116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Dainty fox tracks wound through a snowy prairie before disappearing into nearby woodland. It seemed an appropriate discovery in an Iowa county named for the Red Fox of Kinderhook.
Born in Kinderhook, N.Y., red haired Martin Van Buren was president from 1837-1841, a time when settlers were pouring into extreme southeastern Iowa. He never visited the county that eventually bore his name, but we trek there a few times a year to enjoy the quiet ambiance of rural Van Buren and Lee Counties.
Iowa's bootheel, a peninsula between the Mississippi and Des Moines Rivers that juts south to Keokuk, is entirely in Lee County but shares with Van Buren County a rich human and natural history. Joined at the hip by Shimek State Forest, the two counties are heavily timbered, lightly populated, and offer scenery different from the Corridor and a quiet respite from busy lives.
Whenever we feel harried by modern life's pace but only have a day or two to escape we head for the bootheel. Less than two hours from Cedar Rapids and even closer to Iowa City, Lee and Van Buren Counties feel far away. Life's pace is slow there and as soon as we near its forests and prairies we relax. Only about 7,200 people live in Van Buren County and it lacks even a single stop light or fast food restaurant. The rural western part of Lee County also offers outstanding scenery, fascinating history and a slower pace.
We enjoy elegant dining at Bonaparte's Retreat in the town of Bonaparte, which was named for the military leader and first Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte. We take in comfortable lodging in any of the area bed and breakfasts. Most recently we were hosted by Jan and Herb Shafer at the Bentonsport Village B&B. As we sat on the front lawn awaiting breakfast the only traffic on the road out front was an Amish buggy with its horse clip clopping along.
During warm months, we camp in either Shimek State Forest or Lacey-Keosauqua State Park. Shimek boasts Iowa's largest continuous forest. Narrow gravel roads, similar to those in Western national forests, wind through the woods and access rustic campgrounds that feature only a fire ring, picnic table, and privy. There is not even a water tap, so we bring plenty of fresh water. Forest campgrounds offer quiet and intimate contact with nature. Modern campgrounds, for those who prefer more amenities, are scattered about both counties. Those in Lacey Keosauqua State Park have flush toilets and electricity while county and private campgrounds have RV hookups. People wishing a little more comfort can rent cabins. Bed and breakfasts are wonderfully luxurious.
The counties are steeped in human and natural history that were shaped by geography. Lee is Iowa's most southern county and has the state's lowest elevation. Because of its low latitude and altitude it enjoys Iowa's mildest climate. Spring comes a little earlier than in the Corridor and warmth lingers a bit later each fall. Because it's slightly warmer, one of our favorite trees, the shingle oak, is common in area woodlands. A southern species, it only ranges into Iowa's two most southern tiers of counties. The tree's wood splits easily and uniformly which enabled pioneers to craft shingles from it. Thus, the name. Many other southern species are found in only very southern Iowa.
The Des Moines River bisects Van Buren County and forms the western edge of Lee County on its way to the Mississippi near Keokuk. These massive rivers formed terrain too rugged to farm, leaving vast areas of uncultivated land that today are woodland, pasture, or prairie.
History comes alive in the boot heel. Settlement started there and gradually spread northwest during the 1800s. Some of Iowa's oldest buildings and pioneer cemeteries are located in the two counties. It is a place to connect with our past.
Early this year we enjoyed breakfast at Farmington, Iowa's Bridge Café and then drove southeast on the Croton Road. It hugs the Des Moines River's east bank and soon enters Lee County. Just three miles below Farmington is the Croton Civil War Memorial, marking the most northern battle of the Civil War in the west. It's the only Iowa location where a history buff can visit a battle site of this epic war - sort of. The battle actually took place across the River in Missouri and is called the Battle of Athens (pronounced with a long A, not like the City in Greece). This once river port city no longer exists.
On Aug. 5, 1861, a group of about 500 Missouri Union sympathizers fought off a bigger group of secessionists who had three cannons. Reports of the battle vary but at least one or two cannonballs flew into or across the river into Iowa and rifle fire crossed the water both ways. The battle, which was really a skirmish, was considered a Union Victory. Casualties were light. A small Lee County Conservation Board battle site is at Croton, Iowa. To get a better feel for the fight, cross into Missouri near Farmington and visit the Battle of Athens Site managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation. It is near the town of Revere, not far from Farmington.
From Croton we continued downriver on Belfast Road for about ten miles before stopping at Meeks Oakland Sand Cemetery, where headstones told a tragic Civil War saga. Five sons of one family were buried together. Two fought for the Confederacy and three for the Union. The grieving parents managed to bring all bodies home to be buried together. Far more Missouri residents than Iowans were conflicted over which side to join, but families in our state were not spared this trauma. At the same cemetery we were astonished to find the grave of an Iowan who was a Revolutionary War veteran. Other stones mark graves of veterans of the War of 1812, and, sadly, through modern conflicts.
As we sat beneath a gnarled oak, thoughts drifted to the distant the Revolution and the struggles these patriots must have faced while moving to Iowa and establishing a life in the newly forming territory.
Just downriver near Keokuk is the grave of Andrew Oiler, Abraham Lincoln's first cousin and a veteran of the War of 1812. Charlotta Pyles faced a situation typical of many slave women in 1850. She was married to a free man, Harry Pyles, but she and her 12 children were owned by Mr. Gordon, who died in the early 1850's. He left Charlotta and the children to his daughter in his will with the expectation that she would free them. She did and accompanied them north to Keokuk in 1853. Charlotta went on a speaking tour of the North to raise $3,000 needed to buy freedom for the husbands to two of her daughters and bring them to Iowa. Later she was active in the Underground Railroad and helped other former slaves settle in Iowa. Charlotta died in 1880 and is buried in Keokuk's Oakland Cemetery.
The past seems like today in parts of Van Buren County. Probably relatively low land cost and ability to farm rougher ground using horses lured Amish people to the area. We've enjoyed watching teams of draft horses pull plows, wagon loads of firewood, and people trekking down the roads behind a trotting horse. Chatting with Amish families while shopping for vegetables and baked goods at their farms and in Cantril's Dutchman's Store gives us a feel for Iowa's cultural diversity. Owned by Mennonites the Dutchman's Store offers a diverse mix of bulk dry foods, fresh vegetables and fruits, and clothing.
About five miles north of Cantril is Amish-owned Indian Creek Furniture. A large display room set on the edge of a farm features furniture crafted of solid wood. Just west of Cantril is Milton Cheese off Highway 2. Also Mennonite owned, it produces our favorite cheddar called Prairie breeze.
Although beautiful scenery, a quiet pace, and interesting history and food are strong draws to Lee and Van Buren Counties many people go there for some of Iowa's best hunting and fishing. Because the area is heavily forested it supports one of the state's densest populations of deer and wild turkeys. It also has a vast amount of public hunting in Shimek State Forest and several properties managed by the DNR and County Conservation boards. Lake Sugema is a blue ribbon fishery for largemouth bass, crappies, and bluegills.
These two counties offer plenty to see. We mostly enjoy them as a close-to-home place for a quiet interlude from busy lives. Normally we follow Iowa Highway 1 from Iowa City to Fairfield, then take Libertyville Road to the town of that name and then follow V64 into Van Buren County. The road passes Indian Creek Furniture and continues to Cantril. After shopping we head east and either camp or stay in a bed and breakfast in the county. The next day we leisurely drive down the Des Moines River and other back roads taking in the sights and sounds. From there it's only a few miles east to four lane Highway 27. In about an hour and 45 minutes, we're home in Cedar Rapids and completing a pleasant circle.
IF YOU GO
The Villages of Van Buren County: (800) 868-7822; villagesofvanburen.com
Keokuk Area Convention and Tourism: (319) 524-5599; keokukiowatourism.org
Dutchman's Store: (319) 397-2322; dutchmansstore.com
Bentonsport Village B&B: (319) 592-3191; bentonsportbb.com
Bonaparte's Retreat: (319) 592-3339; bonaparteretreat.com