(Foot)Notes on Iowa - Words & Photos- Part 1, Day 2: Farmington to Bentonsport

To start the second day of my journey, I disembarked from Farmington across the bridge to Eagle Avenue. Looking ahead at routes for the upcoming days, I knew that the gravel road running along the south and western bank of the Des Moines River would serve as my path for a large portion of the walk from Farmington to Ottumwa over the days to follow. Our host in Farmington had warned the road had deteriorated due to the recent rains, and offered to come pull us out if the mud sucked our vehicle into a quagmire. Instead of risking it, I set off sans phone and sent Marissa ahead to Bonaparte for a meetup at the Lion’s Park across the river from the small town.

The gloomy morning subdued my thoughts as I made my way through Farmington. Better days had passed the downtown by some time ago: many buildings lack occupants to perform upkeep although the community clearly works to maintain what it can. Tucked between the rolling hills of Shimek State Forest and the Des Moines River, the small town boasted 664 residents at the 2010 election. The oldest of the far-famed “Villages of Van Buren County,” Henry Bateman platted the town in 1839. Five years before Iowa’s statehood, Farmington first incorporated in 1841. The early decades saw the town flourish along the Des Moines as eager residents saw the Des Moines Navigation and Improvement Company (DMNIC) undertake the task of opening the river to steam traffic. Before the DMNIC’s graft and corruption paired with the rise of the railroad as the dominant form of transport, Farmington boasted a thriving commercial district and a population of over 1,000 citizens by 1878.

The rise and fall of the Des Moines River, both in terms of importance as a means of transportation and as an ever-changing body of water, interlocks with the histories of all the towns nestled along its shores. The people of Farmington have continually faced challenges presented by the river, especially when the waters often rise in the springtime. For instance, the Flood of 1993 inundated the area bordered by Walnut, Second, and Third streets, eventually leading the city to purchase and raze the properties throughout. Wild Rose City Park now stands in place of the houses and commercial buildings.

More evidence of flooding met me as I turned north and west out of Farmington, mud sucking at my shoes with every step toward Bonaparte. Small houses, likely quiet retreats for residents along the river, stood abandoned along the stretch.

The morning proved relatively quiet as rain threatened on and off. My first encounter with farm dogs, a minor concern for any backroad gravel traveler, took place. While approaching a farmstead tucked in the floodplain opposite the river on the road, I heard the tell-tale barking to alert me to the potential encounter with some local canines. Three dogs emerged from around the farm, all friendly enough, but clearly bent on sending me on my way. The gruffest barks emanated from a shaggy, three-legged golden coated beast who presented no real danger. I continued on up the road.

Arriving opposite Bonaparte I took notice of the beautiful scene the town presents from the opposite bank. Our primary exploration of Bonaparte took place the evening prior after the recommendations of several locals to make sure to dine at the “Bonaparte Retreat,” a lovely restaurant housed in a former grist-mill at the northern end of downtown.

A sense of the past pervades Bonaparte, which originally found settlement as Meek’s Mill after William Meek established a homestead, a wing-dam, and a flour mill during the late-1830s. By 1839, the first steamboat ascended the Des Moines beyond the town and the territorial legislature granted permission to erect a more substantial dam to assist with improvement of navigability. The town continued to gain traction, and William McBride surveyed and platted the town in 1841 while changing the name to Bonaparte.

Like Farmington, the promise of the Des Moines River’s navigability fueled growth for early Bonaparte while also presenting consistent challenges. The first major flood the town faced occurred in 1851 after forty consecutive days of rain swelled the river for most of the spring and summer. Following the flood, the persistent people of Bonaparte erected a new dam in 1852. By 1854, steamboat traffic consistently moved along the river between Keokuk and Second Fort Des Moines (Des Moines, Iowa, today). The Keokuk, Fort Des Moines, and Minnesota Railroad reached the town in 1858, marking an era of prosperity leading to an all-time high recorded population of 1,339 persons in 1875.

Massive floods in 1903 and 1905 challenged the town, washing away the most recently completed dam (1872) and two important bridges spanning the river. The 20th century saw continued flooding and population decline for the small town. Major floods in 1947, 1964, and 1993, the local population of the town continually declined toward the mark of 433 at the 2010 census. Resilience within the people of Bonaparte finds clear evidence in the many buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as in continued efforts to preserve many structures within the community today.

From Bonaparte, I continued on my route to the southwest of the Des Moines, although the gravel road I traveled moved away from the river. The change in proximity to the river also resulted in a notable topographical change as my route took on the feeling of an old-time wooden roller coaster: up and down and up and down and up and down all the way to Bentonsport. The Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail claims the stretch of hilly backroad, and I thought often of the difficulties encountered by the Saints as they struggled westward. I also took notice of many animal tracks in the soggy surface of the road. A team pulling a buggy, not an uncommon sight in the part of the state populated by several Amish communities, had proceeded me down the road at some earlier point in the morning.

I arrived at Bentonsport via Vernon, a township housing a historic school built in 1868. Notably Iowa watercolor artist Wendell Mohr bought the school in 1968 and spent many years creating wonderful works of art in his home-studie housed within the school's walls. Today the building, still owned by Mohr’s family, stands as a testament to historic preservation.

I crossed the Des Moines on the historic 1882 one-lane iron bridge over the Des Moines River. Although the structure hosted vehicular traffic until 1882, today it serves pedestrians crossing to and from Vernon township.

Bentonsport, originally platted in 1836, and holds claim to the first dam authorized by the Territorial Legislature of Iowa. Similarly to Bonaparte, the railroad reached the town in the late-1850s bringing initial success but eventual decline. The population crested at just over 1,000 during the late-19th century, and today boasts only 40 official residents. Despite the low population, Bentonsport still stands as a beautiful reminder of the past promise of the lower Des Moines River. Many historic buildings house active businesses, and the site of the DNIC Lock and Dam #7 anchors a lovely and well-maintained garden park along the Des Moines.

Bentonsport marked the end of my journey for Part One, Day 2, of my 2021 expedition across Iowa in searching for the Iowa Dragoons.

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