History of Bonaparte

Compiled by The Van Buren County Historical Society, 1967


Printed by The Record-Republican, Bonaparte, Iowa

Page 1 - History of Bonaparte

The Van Buren County Historical Society was organized March 21, 1960. It is developing a museum, and restoring the historic Pearson House following damage by the tornado of April 16, 1967. The Old Negro Church which was owned by the society was a total loss in the same tornado.

Officers of the society are Clay Lanman, Keosauqua, President; Clem Topping, Stockport, Vice President; Alma Lindsay, Birmingham, Secretary, and Ada Lazenby, Keosauqua, Treasurer. The organization meets monthly in different towns of the county. Membership is open to anyone interested in helping preserve and share our heritage with generations yet to come. Annual memberships of $1.00 and life memberships of $10.00 are available.

Page 2 - History of Bonaparte

Bonaparte 1837 to 1967

A Chronology of Events in the First 130 Years of Bonaparte History

The first white man to make a settlement in what later became Bonaparte was evidently Robert Coates who in the summer of 1836 "located a homestead on the small open park on the north bank of the Des Moines closely surrounded by forest trees". As his interest was tillable land for farming, he transferred his claim to Robert Moffett. He in turn disposed of the present western part of the town to William Meek who arrived late in the same year, 1836. Mr. Meek was seeking timber and water facilities and considered this a good location. William Meek had built a mill and established the town of Constantine, Michigan, where he was Chief Justice and later Associate Judge of the County Court of St. Joseph, Michigan. About the same time, Dr. R. N. Cresap came into this section and lived in a cabin east of the present town site.

In 1837, William Meek returned to Michigan and brought his family to his present location. After clearing ground, he built a wing dam, a flour mill, and a saw mill, thus starting the nucleus of a town. The village was designated Meek's Mills, Wisconsin Territory, U. S. A. Other citizens included P. R. Rice, Joseph Rabb, Edwin Wilson, David Sewell, Lewis Christian, William Welch, and Joseph Perkins.

New Lexington, a mile west, established a post office April 6, 1837, but in 1842 the settlement was abandoned. A projected early village called Napoleon, which was across the river from Bonaparte, also failed to develop. Southeast of this point a scant half mile was the village of Palestine which likewise has disappeared.

The first cemetery was laid out on land given by Wm. Meek in 1838 and the first burial was his son, Benjamin. The population of Van Buren County was 3,000 at this time.

In 1839 the first steamboat ascended the Des Moines to as far as Keosauqua. In this year Dr. Cresap bought 152 1/2 acres joining the town site on the east. The wing dam not being satisfactory, Wm. Meek and Sons petitioned the legislature for permission to erect a dam which was granted by special act of the territorial legislature January 17, 1839.

In 1840, Dr. Cresap built the first hotel called "The Tavern" where Burn's Motors is now located. Jesse Caves built a steamboat here. It was taken to St. Louis and finished. It made a trial trip to Bonaparte in 1841.

In 1841 the town was laid out by Wm. McBride, surveyor, and the name changed to Bonaparte in honor of Napoleon.

The first organization of a Baptist church took place in 1842, which was described as a very severe winter with snow covering the

Page 3 - History of Bonaparte

ground from November until April. The first school was built two years later. Thomas Charlton was the teacher.

Wm. Meek erected a flouring mill in 1844, and the Aunty Green Hotel was built the same year. In 1846, on December 28, Iowa was admitted to the Union as a state, and the Mormons spent the winter 2 miles east of Bonaparte at the Reed's Creek encampment.

The next year, in 1847, the first real thoroughfare, a state road, was laid out from West Point to Bonaparte.

The Odd Fellows Lodge was chartered November 8, 1849.

In 1850 there were many boats on the river, and in 1851 there was a very high water level. Beginning in May more than 40 days rain fell, and not until July did the floods subside. Stock drowned and crops were washed out. In 1852 a new dam was built.

In 1853 the Baptists started building a church, the small brick building now used as a library was built, and the Christy block was built. The brick building now used as a library then later housed the Farmers' and Traders Bank. Also the same year, Wm. Meek and Sons built the Woolen Factory. The year 1854 saw heavy steamboat traffic on the river with such steamers as Globe, Julia Dean, Time and Tide, Col. Morgan, and the Lovilla plying between Keokuk and Ft. Des Moines.

The Keokuk, Ft. Des Moines, and Minnesota Railroad completed its tracks and ran trains into Bonaparte in 1858.

The first Methodist Church was built in 1862. Before that time Methodists had held services in the Baptist Church.

The Meek Woolen Mill burned in 1863 and was immediately re-built at a cost of $50,000. An Academy was started in 1865 by Bonaparte Academy Assoc., and completed in 1867 at a cost of $20,000. It was popularly called Howe's Academy for the first principal, E. P. Howe.

In 1866 a pottery was started by Parker and Hanback. It was in this year that a serious ice gorge overflowed the river and large ice cakes floated down the main streets.

The Presbyterian church was organized in 1868.

In 1869 at four p. m. on August 7, there was a total eclipse of the sun.

In 1870 the Bonaparte School District became independent. They purchased Howe's Academy. Smith and Halcomb published the first newspaper.

The Presbyterian Church was completed in 1871, with the Rev. H. R. Lewis, pastor.

Page 4 - History of Bonaparte

The last dam was finished in 1872. This dam cost $36,000. Rees and Riggle began the manufacture of carriages in 1874.

The 1875 census showed a population of 668 males, and 671 females. This was a total of 1,339 people. [see transcriber notes]

The pottery burned down in 1876 but was rebuilt. On April 4th a license was issued for a five-year period to operate a ferry above the dam. The Ferry Tree was located on the north bank in front of the T. W. Boyer home, now the Hainline Rest Home. The ferry had previously been located below the dam and operated by Joseph Perkins. Perkins, who held the license since 1856, built the brick home across the river. This house is now owned by Edward Thornburg.

The first river bridge was erected in 1877 and 1878 at a cost of $35,000, financed by Bonaparte citizens. It was tested by parking each span full of wagons loaded with stone.

A new grist mill was erected in 1878 at a cost of $15,000. This building, which still stands, is operated by the Farmers Coop. At this time, the population had dropped to 1,200.

A Building and Loan Association was organized in 1881, and the Farmers and Traders Bank in 1882. The Park Hotel was built.

Fire demolished 14 buildings on July 16, 1886. In 1894 the Eason house, built in 1840, was also destroyed by fire.

Fishing must have been good in those days: In 1888 the mill wheel was stopped by fish. The Haney Opera House was built during this same year.

The first commencement of Bonaparte High School took place in 1891. Nelle Jones and Gerry Whitmore had the honor of being the first graduating class.

In 1897 the Methodist Church was built. A year later, Bonaparte was incorporated.

July 2, 1900, fire again destroyed three frame buildings on Main Street. On October 22 the ax handle factory was also destroyed.

In 1901 the waterworks was installed, the Presbyterian Church was built and the Union Telephone Company brought phone service to the town.

The Rees Carriage Factory partially burned in 1902, was later rebuilt by sons Herb and Harry Rees, finally torn down about 1942.

On June 3, 1903, the biggest flood ever known in the history of the Des Moines River occurred after a week of rain. The dam built in 1872 was washed away. Again in 1905 severe flooding resulted when 16 inches of rain fell in three hours. The Honey Creek railroad bridge and the wagon bridge were both washed out.

The present school building was dedicated December 17, 1915.

Page 5 - History of Bonaparte

In 1930, paving on Highway No. 79 was completed; connecting Bonaparte with No. 3, which is now No. 2.

The Bonaparte Centennial celebration and the dedication of the gymnasium, which was added to the school building, were in 1937. The Meek Woolen Mill building on the river bank was remodeled in-to a community building.

In 1943 the fact of World War II came home to people of Bonaparte with the death of Claire Osweiler as a result of battle wounds in North Africa. In 1944 John H. Moore was lost at sea and Alden Watts was killed. Albert Mills and Donnie Tade also died in the service of their country.

In 1947 on June 8 and again on June 15 flood waters covered the entire area between the river and the railroad tracks. Between the two dates the river had receded to within the banks. This was a record crest of river level in Bonaparte although it did not crest as high in Bentonsport or Keosauqua as it did in 1903.

The new river bridge was completed in 1960. W. S. Lane cut the ribbon at dedication ceremonies on December 3rd. The cost was $408,969.45. The 1960 census showed a population of 574.

Stone from the old river bridge and even larger rocks from several local quarries were used to build a dam in the summer of 1962. Damaged by ice and flood waters in the spring of 1963, repairs were made in 1964. This work was financed entirely by contributions of local citizens with help from other towns in the county, who hoped to improve fishing and boating and restore the beauty of the river as it was in the early days of the town.

A tornado roared into town on the night of August 20, 1964. The roof and one chimney were blown off the Community building, the roof off Hendricks Garage, the roof of the post office building was damaged. Rollo White's store building (the old opera house) and the Legion building next door were badly damaged. The Craig Fritsinger home across the street from the Baptist church was a total loss. Several other homes in the vicinity were badly damaged.

In reviewing the history of Bonaparte, the observer can't help but be impressed with the ambition and enterprise of its citizenry who first carved a village of industry from the wilderness. Right down to the present, in spite of fire, flood and storm, its people have overcome adversity and rebuilt to replace their loss no matter what the cause.

In no other town of our county and in few of similar size any-where is there so much evidence of the historical past. In Bonaparte there is an unusual opportunity to share landmark homes and buildings with present and future generations that we all may be inspired by the achievements of those whose deeds made the town great. May those of us to whom today is intrusted so work together to create a community with the significance to the 20th century that Meek's Mills had to the 19th.

Page 6 - History of Bonaparte

Sources of Brick and Stone

Many visitors to old towns such as Bonaparte, frequently ask about the source of the brick and stone used in the early buildings.

In the case of our town, brick were made in at least two locations. One was on what is known as the Whitmore farm 1 mile north of Bonaparte now owned by Rev. and Mrs. Richard Eis. They report finding many of the old brick. The larger and better known brick yard was on land owned by the Meek family and can be seen just over the west fence of the Bonaparte Cemetery in a pasture owned by Kenneth Hawk. Old timers report that the part of the cemetery adjacent to the area where bricks are in evidence was also a part of the original brick yard.

Limestone abounds in the rocky bluffs along the river near Bonaparte and was readily available for the quarrying. The skill of early stone cutters and stone masons is a lost art among present builders and craftsmen. There were many skilled craftsmen among the Mormons who passed through this area on their trek westward. They offered their skills at bargain prices to local people to earn a living while in winter encampments and it is said that there was probably no faster build up of fine brick and stone homes anywhere than that which took place in the Bonaparte-Farmington area during the win-ter of 1846.

Limestone was also used in plaster and mortar after being burned in kilns. Still standing like a sentinal and now just a monument to an almost forgotten industry that flourished over a century ago is the old lime kiln at the base of the Slaughter's Creek Bluff about 3 miles east of Bonaparte. Built at a time when things were constructed to last, it has with-stood the ravages of time and the elements and is still in a fine state of preservation. I well remember the thrill of discovery when as a boy I came upon it while on a tramp through the woods on the Levi Cummings farm which adjoined that on which I lived. I learned later that it was built by James Steadman and his son Asa, pioneer Bonaparte stone masons.

The kiln is about 24 feet wide and 30 feet high and has a circular hole extending from the top to the bottom. To burn the lime, brush or light wood was placed at the bottom of the kiln for kindling and then alternate layers of lime rock and coal or hard wood were added until the kiln was filled. The kiln was built against the side of the cliff so that the top is easily accessible for charging. An opening at the bottom provided for draft in the burning. The process required about 3 weeks. Older residents used to tell of the noise made by the burning lime and also of raking a piece of stone from the kiln and pouring water on it, this causing it to swell and greatly resemble a huge grain of popped corn.

Page 7 - History of Bonaparte

Lime Kiln Near Bonaparte, Monument to Iowa's Past

Lime Kiln
[click photo to view]

Built more than 100 years ago this lime kiln near Bonaparte. Lime burning was then a thriving industry in the new state of Iowa.

Page 8 - History of Bonaparte

There were several lime kilns at that time, one contractor having two and selling from one while the other was burning, but the Slaughter's Creek kiln, which was much larger and better built, is the only one now standing in this vicinity.

Coal and limestone abound in large quantities in the vicinity of the lime stone kiln, this accounting for the location. Lime from this kiln was used in most of Bonaparte's older buildings and at that time was used instead of mortar in building chimneys.

Since the first settlers came here in 1837 and established the town of Bonaparte, the Slaughter's Creek Bluff has been well known for three things: limestone, coal and rattlesnakes. Rattlers have been killed each year in that vicinity since that time. One of the largest was killed by Levi Cummings on his farm adjoining the bluff. This one was evidently the chief of the snake tribe as it had 20 rattlers.

Credit for much of the above information is given to a story which appeared in the Record-Republican, June 17, 1948, which was a reprint of a story in the Ottumwa Courier and was written by O. R. Perkins, an employe of the Record-Republican and correspondent for the Ottumwa Courier. As a boy I lived on the farm now owned by Mr. and Mrs. C. D. Sexton at Reeds Creek. My parents owned this farm from 1931 till 1946 when it was sold to Sextons. Dad had purchased it from the Cramblit family. My brother Orville lived on this farm and I spent most of the time during my high school years with him. He married Grace Hunter in the fall of 1938 and they lived there until they moved to the Nels Hunter farm on Vernon Prairie in 1946. While we lived there we killed many rattlesnakes and at least one copperhead. I recall that on one visit to the old lime kiln I found the biggest black snake I have ever seen.

Clay M. Lanman

Page 9 - History of Bonaparte

Bonaparte Flouring Mills Are Improved

(Published in 1887)

I. Meek, proprietor of the Bonaparte Flouring Mills, is determined to advance with the lengthy strides of progression. The mills have been overhauled throughout and about $3,000 worth of new machinery put in. Two months ago the mills had a capacity of 15 to 20 barrels per day, and the new process gives them a capacity of 100 barrels daily.

The new machinery was started Monday and everything is running in a most satisfactory manner. We find on the grinding floor where a short time ago stood the millstones, three double sets of Willford's light running rolls. On this floor we also find a Garden City first break and one Willford stone.

On the second floor are three of George L. Smith's Purifiers which have been overhauled and the latest improvements put upon them. They look as though they had just come from the shop.

In the third floor or bolting room we find a four reel bolting chest 20 feet long in which the main bolting is done, also a two reel bolting chest 18 feet long, one of them used for a flour mixer, and one for a bran reel. In this room are also two of Willford's centrifugal smoothing reels and three scalping reels six feet in length.

In the fourth, or top story, is another scalper and a United States bran duster. It requires nineteen stands of elevators to handle the product of the mill after the wheat has been cleaned. The new machinery placed in the mill is of the latest pattern and works like a charm.

We congratulate Mr. Meek on his enterprise and hope he may enjoy a good share of the public patronage to which he is justly entitled.

Stephen Blackburn, the miller of millers, and Ralph Bell, his genial and able assistant, will continue in charge of the mill. As a miller, Mr. Blackburn has few equals and less superiors.

Page 10 - History of Bonaparte

Bonaparte In 1878

Recorded In "History of Van Buren County, Iowa" published by Western Historical Society, Chicago, Illinois


The village of Bonaparte was commenced in the year 1837, by Messrs. Meek & Sons and Dr. R. N. Cresap, whose initiatory step embraced the building of a dam across the Des Moines River. The early settlers, whose presence was marked by the year in question, were P. R. Rice, Joesph Rabb, Erwin Wilson, David Sewell, Lewis Christian and William Welch. A few cabins were built about the wild country, and from the rude hut-town the place has grown until the din of machinery and clang of the mills is heard by 1,200 people, who constitute the present population of the place.

This population supported four dry goods stores, two drug stores, four grocery stores, one harness-shop, one jewelry house, two boot and shoe stores, one clothing house, one general store, three millinery establishments, two furniture stores, three tailor-shops, two commission houses, two agricultural marts, two butcher shops, two hotels, and a photograph establishment; while the following branches of manufacturing also thrive: A woolen mill, wagon factory, brick yard, pottery, blacksmith shop, flouring mill, saw mill and glove factory. There is one printing office in the place; also, three churches, one school house, Masonic and Odd Fellows Halls and a livery firm. There are four physicians and two Justices of the Peace in the place.

John Bundy and William Meek, Sr., are both credited with having kept the first store in the village. Dr. R. N. Cresap kept the first hotel. The first blacksmith was R. B. Willoughby, and Hamilton Kearns was the first wagonmaker.

Jackson Myers is said to have started the first flouring mill, al-though William Meek & Sons put up one in 1844, which served until the fall of 1878, when Robert Meek & Brothers erected a new one, at a cost of $15,000. The structure is of brick size 40x50 and four stories in height. The mill has six runs of buhrs.

Meek & Brothers also erected a saw mill in 1860, which has run since that time.

The manufacturing interests of this place are nearly all centered in the woolen mill and manufacturing has received a healthy start, and the life instilled into this branch of industry at the beginning, instead of growing less, has been fanned into a noticeable flame, which spreads with the tread of time.

One of the most extensive and successful woolen factories of the State is situated at Bonaparte. It was built in the summer of 1853, by William Meek & Sons, who ran it at a paying rate until 1863, when it was burned down, causing the firm a loss of $20,000.

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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