Midwest Living Review
Autumn's perennial superstar--brilliant color--fills valleys and rings farm fields along gravel and asphalt roads connecting the "Villages of Van Buren County." But drivers slow down for little things: The curl of a river's misty blanket at sunrise. The angle of a potter's fingers on clay. The art of local cheese or Amish furniture. The deliberate style of a local band playing "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain" on a Sunday afternoon with no hint of hurry. Most fall weekends find the county fairly quiet. But during the Scenic Drive Festival, towns like Bentonsport, Keosauqua and Bonaparte swell comfortably with crafters, pancake feeds, pedal tractor races, fur-trade reenactors and old-time medicine shows. Even in fall color's high season, though, popular stops work up all the bustle of a church picnic. To be fair, it is possible to wait in line in Van Buren County. For the festival weekend, it's wise to book a room at one of the handful of inns a few weeks in advance. And on Saturday night, it might take an hour to get a table at the Bonaparte Retreat, a restaurant in an old grist mill that feels like the honest version of Cracker Barrel's franchised folksiness. But delays are often gifts in Bonaparte (population: 450). They're a chance to browse crafts tents left open outside or to drive 4 miles to Bentonsport (population: 50) and catch sunset from the pedestrian bridge spanning the Des Moines River. By day, Bentonsport offers Van Buren County's best impression of celebrity-driven frenzy. Tourists pile out of buses at Betty Printy's lowslung wooden shop to watch her long fingers mold whirling clay into signature pots decorated with Queen Anne's lace. Then the crowds file into a blacksmith shop to see her husband, Bill, (the other half of the Iron & Lace tandem) hammer glowing iron into his own ornate art. During the Scenic Drive Festival, a few hundred people mill around Betty's outdoor potter'swheel and Greef's General Store next door. Occasionally, somebody stirs up the party by yanking the bell rope in the old Presbyterian church on the hill. Busy season or not, calling crows and chattering squirrels provide the only noise on scores of hiking trails threading through the colored woods of Lacey-Keosauqua State Park andShimek State Forest. The Des Moines River laps at sandbars at Ely Ford, where Mormon emigrantwagons crossed on their way west in 1846 and today hikers look for freshwater clamshells.