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Bicycles, Buggies and Bed and Breakfast
~ Van Buren County, Iowa By Ed Chasteen
(Van Buren County, Iowa)The Lt. Governor of Iowa and his party were the first
guests to stay in the Bonaparte Inn. They were here Friday night so he
could launch a village festival Saturday morning. The festival is
winding down when Brian and I arrive about two o'clock Sunday afternoon
and check in. This handsome red brick building once housed The Fairfield
Glove factory but has sat vacant for years. Reborn just now as a 13-room
bed and breakfast with a marvelous view of the Des Moines River, this
place seems destined to fulfill the promise of a popular movie made not
far from here in an Iowa cornfield: "Build it and they will come." Only
Brian and I have come tonight. We are welcomed like royalty.
Back home in Liberty, Missouri, Rich
Groves and I have ridden our bikes on Saturday mornings for years to
nearby towns for breakfast. Once on a business trip to Iowa, Rich had
come across a flyer announcing Bike Van Buren. We had come. Again and
again. For years. We had brought friends. On the third full weekend of
August for six years we had reserved rooms in the Mason House Inn in
Bentonsport. We would drive from Liberty a hundred miles up Interstate
35 to the Leon-highway 2-exit, then a little more than another hundred
miles on highway 2 to highway 1. Turn left and three miles to W40. Turn
right and six miles to Bentonsport, a living museum town on the bank of
the Des Moines River.
Brian was badly hurt several years ago
on the MS-150 when another cyclist clipped his rear wheel and half a
dozen riders went down on top of him. He hasn't ridden much since. But
on a recent late-spring day, he and I have left his house in Lee's
Summit for our first ride in years when he says, 'I think it would be
fun to go on a week-long ride.' Over lunch in Pleasant Hill we discover
than June 25 to July 1 fits both our schedules.
Back home I spend a few days searching
the internet and talking to other bikers. I find several organized rides
that might fit. But my mind keeps coming back to Van Buren. I call the
phone number I find on their website. 'My son and I can't come in
August. We would like to come in June and ride the route by ourselves.
Could I get a copy of this year's route?'
'Sorry. We can't give out the route
early.' She says. 'Then could I get last year's route? Maybe the last
two years?' I ask. 'I'll mail them to you,' she says.
I had never spent more than two nights
in Van Buren County. Now with a week to book, I go looking on the
internet for B&Bs. Bobbie and I fell in love with bed and breakfasts
when we lived in England many years ago. We have stayed in many American
B&Bs since. I choose three in Iowa: Bonaparte Inn, Mason House and
Pedaling toward Cantrill about 2:30 on
Sunday afternoon, Brian and I see hills rolling before us and over us as
far into the distance as we can see. And hanging over the most distant
hill, an angry purple cloud coming in our direction. We stop beside the
road for a quick conference. 'If we turn back, we might beat the rain.'
I say. But the cloud moves faster than we do. We are soaked by the time
we get back to the Bonaparte Inn. By 4:30 the rain has stopped and we
take to our bikes again, bound for Farmington and back via Harmony High
'I own the antique shop up the street.
Name's Bob Hill.' We meet him in front of our B&B when we get back at 7.
'I'm 73. Moved here from Burlington four years ago. Loved the town.
Wanted to help save it. Van Buren is the poorest county in Iowa. Only
nine-thousand people in the whole county. Bonaparte has 468 people. And
we're the second biggest town in the county. A high school girl just had
a baby. One of our old guys is about to die. We hold our own.'
Bill Grunwald's mother developed
Parkinson's when Bill was two years old. By fourth grade, Bill was
helping in the kitchen. Peeling liver was his first job. 'If you don't
peel the skin off, it's tough when you cook it,' he says. Bill became a
cook in the army.
Bill was visiting his son who teaches
here back in May. He stopped in to see how the work on Bonaparte Inn was
coming. Bill met the owner. He offered to help if she ever needed a
cook. Then he went back to Wisconsin where he was head chef at a YMCA
camp. A few days later he got a call. The owner of the Bonaparte had
planned to contract with a local restaurant to do their breakfasts. But
the restaurant closed. Could he come be their cook? In short order Bill
and his wife found a house in Bonaparte and Bill found his replacement
at the Y.
The breakfast he sets before us would
be the envy of Bretons in old New Orleans. Bill's mother gave birth to a
master chef. The owner of this place should send that failed restaurant
owner a thank you note. Bill in the kitchen is more than an ace in the
hole. His breakfasts alone are reason enough to seek out this place. The
rustic and rural yet state of the art ambiance of the place if widely
known would fill every room most every night.
Mason House B&B in Bentonsport is our
home Monday and Tuesday nights. We drive the three miles from Bonaparte
to Bentonsport Monday morning and leave Brian's back-up bike there. It's
the one he rides around home, heavy and wide-tired. We have brought my
two Trek touring bikes. His we will use only if necessary.
After leaving one bike at the Mason
House, we strap the other two onto Brian's car and drive nine miles into
Keosauqua, to the city park where all Bike Van Buren rides begin. No one
is in when we stop by the Bike Van Buren office in the county
courthouse. And the antique shop, which a sign in the office directs us
to for visitor information, is closed on Monday. So we find ourselves at
Misty's Malt Shop, just across the street from the park. The woman on
duty gives us friendly and detailed instructions on how we get to Douds
and Selma, ending with the words that for us are often out of place:
'You can't miss it.'
We make it out of town on highway 1 as
she said we should. As we come to the hospital, I'm riding ahead and
looking for J40, where we are to turn left. I remember she said
something about the hospital. Maybe she said just past the hospital we
would turn. We have ridden several miles before I figure we've gone too
far to be just past. But the road is good, little traffic, great
weather. We pedal on. Until we come to a sign. Birmingham is 3 miles
straight ahead on highway1. Eldon is 16 miles to our left. I can't find
Eldon on the Van Buren County map I picked up at the courthouse. We head
'Used to eighty acres would take care
of a family. Now one man takes care of a thousand.' Thus does retired
farmer and life-long area resident Rex Overstreet, catch in two
sentences the dynamic at work in this part of the country for half a
century, whereby thriving country towns have become shells of their
Stockport sits one and a half miles
from Rex's at the intersection of J16 and W30. 'Once had three or four
hundred people, three saloons, two grocery stores, a bank and other
businesses. Now, except for pop machines on the street, you can't even
get a drink in the place.' Says Rex.
But for that sudden rainstorm, we
would never have met Rex. Brian and I had just eaten a sandwich at the
Jet Stop in Birmingham. We had pedaled into town right at noon, looking
for a place to eat. We spotted the Jet Stop right off. Lots of cars and
people coming and going. We decided to ride around town to see what
other choices might be available. The few streets revealed none. Back we
As we leave Birmingham, the sign on
J16 says 7 miles to Stockport. A cloud suddenly appears. Then light
rain. But up the road I see sheets of rain coming our way. I spot a big
tree and a white farm house about 200 yards ahead off to our left.
'Let's head for that tree,' I yell to Brian, who is riding some 20 yards
ahead. We are standing under the tree when we hear a voice. 'Come in
this house out of the rain.' We sprint up the gravel driveway and hurry
into the house. Rex and his three-year old grand daughter welcome us.
Rex's wife, Jean, comes a little later.
Rex's 94 year old mother lives alone
on the old home place a few miles away. His dad died in 1978. 'Bad
heart!' Rex says. Then Rex's brother ran the farm. Until the tractor
turned over and killed him. He was 38. Of the seven children born to
Rex's mother, four have died. 'Funeral Director said he had never buried
four sons before the mother.' Rex tell us. 'That must have been hard on
you mother,' I say. 'It was. But she's tough,' Rex says.
The rain comes in torrents as we talk.
The sound on the roof conjures memories of my childhood. After 20
minutes or so the rain stops. When we come to Stockport, I spot a Pepsi
machine beside what looks to be a vacant building to my left. We turn
right onto W30. We see Citizen's Bank on our left. It still looks
prosperous, though we see no one about. The front door of the Post
Office is open. We stop for directions. As we pedal off, we spot another
Pepsi machine. The front door of City Hall stands open.
Ritzanna Kunzman had four classmates
when she graduated high school in Selma in 1954. The town had several
hundred people, a post office, a bank, grocery store. Selma now has some
55 people, no post office, no grocery. A Pepsi machine the only
Ritzanna went off to the University of Iowa in Ames, met and married
Duane Seaton, became a nurse and moved around the country for 32 years
in her several professional positions. She retired in 1995 and moved
back to the farmhouse she grew up in. A long gravel road runs alongside
the Des Moines River before turning right and ascending a long hill to
the house, surrounded when I see it by hundreds of acres of corn so
brilliantly green I expect a baseball field to appear.
Grant Wood chose a farmhouse near
Eldon, Iowa as the focal point of his American Gothic, his much mimicked
masterpiece of American painting. Ritzanna leads Brian and me to Eldon
today. She's riding the Trek she rode across the country in 2000. I'm
riding the Trek I rode in 1987 from Orlando to Seattle to Anaheim. Brian
is riding the Trek I bought some 18 months ago when I retired my
road-weary one. For this Iowa ride, though, I took it down off the hook
in my garage so Brian could ride my new one and leave his heavy hybrid
Ritzanna and I met in 1998 when Rich
and I came to Iowa for the Villages of Van Buren ride. Selma is one of
the villages in Van Buren County, and Ritzanna is a regular on this
Van Buren County has not attracted
McDonald's or Wal-Mart or any of their aspiring rivals. Diners and
shoppers must choose from a limited number of local purveyors. Roadsides
have no competing signs to lure uncertain consumers. Folks who live here
know who has what and where to find it. Convenience is not at home here.
Brigadoon is a magical place in the
Scottish highlands that appears only once every hundred years. When
Tommy from America chances to be there once when it does, he is smitten
by its charms. If he is still there when night falls, he will go to
sleep with them and awake in a hundred years, which, to all who live in
Brigadoon, is a normal night. Driving 200 miles from our homes in
Liberty and Lee's Summit to this place brings us as near to Brigadoon as
we likely will ever come.
The Amish have come to Van Buren
County in Ritzanna's lifetime. We are a few miles from Keosauqua at
mid-morning on Wednesday when we see an Amish couple coming from their
garden toward the fruit stand set up in their front yard. The buckets of
beans and berries we see wouldn't last long in my panniers. But the jars
of jam will travel well. Blackberry is my choice.
I guess the husband and wife to be in
their mid-forties. He has a full beard. She wears a long dress and a
bonnet. Their two daughters about nine and 11 are modestly dressed,
polite and quiet. He tells me he has 25 acres. He can't make a living on
his place. He manages a nearby farm belonging to a non-Amish. 'I get a
monthly check,' he says.
His dad bought a farm in Van Buren
County in 1973. He estimates there are 65 Amish families in the county.
When I ask if I could take his picture, he asks me not to.
Up the road a short distance, Ritzanna
notices the door to the furniture maker's is open. When we rode by
yesterday it was closed. 'If it's open, they don't mind if you drop in,'
she had said.
'Hello,' I yell at the open door. No
one answers. 'Hello!' No response. We're about to leave when a barefoot
woman comes from the garden and ushers us inside. She and her husband
bought this two-acre piece of ground seven years ago and built a new
house two years ago. Her husband builds furniture at the request of area
folks. She estimates that 20 Amish families live nearby.
The Amish school sits a few hundred
yards up the road at an intersection of two paved road. Many of the
intersecting roads we have seen are gravel. Yesterday while we were
stopped at the little café that sits katty-corner from the school, we
saw three young Amish girls coming down the intersecting road toward us.
They turned at the intersection and rode past us. The middle one waved
to us as they trotted their horse. The open air surrey they were riding
had no back. How they maintained their balance and kept from tumbling
backwards is a mystery.
By all odds Marian and Brian should never have met. Ritzanna and I made
up our route this morning after we met at 9 o'clock in the park in
Keosauqua. She thought we would get to Mt. Sterling by lunchtime and
would eat there. She mentions several possible routes out of Keosauqua
I choose the route through
Lacey-Keosauqua State Park, a 1600 acre wooded masterpiece of Mormon
history and Great Depression era stone buildings of CCC origin. We fly
down a few hills at the entrance and grind our way in granny up a long
and winding road. An ascent like this is not well placed early in a ride
when nerves and muscles are not yet in sync and the night's sleep still
lingers. When at last we are at the top, we stand for long minutes,
gasping air and gulping water.
We stop for pictures at the Mormon
River Crossing and for Ritzanna'a history lessons at several spots. Then
the Amish fruit stand, the Amish furniture maker, the crossroads store
and several other anonymous and impromptu stops along the way. And by
noon we are still miles from Mt. Sterling. Precisely at high noon we
roll into Milton. I stop to snap Brian's picture in front of the post
office, proof that we were really here.
Ritzanna disappears into the American
Legion Hall across the street. Momentarily she emerges and motions to us
to come. 'I didn't call here this morning,' she says. 'I thought about
it. But I thought we would be here earlier. But they can work us in for
Every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and
Friday, area seniors come here for lunch. We get our food and follow
Ritzanna to a table with three open seats.
'I live in Selma,' she tells the three
other people at our table. 'I'm riding today with my friends from
Missouri. One is from Liberty and one from Lee's Summit.'
'Did you say Liberty?' The woman at
the far end of the table asks. 'I graduated from Liberty High School in
'Really?' Brian asks. 'I graduated
from Liberty in 1980.' Thus do Marian Epperson and Brian Chasteen
discover they graduated from the same high school-47 years apart.
'How many were in your graduating
class?' Brian asks.
'Eighty,' Marian says. 'There would
have been more. But algebra did 'em in. We had a young teacher who was
really hard. She just died about a year ago. She was over 100.'
'You know who she's talking about,
Brian?' I'm shouting at this point. Everyone in the room, even allowing
for hearing loss, must hear me. 'She's talking about Irene LaFrenz.'
Marian nods. 'I taught with her
husband at William Jewell,' I tell her. 'We went to the same church.' We
stay for a long while to visit with Marian Epperson Arnold and her
husband of 67 years. She's 91. He's 93. 'She followed me home.' he says
when we ask how they met.
To get to Mt. Sterling we bypass the
left exit off highway 2 that would take us back to Keosauqua. Up 2
several hundred yards we then turn right. Into the hills. The four miles
of hills from 2 to Mt. Sterling end with a steep and winding descent. We
leave the pavement to walk our bikes down a gravel road into the
village. Here we find A.J.'s Bar and Grill that looks out over wetlands
stretching to the Missouri border about a mile away.
We have ordered ice tea and chicken
strips and Brian has played country western on the juke box when a big
man in faded blue jeans walks in. 'Jo Hamlett,' Ritzanna exclaims in
delight. 'I wanted these folks to meet you. And here you are.' To us she
says, 'Jo writes a column in our county paper. It's the first thing most
For the next few minutes Jo regales us
with a true life tale of a visit to Mt. Sterling about three years back
by NBC, ABC, the BBC, the Today Show and Good Morning America. It all
started when Jo proposed a village ordinance against lying at council
Jo reckons Mt. Sterling's population
at 49, smaller by far from his childhood and school days here. 'Towns
around started loosing people when they graveled the roads back in the
50s. When all the roads were mud, folks couldn't go far.'
Jo himself went far. He's back now in
retirement on the old home place. His status as an A.J.'s regular is
signaled by the big glass of ice tea that appears on the bar nearest our
table. Without a word, Jo collects it and brings it to our table, takes
a powder from his shirt pocket and stirs it into his tea.
A.J.'s frontier ambiance is not
subtle. Animal skins adorn the walls. A stuffed beaver sits just inside
the door. The skull of a horned animal hangs on a far wall. A photograph
of a band of Indians hangs on the back wall. The caption reads. Homeland
Security-1492. The jukebox has no highbrow music.
We are standing on the porch ready to
push our bikes up the gravel hill when I spot Santa Claus in worn
overalls climbing out of a big truck. He clutches a blue cooler in his
left hand and walks toward us.'Hello,' I say. 'Hi,' he responds. 'Thanks
for coming. My name's Tim. I own this place.' 'What happened to AJ?' I
ask. 'I bought the place from him. I used to be a long-haul trucker. Now
just local. This is home.'
We ride over the line this morning.
Between Birmingham and Fairfield, a distance of just eight miles on
highway 1, we cross from Van Buren to Jefferson County. Parsons College
closed in Fairfield in 1973. The campus is now home to Maharishi
University of Management and a community of Transcendental Meditation
practitioners. On 100 acres a few miles from town the TMers have built
Vedic City, an attractive place of yellow domed buildings. The
vegetarian menu today features Mexican food and a mango drink. The place
is packed with an eclectic assortment of dress and a wide range of ages.
With more people than all of Van Buren
County, Fairfield attracts shoppers from miles around. Our third riding
day with Ritzanna draws to a close as we arrive back at the Jet Stop in
Birmingham where we started this morning. She straps her bike to her
car. 'I have to drive back to Fairfield for milk and bread before I go
home,' she says. 'Watch out for the deer,' Brian jokes. Ritzanna's car
is dented from the three times she has hit deer. She laughs. 'In the
daytime, they're not a problem.'
Misty's Malt Shop in Keosauqua has
become our defacto staging area. We are soon back. 'You find your way
the other day?' It's the lady behind the counter who asks. The one who
was here the first day and told us where to find J40, just by the
hospital. 'You gave great directions. We had a great ride.' From that
reply she likely can't tell that we missed the turn.
After spending Monday and Tuesday
nights at the Mason House B&B in Bentonsport, Brian and I load our bikes
on his car and drive to our home in Keosauqua for the next two nights.
From the description of the Grand View B&B on the internet, I'm anxious
to see the place. High on a bluff overlooking the Des Moines River, this
handsome brick house with seven bathrooms and six baths cost $450,000 to
build in 1975 as a private residence. The man who had it built owned and
operated the grain elevator in Stockport. He was a generous
philanthropist for local causes and a much-admired man. Auditors showed
up one day for a surprise audit. He shot himself. The elevator failed.
Farmers lost money, Ritzanna's family among them.
Bill and Mickey were looking to
downsize from their 2500 square feet when they came upon this house. One
loved the three-car garage. The other loved the view. So now their house
had 8500 square feet. Opening a B&B was not in their plans. But friends
and family were attracted to this grand view. Might as well charge for
Am I ever glad! One of the many bends
in the river can be seen from inside the house and from the sun deck
along the back of the house. Wooded hillsides along both sides of the
river frame the blue serpentine waters as only nature can do. Sitting in
such a setting melts away thoughts of any other place or other activity.
The words of an old church song come to mind: 'I've got peace like a
river in my soul.'
Which comes first I do not know. Do
B&Bs attract people with a need to visit with one another? Or does being
at a B&B bring out a need that anyone in this setting would have? How it
all begins I will never know. But that it always works I know for a
When Brian and I arrive at the Grand
View and call out, 'We're here,' a male and a female voice in unison
respond, 'Come on in.' Mickey is seated in her recliner. Bill is
standing at her side. A couple sits on the leather couch across the
room. A man sits on the couch just in front of Mickey. A young man
stands near the bookcase. We quickly know their names, where they're
from and what brings them here. They know the same of us. Bill comes
with a plate of fresh, home made cookies and a soft drink. We all sit
Ganish is from India. He is living and
working here in Keosauqua for a few months. It was his bicycle we had
seen in the yard. He uses it to go back and forth to his job. He didn't
have a car in India. He mentioned to town folks that he rode a bike.
They got one for him. He didn't think to tell them that his bike in
India had a motor.
The couple on the couch is from New
Jersey. His name is Russ; hers is Debbie. They have been married eight
years. They were friends and colleagues at the same company for years.
After Russ's wife died of cancer, their mutual friends began to invite
them places as a couple. Then they became one.
Ronald is the man sitting on the
couch. He is a retired farmer with four grown sons. He was an avid skier
and traveler until a hip replacement put a crimp in his style. But only
a crimp. Like Russ and Debbie, Ron is here for the Barn Tour that takes
place tomorrow. With a busload of other folks who have sent in their
$60.00, they will visit Iowa barns.
During our two days here we will see
these folks often. And not just here at the house. Ron is having dinner
at George's Steakhouse one night when we arrive. He tells us what is
good. We talk for a while. Russ and Debbie show up at the Bridge
Restaurant the next night just as we arrive. We share a table.
Brian's car won't start when dinner is
over. Russ pulls his new Buick up and offers a jumpstart. We open his
hood and can't find the battery. As we stand there with both hoods up, a
man comes from the restaurant and prepares to get in his big truck
parked just by the door. 'Need help?' He asks.
Russ says, 'I was going to give him a
jump. But we can't find my battery.' 'Those new Buicks have batteries in
the trunk. I used to sell cars. I'll give you a jump.'
Next morning, Mickey has waffles,
biscuits and gravy, bacon and sausage, orange juice, coffee and fresh
fruit ready for us. Ron left for home after the barn tour yesterday.
Russ and Debbie sit at the table with us. 'Debbie is a sensory chemist,'
Russ tells us. 'She tastes everything to make sure it tastes right. I'm
in charge of shipping.' For better than an hour we linger over breakfast
and hear about the place Russ and Debbie work. Debbie estimates she
tastes 125 different flavors every day, including one for dog food. Her
company makes food additives for untold national brands. She loves her
job and is good at it.
While we're eating, Mickey's daughter
comes for her home in a nearby town with her two small children and
their big dog. Mickey introduces everybody to everybody. The dog greets
everyone. Like being home. We hate to leave. But we have promises to
keep. And miles to ride before we sleep.
But Brian's car won't start. Mickey
notices and calls Bill. He's a manager in a nearby plant and has to be
on the job at 5:30 in the morning. We haven't seen him at breakfast. He
appears shortly in his pickup and jumps our car. We're on the road
again, thanks to our fourth jumpstart in less than a day.
>From Sunday morning when we left
Liberty until 3 o'clock Thursday afternoon when we finished our ride,
Brian's car performed flawlessly. And in style. On two days Brian got
back to the car long before I did. As I came riding up, he had all the
doors open so it would cool and was playing a CD of my favorite songs
from the 1950s. But when we leave Misty's Malt Shop and get to the car
near 4 o'clock on Thursday, it won't start. We have the hood up and
jumper cables in hand, when a young man eating an ice cream cone walks
up. 'Need a jump?' He asks. 'I can help.' He returns momentarily in an
18-wheeler and pulls up beside us.
Then last night Bill jumped us so we
could go to dinner. The guy at the Bridge jumped us after dinner. Then
Bill again this morning. We leave the motor running while we gas up in
Keosauqua for the drive home. We don't plan to stop on the way. But when
we try to back up in the Wendy's parking lot in Cameron, the car dies. I
run to a nearby car and explain our need. Another Good Samaritan.
We are home by four o'clock as
planned. As I learn later, my 10-year old grand daughter, Laura, is
expecting me and anxious to hear my stories. We ride bikes together. She
thinks I'm precious. She told me so when she was three. Now she wants to
be at my house when I get home. She asks her mother, my daughter,
Debbie, if they can come. 'We haven't been invited,' Debbie says. Laura
puts her hands on her hips, draws herself us and says, 'Mom, it's Nana
and Papa. We don't have to be invited.'
In Thornton Wilder's play, Our Town,
Emily asks, 'Does anyone ever realize life as they live it, every single
Thanks to family and friends I come
Ed Chasteen HateBusters,
Box 442, Liberty
Missouri 64069 816-781-6431 | 816-803-7371
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