into Bonaparte the same year. 

Four industries have remained operating since the turn of the century. The Bonaparte branch of the Fairfield Glove & Mitten Co. is a stalwart industry in Bonaparte which was started in 1920 with C. G. Hansen, glove-making expert as the manager for a number of years. Another valued industry is the Douds Stone Co. which has a large quarry east of town, near Reeds creek. The Midwest Rendering Co., located a mile west of Bonaparte, is owned by R. A. Sloan of Des Moines. This plant under the management of Vincent Luttrell furnishes tankage, fertilizer and commercial grease for the community. 

The former Meek woolen mill building was remodeled a few years ago and is now the Bonaparte Community building with an auditorium and stage. There is a fine kitchen and dining hall in the basement which provides Bonaparte with a location for entertainments and gatherings of all kinds. 

Events that will always stand out in connection with amusement in Bonaparte were the July 4 celebrations for which this town was famous all over southern Iowa and northern Missouri when the celebrations were held in Meek grove of about 300 century-old sugar maple trees. The ball ground joined the grove on the south and around the ball ground was a half mile race track and, as they say at the circus, "It Was All Under One Canvas." A crowd of from 4,000 to 5,000 people came regularly on July 4 in buggies, carriages, spring wagons, farm wagons, and on horseback as there were no cars those days. 

Old timers here like to tell of the time in 1888 when fish stopped the big water wheel that furnished the power to run the mills here. This was an unusually cold winter and with the dam extending completely across the river and with the upper river and creeks being frozen to the bottom the only way for the fish to get to deeper water and air was through the mill race which was 350 feet long, 50 to 75 feet wide and 10 to 12 feet deep. 

Fish had been arriving in the mill race for several days, all kinds, bass, buffalo, pike, catfish and carp, filling the race so full that the powerful wheels of the mill were stopped by them. People turned out with gigs, rakes, and other means of spearing fish and everyone had fish to spare. 

Some of the catfish and buffalo weighed from 10 to 12 pounds. 

This continued for 2 days and the mills were forced to close while the wheels were cleaned and the gates in the lower part of the race were opened to allow the fish to pass through and on down the stream.
Source: clippings from scrapbook located in the Van Buren Co. Genealogical Society Library, Keosauqua, IA

Contributed by Volunteer Transcriber Paul French


Van Buren Co. GenWeb Project