History of Bonaparte

Compiled by The Van Buren County Historical Society, 1967


Printed by The Record-Republican, Bonaparte, Iowa

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Robert F. Meek & Brothers immediately commenced rebuilding, and, at a cost of $50,000, made of brick a structure 50x85, and four stories high. The machinery is propelled by water power. The firm employs seventy-five hands. The capacity of the mill is a matter of mention. There are 1,640 spindles in use, six sets of carding ma-chines and two shearing machines. The mill hands turn out 22,000 yards of cloth every four weeks and from 1,600 to 1,800 pounds of stocking yarn.

A pottery was started in 1866 by Parker and Handback. This firm continued in business five years, when Mr. Wilson succeeded Mr. Parker and became known as junior partner. The firm is now known as Handback & Wilson. In November, 1876, the pottery building burned, at a loss of $1,200. It was rebuilt at once, the outlay being $1,300. The firm now employs ten hands and makes 75,000 gallons of pottery per year. A new feature has been added recently. It is a tile factory, with a capacity for turning out 6,000 feet of tile per day. The machinery throughout is run by steam power.


There are two bridges in the county of Van Buren over the Des Moines River, for the accommodation of the general public—that is, foot-travelers and teams. The larger of the two is at Bonaparte, it having 5 piers, 6 spans of 150 feet each, 23-foot truss and an 18-foot roadway.

This Structure was commenced November 25, 1877. On Tuesday, January 29, 1878, the bridge was tested and formally accepted.

Word was sent to the farmers in the neighborhood that teams and men would be required to fix the approaches and test the strength of the bridge. The test consisted of twenty-two heavily loaded wagons, averaging fifty hundred weight, besides horses, mules and men. The aggregate burden on each span was recorded at seventy-five tons, and in but one place did the settle exceed one-eighth of an inch. The super-structure is 900 feet long. Each span weighs 60 tons. The bridge stands 35 feet above low-water mark and from the bed of the river to the top of the truss the distance is 60 feet. The capacity of the bridge is 11,440 pounds per lineal foot. The approaches of the bridge are protected by a wing-wall and two abutments. The piers are 10 feet by 30 at their base. The cost of the superstructure was $35,000.

The following gentlemen composed the executive committee at the date of acceptance: Isaiah Meek, Thomas Christy, Uriel Neal, A. Whitlock, T. W. Boyer and Dennis Haney.


The date of church organization at Bonaparte does not run back far. The earliest move make in the direction of establishing churches was in 1853, when the Baptists, under the pastorate of Rev. William Sutton, began building a church, which was finished in the year

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1857. Prior to that, however—1851—the same society had been organized Mt. Zion, where they worshipped until 1853, when they moved to Bonaparte. The second Pastor was Rev. William Eggleston; the third, Rev. Mr. Burkholder; the fourth, Rev. Mr. Inskeep; the fifth was Rev. Willia Johnson; the sixth, Rev. Mr. Trevitt, and the seventh, Rev. W. C. Pratt. Atpresent the society are without a Pastor. They have one hundred and twenty-five members and a house of worship that cost $2,800.

The date at which the Methodist society of this place was organized is not known, neither are there any records of early work. For a time, however, the Methodists used the schoolhouse, where they worshipped until that building was burned down, when they rented the Baptist Church, which served them down to the year 1862, when they built a new church, at a cost of $700. The society numbers about fifty members. Who organized it is not known. Rev. Mr. Johnson preached for a while—the first—in the new church, but who led the flock in the olden day memory does not reveal. The Rev. Charles W. Shepherd is the present Pastor.

In 1869, the Presbyterian society was organized, and, in 1871, they built a $2,800 church, of which Rev. H. R. Lewis was the first Pastor. Next came Rev. H. K. Heighney, followed by Rev. James Welch, who is the present one. There are fifty members belonging to the Church.


Bonaparte has quite a school history. The first district school-house was put up in 1844. Thomas Charlton was the first teacher in the village. The house stood until 1859, when it was burned down. However, in the mean time, schools were kept in the buildings at present occupied by Mr. Carr as a shop, and in what is now Mr. King's house. After the old schoolhouse burned, the district rented schoolroom, until the Directors purchased the academy in 1871.

The academy in question was erected in 1865, 1866 and 1867, by the Bonaparte Academy Association, at a cost of $20,000. The Associatiton used it as an academy from 1867 to May 26, 1871, when they sold it as above stated for the sum of $12,000. The Association was an incorporated body. The following lines are extracted from the beginning of the articles of agreement or incorporation; "We, Isaiah Meek, Thomas Christy, Joseph A. Keen, J. G. Vale, Benjamin Wagner, John T. Stewart, George W. Sturdevent, and A. H. Leach, do hereby incorporate ourselves, and all other persons who may be-come members of the corporation hereby created, into a body corporate and politic, by the name and style of the `Bonaparte Academy Association'."

The purpose of this institution was "the promotion of literature, science and art". The articles of agreement further provided that the capital stock must not run below $10,000.

The first Principal of the Academy was E. P. Howe.

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One year prior to the purchase of the Academy, The Bonaparte district became independent. The October, 1878, report showed that the total enrollment in all the departments of the school was 168, and the average daily attendance about 126. The school is divided into four departments. Annie E. Packer is the present Principal.


Bonaparte is not an incorporated town. The officers embrace two Justices of the Peace and a Constable. The first Justice was Samuel Reed, who lived two and a half miles from town; but the first in the village proper was R. B. Willoughby. A. J. Myers was the first Constable. The present Justices are W. W. Entler and Joseph Perkins. Samuel Spurgeon in Constable.

The village Postmaster is J. P. Davis. When the place was introduced to a mail route, Thomas Charlton had the honor of being the first Postmaster. R. Moffit was the first Postmaster at Lexington, just above town.

The first physician in the village was Dr. R. N. Cresap.

William Willoughby, son of R. B. Willoughby, was the first child born at Bonaparte. The first death was in the person of Mrs. Angeline, wife of Dr. Cresap.

The first marriage that took place was April 8, 1841 when James A. Kearn and Elizabeth Williamson were joined in the holy bonds of wedlock.


Of the Orders akin to secrecy in the village of Bonaparte, the Bonaparte Lodge of Independent Order of Odd Fellows, No. 22, is the most ancient, its charter having been granted November 8, 1849. The charter members were R. H. Wyman, L. R. Beckley, John H. Bell, W. E. Kurtz and W. Cassidy. The charter officers were R. H. Wyman, N. G.; J. H. Bell, V. G.; L. R. Beckley, Secretary; and J. B. Cave, Treasurer. The Lodge now numbers fifty members. They have a library consisting of 200 volumes.

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"Doc" Glascock Bobbin Boy In Woolen Mill

By Alex Glascock As Told to Clay Lanman

Alex "Doc" Glascock who now lives with his daughter, Mildred Pence and her husband Al a mile west of Pierceville is the only per-son now living who worked in the Meek Woolen Mills at Bonaparte. Soon to celebrate his eighty ninth birthday, he remains active and enjoys reminiscing about his boyhood in Bonaparte when he worked in the Meek Woolen Mill. This is his story as told to me.

"I was born on the farm down the road here where Ray McCracken now lives. That was Dec. 17, 1878. We moved to Bonaparte when I was 7 and lived for a while in the house just north of Mrs. Christy's house (John Diephius home now). Scott Blackford built a house there that Rollo White lives in now. We also lived in a house on that lot where Mary Florence Derr's house is now there below the Baptist Church.

"Yes, I worked in the woolen mill. I'd go to school in the win-ter and work in the mill in the summer. I was a bobbin boy and I run a jack spinner. Guess I worked in every room there—the card room, the spinning room and up in the garret—that was the spooling room. That's where the girls took yarn off the big spools and put it on smaller ones.

"The mill was run by water power until they changed to steam with a coal stoker. I was there when they made the change over. My uncle was the engineer—Gid Glascock—two great big Babcock boilers, wonderful things. He run it till they shut down. He was the leader of the Bonaparte Cornet Band. I've got a picture of the band taken by G. E. Fahr in 1896 at his gallery which was located where Nelson's station is now, right across the street from the opera house.

"I've been interested in the Meeks because there was a family connection. Isaiah Meek was a brother of my grandmother—be an uncle of my mother's, my great-uncle. I stayed around him a lot, used to help with the chores and odd jobs.

"Alex Woods was my granddad. He came here with the Meeks. He owned 800 acres of land his self. He built that big brick house down there where your wife's uncle Earl and Aunt Rose lived—there where Gerald Keller lived when it burned last spring. That place belongs to Ervin McCracken now.

"That building that burned down where Corry's new building is was where they took in the wool. Old Joe Whiteley—that was the dad of Phil and Joe that run the store, he come here with the Meeks and was the wool sorter. Back in those days when people around here had some extra money they'd take it down and loan it

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to the Meeks for safe keeping. They had big sacks of wool up there in the upper floors of that building and Old Joe used to tell me that he'd taken thousands of dollars up there and hid it among the woo sacks. I don't think they paid much interest on it, maybe 1 or2 per cent, maybe none at all. They just had a little safe that 3 or men could pick up and walk off with. They were respected people the Meeks. People were honest then—why you never heard about any bank getting robbed then.

"You know where the cemetery is—that's where the brickyard was where they made the bricks they used when they built the pant factory. You can still see the old bricks there in Kenny Hawk's pasture just west of the cemetery but then it covered that whole hi] where people are buried now. Just think how many people have died and been buried there since 1892. That's when the pants factor; was built.

"The first bank in town was there where the library is now. Jo Johnson's dad run it for a long time and then Joe run it.

"Dick Rees and Dan Riggle had a carriage factory there west o where the glove factory is now. I bought my first buggy from then Herb Rees who lived up there at Keosauqua was Dick's boy. Dan Riggle built this house right here in 1895. I moved back to the oh home place in 1896 and up here in 1912.

"Remember old Emel Noske? I bought the last set of harness he made. When I got 'em he said "By God that's the last set o harness I'm goinna make". And it was! He died not too long after that. (July 23, 1948).

"You know where Pankey's feed store is and the tavern am Burn's Motor Shop? Back years ago there was a hotel there that they called the Eason House. I remember the night it burned down There were a couple hundred or so of us skating down on the river girls and boys both, when she caught fire and burned to the ground Old man Eason taught school as a young man. My mother went ti school to him out here at Woods School.

"He had a boy they called French. He was a traveling salesman of some kind, and a great rifleman—best shot I ever saw. He'd throw a bean or a pea up in the air and hit it while it was falling. A penny was a cinch. I remember when he'd come up there around the dam and shoot.

I'd always wondered how Mr. Glascock got his nickname and ii answer to my question he said, "I was called Doc for old Doc Brown, field, who brought me into the world. He only lived a half a mil or so down the road and he said that if they'd nickname me Doc he'd put me through school. They did but he didn't. He had 5 boy of his own to put through school and doctors didn't make mud money in those days. He moved down to Farmington and I guess he died there."

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Territorial Legislature Gives Go-Ahead To Build Dam At Bonaparte

An Act to authorize William Meek & Sons to erect a dam across the Des Moines River:

Section 1. Be it enacted by the Council and House of Representatives of the Territory of Iowa, That William Meek & Sons be, and they are hereby authorized to construct a dam across the Des Moines River, in Van Buren County, in said Territory, between Sections 8 and 17, in Township 68 North, Range 8 west of the fifth principal meridian, which said dam shall not exceed three feet in height above common low-water mark, and shall contain a convenient lock, not less than one hundred and thirty feet in length and thirty-five feet in width, for the passage of steam, keel and flat boats, rafts and other water craft, provided said water craft will bear two tons burthen.

Section 2. It shall be the duty of the persons authorized in the preceding section of this act to build said dam, at all times to keep the lock in the same in good repair, and they shall, at all reasonable times, pass any water craft above-mention, through, free from toll, without any unnecessary delay. And any person who shall be unnecessarily detained, shall be entitled to recover of said owners double the amount of damages they shall prove to have sustained by reason of detention.

Section 3. Any person who shall destroy or in anywise injure either said dam or lock, shall be deemed to have committed a trespass, and shall be liable accordingly. And any person who shall willfully or maliciously destroy or injure said lock or dam shall be deemed guilty of misdemeanor, and. on conviction thereof, shall be fined treble the amount of damages the owners may have sustained or be imprisoned, at the discretion of the court.

Section 4. Nothing herein contained in this act shall authorize the individuals named in this act, their heirs or assigns, to enter upon and flow the lands of any person, without the consent of such person; and they shall remove all such nuisances as may be occasioned by the erection of said dam, which may endanger the health of the vicinity.

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Section 5. The Legislature of this Territory (or State) may at any time alter or amend this act so as to provide for the navigation of said river.

Section 6. The dam and lock specified in the first section of this act shall be completed within three years from the 1st day of May next.

Section 7. The right of constructing and continuing the aforesaid dam and lock across the Des Moines River shall be vested in the said William Meek & Sons for the term of fifty years from the 1st day of May next.

Section 8. This act to take effect from and after its passage. Approved January 17, 1839.

Bonaparte Dam
[click photo to view]
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Bonaparte In 1887

By Editor of Bonaparte Journal Eighty Years Ago

The following story of the early settlement of Bonaparte and its progressive business men is reprinted from the Bonaparte Journal's Holiday Visitor published in 1887, about fifty years after the town was founded.

This beautiful village is located on the Des Moines, in the south-eastern part of Van Buren county. Its location is a superior one, being surrounded by a section rich in fertility of its soil, excellent timber and good coal. The town was laid out in 1837 by William Meek and Sons and Dr. R. N. Cresap, and the initiatory step of those gentlemen toward building up a town here, was that of building a dam across the Des Moines river. The early settlers, besides those already mentioned, were: P. R. Rice, Joseph Rabb, Edwin Wilson, David Sewell, Lewis Christian and William Welch. At that time a few rude log cabins constituted the town. The early settlers of Bonaparte were energetic, and steadily pushed the town to the front, and today it is by odds the best trading point in southeastern Iowa. This is no idle assertion, because express and freight shipments to this place will bear us out. Competition is the life of trade, and we have it here. Today the din and clang of our mills, factories and machinery furnish music for the ears of one thousand people.

The roads leading to Bonaparte are well looked after by T. C. Pender, present Road Supervisor, and besides the inducements produced by competition, good reads have great influence in drawing patronage from the country. The town also has a large business custom from the people residing on the opposite side of the river, who are drawn here by the facilities afforded by our excellent bridge, which is the largest and most durable wagon bridge spanning the Des Moines in Van Buren county. This structure was commenced on Nov. 25, 1877, and on Jan. 29, 1878, it was tested and formally accepted. It has five piers and six spans, each 150 feet in length. Each span weighs sixty tons. The capacity of this bridge is 11,440 pounds per lineal foot. Its cost was $35,000.

There are four church organizations in Bonaparte, as follows: Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Advent. The Baptists built the first church which was finished in 1857, at a cost of $2,800. The organizatiton has about 125 members, but at present they have no pas-tor. The Methodist society used the school house for a place of worship until it burned down. They then rented the Baptist church which served them until 1862, when they built a new church at a cost of $700. The membership is about 25, and Rev. Mr. Pool is the pastor. In 1868 the Presbyterian society was organized, and in 1871 they built a $2,800 church. Rev. H. R. Lewis was the first pastor, and Rev. C. H. Baldridge fills that position at present. The organization em-braces about 60 members. The Advent denomination has no church edifice of their own, but rent the Granger's Hall for a place of worship.

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The first district school house was built in 1844, and Thomas Charlton was the first teacher. The building was burned down in 1859. From the date of the burning of the old school building, until 1871, rooms were rented for school purposes by the district.

In 1865-66-67 the Bonaparte Academy Ass'n erected a fine brick building, two stories high, containing four study rooms and two recitation rooms, at a cost of $20,000. The incorporators of the Academy Ass'n were Thomas Christy, Joseph A. Kean, J. G. Vale, Benjamin Wagner, John T. Stewart, George W. Sturdivant and A. H. Leach, who erected the building for the purpose of promoting education, literature, science and art. E. P. Howe was the first principal.

In 1870 the Bonaparte district became independent, and in 1871, the Academy building was purchased by the directors of the Independent School District of Bonaparte for a public school building. The building cost the district $12,000.

The Bonaparte schools are now in a most flourishing condition, and nothing can better substantiate this than to note the goodly number of pupils enrolled, the general average attendance, the punctuality and deportment. The course of study requires twelve years to complete it and in addition to common branches it takes in algebra, philosophy, physiology, zoology, botany, bookkeeping, civil government and rhetoric. W. W. English is the present principal, and teacher of the high school department. The number enrolled is 38, of whom 12 are tuition pupils. Miss Grace Chapman is teacher in the Grammar department and the enrollment is 40. Thorough work is being done in the common branches of this department, preparatory to the high school. Miss Clara Blackford is teacher of the Inter-mediate department. The number attending is about 53. Good work is being done in language and in the development of the special senses. In the Primary department is Miss Joe Kennedy, who has efficiently filled that position for the last ten years. The number enrolled is 51. Here the little ones are kept busy with pencils, sticks, rings and other kindergarten goods, so that the time never lags, and the first days are made very pleasant ones.

The first child born in Bonaparte was William Willoughby, the first death was in the person of Angeline, wife of Dr. R. N. Cresap, and the first marriage ceremony solemnized in Bonaparte was that of our esteemed and respected townsman, Joseph A. Kean and Miss Elizabeth Williams. In this household we find the true essence of matrimonial happiness and bliss. During the many years that have passed since this union in the holy bonds of wedlock, many changes have come and gone in the history of Bonaparte. These co-laborers have experienced the trials and vicissitudes of life, and yet they en-joy life, with thee blessings and triumphs which always come to those who obey the Divine Law.

In reference to the early history of Bonaparte, there is some questions as to who kept the first store in the town. William Meek and John Bundy are credited with being the first to wait on our citizens in this respect.

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Early in the history of Bonaparte manufacturing interests were instilled in the minds of the citizens, and today one of the most important industries of Van Buren county, and, in fact, of Southeastern Iowa, are the Bonaparte Woolen Mills. These mills employ from 75 to 85 persons and its payroll is about $2,500 per month. William Meek & Sons built the first factory in 1853, who ran it successfully until 1863, when it was burned down. Robert Meek and Bros. commenced rebuilding a brick structure 50 by 85 feet, and five stories high, immediately after the burning of the old one. It was rapidly pushed to completion. Goods turned out by this factory are known far and near, and sell on their merits. The mill contains 1,640 spindles, 32 looms, 6 sets of carding machines, 2 shearing machines and turns out 22,000 yards of cloth per month, consisting of tricots, flannels, cassimere, blankets, satinet, jeans, yarns, etc., warranted all wool. The machinery of this flourishing institution is propelled by water power. Isaiah Meek is sole proprietor, and W. R. Dredge is superintendent.

Another of Bonaparte's paying institutions is the flouring mill. The building of the old flouring mill, by William Meek & Sons, in 1838, was the first move toward making a manufacturing town of Bonaparte. There was no dam across the river at that date. A wing was built, and a large wheel placed in the current, for the purpose of running the mill machinery, but it was not a success.

In 1839 William Meek & Sons petitioned the Legislature of the Territory for the privilege of building a dam across the Des Moines river at this place, which was granted, and in 1844 another flouring mill was built by the above named firm, which served until 1872, when Robert Meek and Bros. built a new one of brick, 40x50 feet, and four stories high. Six sets of buhrs were put in, but in order to keep apace with the lengthy strides of progression, Isaiah Meek, who is now sole proprietor, completely overhauled the machinery in the mill and three sets of double rollers took the place of the six sets of buhrs. The latest improved machinery was installed in the mill, and practically it is a new mill and is doing an immense business. Besides the great milling trade done for the farmers of Van Buren county, quite a number of customers come from Jefferson, Henry, Lee and Davis counties, in Iowa, and Clark county, Mo.

The capacity of the mills are 60 barrels of flour per day, and the demands for its brands are so great that all cannot be supplied. 'Phis mill dam and water power cost about $36,000. The present darn, and, by the way, the best one in the west, was built in 1872, by Robert Meek and Bros.

Rees and Riggle began the manufacture of carriages in Bonaparte in 1874. For the first few years they had to stand the strain of heavy competition from cheap eastern work, but they held to the idea that handmade carriages would regain the favor of those using such vehicles and now they have a good trade in that class of work, the extent of which can best be estimated by stating that during the past year they have sold three thousand dollars worth of vehicles to

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Reproduced with permission of the Van Buren County Historical Society

[a limited number of copies of the original book remain available - click here]

Transcribed by Rich Lowe for the Van Buren County IAGenWeb Project - copyright 2007