They grace the Des Moines River, a line of slender century-old storefronts, faces draped in striped awnings of red, green and white. It is a quiet evening, and people stroll down wide sidewalks, or sit on park benches to watch a river that, in its refusal to remain within imposed barriers, is much like them.
So are the eagles that soar above the Des Moines—a symbol to the people who live here.
This is Bonaparte, Iowa, a community of 458, shaped by natural disasters and economic woes. But come recession or high water, the southeast Iowa town is far from meeting its Waterloo. Instead, troubles have strengthened its people.
People like Dana Mabe, a native who moved back after spending a year in Chicago. “Chicago wasn’t home,” she says. “Here everyone knows you and if you have a problem, no matter what it is, all you have to do is call. Your neighbors will be right there to help.”
During the flood of 1993, she remembers teenagers helping senior citizens move their furniture and other belongings. Women gathered at churches to serve food to the sandbaggers, long before the Red Cross became involved.
“I had been back in town for four years, and what sticks out in my mind is filling sandbags at the schoolhouse on the hill and the amount of people who were there,” Mabe says. “It wasn’t just the people who lived in Bonaparte proper, but country people, too. We had to take shifts because there were so many people to help.”
In Bonaparte, floods are a fact of life. “We’ve had at least five to seven times that the town has been flooded out,” former Mayor Gary Kenney says.
Settlers founded the community in 1837 and named it Meek’s Mills, but when the town was platted in 1841, the name was changed to Bonaparte in recognition of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French emperor from 1804-1814. Known for its gristmill and woolen mill, the community served both sides during the Civil War.
“Technically, we were part of the North. But we’re only seven miles from Missouri so pants were made here for both the North and South,” says Catie Newman, former manager of the town’s Main Street program to revitalize the downtown district. “One side or the other didn’t like it so they burnt the mill down. Of course, it was rebuilt.”
That kind of can-do attitude, which still resonates today, was never more apparent than in 1986, when the elderly owners of White’s shopping center announced they were going out of business. For decades, White’s was the centerpiece of the community, selling groceries, hardware, appliances, clothing and furniture.
“The whole idea was unthinkable,” says Mary Meek, who has lived in Bonaparte since the 1940s. “They couldn’t close it—the town would be empty. Four of our businessmen got together to figure out what to do, and came up with an idea. Each of them decided to put up $2,000. Then they called a meeting at the old opera house. They asked how many people would join them.”
That night the town raised $100,000 to purchase and renovate the buildings, which needed major repairs. Officials at the State Central Bank stepped in to finance the purchase of the buildings, and Township Stores Inc., a community-owned corporation devoted to downtown revitalization, was born. Today, the buildings house a grocery store, a hardware store, the school board, and a doctor’s office.
In 2001, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Bonaparte among a dozen distinct destinations for its vibrant downtown. “We now have 18 businesses located in our downtown,” Newman says.
Perhaps the greatest symbol of resurgence comes from new downtown construction. “We recently had the first new building in 150 years built on Main Street,” Newman adds. “You can’t pick it out because it was built historically appropriate. For a town our size, the growth we’ve had in the last five years has been phenomenal.”
With the same spirit of optimism and defiance that has long marked the town, Newman concludes, “We refuse to die.”