This article is published in Explore Magazine’s fall & winter 2018 issue, featuring Iowa’s scenic byways. This week, The Gazette will publish articles featuring one byway each day online. You can pick up a hard copy of the magazine at area businesses, convenience stores and grocery stores. You also can pick up a copy at The Gazette.
You can drive most of the Historic Hills Scenic Byway in southeastern Iowa without seeing a fast-food restaurant or chain hotel. So if you like predictable, cookie-cutter road trips, you might want to keep on driving.
But if you like unique experiences, such as eating lunch in a former grist mill, sleeping in an 1850s Methodist Church or riding a mule through a state forest, tool on down this scenic byway stretching 110 miles between Donnellson on the east and Moravia on the west.
“That is the exact reason people come down here,” said Stacey Reese, executive director of tourism and economic development for the Villages of Van Buren County, 11 hamlets sprinkled along the Des Moines River. “It’s off the beaten path.”
Reese loves the area for its history, natural beauty and degree to which artisans, collectors, religious communities and rural Iowans have banded together to make tourism an important part of the economy.
The southeast corner of Iowa was the first to be settled by Europeans, which can be seen by Iowa’s oldest courthouse in continuous use, in Keosauqua, and the site of Iowa’s only Civil War battle, in Croton, in 1861. This was a pretty minor battle — some canon balls likely intended for Athens, Mo., across the Des Moines River — but still a win for Iowa’s Union forces who turned away Missouri Rebels at the water, according to “The Civil War” by Iowa Public Television.
Steamboats that started passing on the Des Moines River in the late 1830s shaped the small towns along the byway.
Keosauqua’s Hotel Manning is an example of Steamboat Gothic architecture, characterized by wraparound porches with elaborate railings and found predominantly in the Mississippi River and Ohio River valleys. The hotel, open continuously to guests since 1899, now is a bed & breakfast.
Among more than 20 Van Buren County buildings and bridges on the National Register of Historic Places is Meek’s Flour Mill, built in the late 1870s. The mill, complete with a wheel on the back, now serves as the Bonaparte Retreat Restaurant, specializing in country classics like ham and buttered corn and breaded tenderloin sandwiches.
The Historic Hills Scenic Byway includes the Shimek State Forest, two state parks and Iowa’s only state-owned resort.
Lacey-Keosauqua State Park, just south of Keosauqua, is known for stone structures built in the 1930s and 1940s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, created by Franklin D. Roosevelt to put young men to work during the Great Depression. The 1,653-acre park has 19 mounds overlooking the Des Moines River believed to have been built by Woodland Indians more than 1,000 years ago.
“With Lake Sugema down the road, fishing is also a tremendous attraction,” Park Manager Justin Pedretti added.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources started renovating the Lacey-Keosauqua State Park campground late last year to include larger sites and more amenities, Pedretti said.
Farther down the Des Moines River is a perfect spot for viewing the fall leaves changing color. The Bentonsport Bridge, an iron truss span built in 1882, conveyed vehicles until 1985, when it was closed to traffic. Now, it’s a romantic footbridge good for a walk after lunch or between stops at the small stores in Bentonsport.
Honey Creek Resort, located in Moravia on the shores of Rathbun Lake, was built in 2008 and boasts a 105-room lodge, 28 cottages, restaurant, indoor water park and 18-hole golf course. With 16,000 acres of preserved forests, prairies, and peninsulas, Honey Creek Resort has guided nature hikes Wednesdays through Saturdays through the fall, winter and spring.
The Villages of Van Buren County draw thousands of tourists a year, especially during the Scenic Drive Festival the second weekend in October. During those two days, visitors can find fun runs, pancake breakfasts, barn tours, a tractor show, book fair and even turtle races.
But even on a weekday in the fall, stores and restaurants are open with locals eager to share their passions.
“I’ve been making pots for 48 years,” said Betty Printy, who owns Iron and Lace, a Bentonsport store that features Printy’s Queen Anne’s Lace pottery, hand-forged iron work made by her husband, Bill, and hand-woven rugs.
Printy, a Bentonsport native, was experimenting with different pottery techniques when she tried putting Queen Anne’s Lace flowers into the clay when she fired it. The resulting white starbursts are now featured on bowls, vases and Christmas ornaments sought by visitors throughout the year.
“It’s real cool to live in a town of 40 people and have a business you can’t keep up with,” she said.
The Bentonsport Artisan Co-op, just down the block, includes handmade work by regional artists. Roy Svenby, who make natural gemstone jewelry sold at the Co-op, and his wife, Pam, are general managers of the store, housed in the town’s former bank.
If you need a break from shopping or sightseeing, stop into the Sunrise Bakery, in Bonaparte. The Amish bakery tempts with treats like cream-filled long johns, cinnamon rolls and homemade candy in the fall. The restaurant has an Amish buffet dinner on Friday and Saturday nights during holiday weekends.
For a savory snack, the Milton Creamery’s Prairie Breeze white cheddar is a four-time blue ribbon winner with victories that include the American Cheese Society 2011 in Montreal and World Cheese Contest 2010 in London. Pair that cheese with crackers purchased at the Dutchman’s Store, in Cantril. The store combines and old-fashioned general store with a fresh food market and a gift boutique.
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