Iowa All Over: Time stands still in Bonaparte

Retreat Restaurant has been serving customers since 1970

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BONAPARTE — Rose Hendricks’s Bonaparte Retreat Restaurant in Bonaparte isn’t fancy.

In fact, it’s downright plain, as Hendricks puts it. But that’s what keeps the customers coming back.

“It’s the same as it’s always been,” she said. “They know what they’re going to get.”

The Bonaparte Retreat Restaurant in southeastern Iowa was originally a grist mill, where flour, oats and wheat were ground, Hendricks said.

The first mill was built on the site where the restaurant now stands was by William Meek, according to the restaurant’s website. The town, in fact, was first called Meeks Mills, and settlers came to town from as far as 100 miles away to have their grain ground into flour.

Meek named the town after Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he admired. When it was founded in 1837, Bonaparte was a bustling town of 1,000 people. During the Industrial Revolution, flour could be purchased at stores and the mill was no longer necessary, Hendricks said.

The building was left abandoned for a number of years before Hendricks and her late husband, Ben, purchased and refurbished the Bonaparte Retreat in 1970. As of the first week in February, the Retreat Restaurant has been operating for 45 years, Hendricks said.

Since then, the restaurant has been serving its “plain” fare that includes shrimp, broiled salmon steak, tossed garden salads and New York strip steaks.

The interior of the restaurant is an eclectic collection of items Ben picked up over the years, including a now out-of-service cash register from 1908 behind the front counter. Customers come from a 50-mile radius — some 30,000 people a year, Hendricks said.

“If you came here 45 years ago, everything is the same as it was then,” she said. “That kind of defies the odds, but I don’t keep up with the times. Just keep on keeping on.”

The pace of life is slower in Bonaparte, too, he said, with its population of 400.

No one is in a hurry, Hendricks said. Within walking distance of Main Street, visitors can find a convenience store, a “pub and grub” establishment and a bank.

“When they say middle of nowhere, you’ve found the middle,” she said.

The quiet is what Hendricks loves most about running the restaurant. A table by the window on a snowy winter day offers a picturesque view of the Des Moines River.

MORE ON BONAPARTE

Bonaparte, originally called Meeks Mills, was founded in 1837, according to history records on the city’s website. The Des Moines River was central to the town’s economy in its early years. As an official Main Street Community, Bonaparte is the “smallest such community in the nation,” with a population of about 400.

IF YOU GO

What: Bonaparte Retreat Restaurant

Where: 713 First St., Bonaparte

Hours: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for lunch, 5 to 8 p.m. for dinner

Call (319) 592-3339 or go to www.bonaparteretreat.com.

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