VAN BUREN COUNTY - Nestled together in southeastern Iowa, the Villages of Van Buren are a collection of eleven small towns that together, help put the entire region on the map.
The organization for the villages — Birmingham, Bonaparte, Cantril, Farmington, Keosauqua, Milton, Stockport, Bentonsport, Douds, Selma and Mount Sterling — began 40 years ago, said Stacey Reese, its executive director.
“Early on, the different communities realized that (they) themselves alone did not have enough resources, financial and human resources, to become a destination on their own,” Reese said. “But if you put all of our communities together, 11 different communities, then suddenly we do have plenty of assets and it makes for a nice destination.”
Keosauqua, the county seat, has a population of 995. By comparison, the smaller communities of Bentonsport, Selma and Mount Sterling each have about 40 residents. In total, Van Buren County is home to 7,468 people. All of the villages are within 15 to 20 minutes of one another.
There are no fast-food restaurants in the entire county. There isn’t even a stoplight.
Instead, the region features a variety of small businesses such as Dutchman’s Store in Cantril. The old-fashioned grocery store was opened in 1985 by Clair Zimmerman.
On a recent weekday afternoon, the store was packed with shoppers looking through an array of bulk and canned food and baked goods, deli items and spices. The store also offers clothing, shoes, fabric and household products.
“We buy all of this in big quantities and pack it down in our facility right here,” said Kevin Zimmerman, Zimmerman’s son and part-owner of the store. “Another thing, we got anything from soup to hay.”
Kevin said he values being a part of a tightly knit community. He said the friendly atmosphere is what makes his business uniquely Iowan.
“You know your local people, you have a relationship with everyone, everyone knows each other and stops to chat,” he said. “It’s not like it’s just another person on the street, everybody knows each other.”
About five miles down the road, Milton Creamery boasts a variety of gourmet cheeses. All the milk for its cheeses is from local Amish farms. Its most popular cheese is the Prairie Breeze, which accounts for 90 percent of its production, General Manager Junior Musser said.
The creamery also sells nine flavors of cheese curds, featuring three different flavors a week.
In the facility, cheddar curds are bagged for retail sales. In one vat, Prairie Breeze curd is put into hoops to be pressed overnight and then aged for a minimum of nine months, Musser said. The cheese will then be cut and ready for sale.
Milton Creamery’s products are distributed across the country.
Musser said marketing collaboration among each of the towns in the Villages of Van Buren helps all businesses succeed.
“It helps pull people and attention to us,” he said. “It’s everybody working together to pull people in. It’s the whole group that really makes it happen.”
For more information on the Villages of Van Buren County, go to www.villagesofvanburen.com