Bonaparte, Iowa: The Little Town that Could

Bonaparte's inviting riverfront

When the “For Sale” signs began appearing in the windows of Bonaparte’s grocery and hardware stores, citizens got to work. They knew their downtown was in trouble, and that shuttered storefronts would be no help in keeping the town alive. The community of 458 began their town’s revival by raising $100,000 to create Township Stores, Inc. – a community-owned grocery and hardware store that has remained strong for more than 23 years.  

The creation of Township Stores only got the ball rolling. The self-initiated Main Street program worked with the local preservation board to renovate the façade of an old opera house and list the historic riverfront in the National Register of Historic Places. The uptick in local interest in community investment led to Main Street Iowa designating Bonaparte as a pilot program in 1990.

What the town couldn’t have known about its Main Street program was the difference it would make when a disastrous flood struck in 1993. The main street was underwater for nearly a month, and tourism ceased. Yet the community persevered and found a silver lining: when rebuilding after the floods, Bonaparte received much-needed funding for restoration, created an emergency evacuation plan, and refocused community interest on the health of the downtown.

Homegrown Attractions, Regional Appeal

Despite its size, Bonaparte has an active tourism industry. Adaptive-use projects played a major role in creating unique destinations for visitors. For example, the Bonaparte Inn – a rehabbed glove factory that has appeared on National Geographic Traveler magazine’s 2009 Stay List – has become the place for weddings after it received a $40,000 grant in 2006 to turn the third floor into a banquet hall, complete with a full gourmet kitchen.

The Old Pottery Factory is another attraction, piquing the interest of tourists eager to see hand-thrown pottery made using casts more than 120 years old. Up the street is the Opera House, now a community hall and government center, where annual fund-raising events are held.

The social nerve center of the town would have to be the Bonaparte Retreat – a family-style dining establishment housed in a former grist mill for the past 40 years. Among the diners at the Retreat are tourists, guests of the Bonaparte Inn, and residents of nearby towns. The ever-increasing stream of tourists has brought life to the downtown’s businesses and even pulled in some new businesses. “They come because we have the Bonaparte Inn and the Bonaparte Retreat,” says Gianna Barrow, the Organization Committee chair of Bonaparte Main Street and Bonaparte postmaster.

New organizations have made Bonaparte their home since Bonaparte Main Street rooted itself downtown. For example, the community is home to The Villages Folk School, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving traditional crafts like chair caning and storytelling, and The Crush, a hunting television show on the Outdoor Channel that is filmed throughout the Midwest but operates out of Bonaparte.

Celebrating Food: A Key Ingredient to Bonaparte's Identity

“We love to eat here, so we make our events around food,” says Connie Meek, Bonaparte’s Main Street treasurer and Bonaparte City Clerk. Twenty-two out of 34 of 2009’s events, which collectively raise $5,000 to $6,000 each year, were centered around food. The year starts with the Breakfast on Main Street, an event held on the first Saturday of each month, and ends with the Taste of Christmas. In between are fudge tastings, luncheons, wiener roasts, dinner theaters, tea parties, and banquets.

Perhaps Bonaparte’s strangest incorporation of food, fun, and history is the cemetery tour. In the town cemetery rest hundreds of past residents, all with their own history. The cemetery tour was created in 1996 to bring the town’s history to life, so to speak. Volunteers from Bonaparte would position themselves at a grave dressed in garb from the time period of the person buried there. They explained the history of the town and shared stories of the times with the tour groups that visited the graves.

The outdoor tour depended on compliant weather, as well as bus and port-o-john rentals – which drove up overhead costs. Therefore, the event eventually was moved inside the Opera House. The cemetery tour was adapted to an indoor dinner theater format ­so that guests no longer have to worry about stumbling around a cemetery at night or in bad weather. The profits raised from the dinner theater benefit the historic Bonaparte Cemetery.

The community gathers again at the Opera House for the Taste of Christmas. Families bring their good linens, fine china, and special-occasions-only silverware and each decorates a table in the Opera House. Diners hop from business to business on Main Street, tasting appetizers and sampling treats provided by the business owner. Catering staff then serve the community at the last stop, the Opera House. After dessert, a bus drives diners around town to show off the Christmas spectacle of decorated homes and businesses.

Main Street – A Mainstay

“We used to have to explain Main Street to volunteers and members of the community. Now they call us to ask if we need anything,” says Barrow. Volunteers are integral to any Main Street program, and this is no less the case in Bonaparte. Among all of Iowa’s Rural Main Street programs, Bonaparte places fifth in total donated volunteer hours, despite having the smallest population of any program, averaging 3,236 volunteer hours for each year the program has operated, while the next largest town (with a population of 1,055) averaged more than a thousand fewer hours per year. “We can’t keep track of every time someone bakes something for an event, but it’s so much. We wouldn’t have a program if it weren’t for our volunteers.”

Bonaparte Main Street has become a local celebrity among nonprofits in southeast Iowa. It has fostered local business, attracted new businesses and organizations, created jobs, and rehabilitated and renovated its buildings. Bonaparte Main Street also helped the Villages Folk School obtain its 501(c)(3) status while bolstering community involvement. The town’s anchors – Township Stores, The Bonaparte Inn, The Bonaparte Retreat, The Opera House, and The Pottery have all thrived, despite the flooding of the Des Moines River. Certainly, the other flood – the one of tourists – is one the town welcomes, for helping a wave of town pride and a lasting culture of reinvestment.