Wandering Iowa: Villages of Van Buren, covered bridges

“I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa.”

The quote belongs to Grant Wood, the Iowa artist whose “American Gothic” pitchfork couple and other paintings freeze scenes of rural life in what outsiders not-so-fondly refer to as “flyover country.”

How easy it is to dismiss what we don’t know.

Explore rural Iowa if you appreciate simplicity and stillness, see value in heartland sensibilities and hard work, find beauty in tidiness and the homespun. Nine-tenths of the state’s land is devoted to agriculture, especially corn and soybeans, helping to feed the world.

Factor in yellow hickorys and maples, purple ashes, red oaks. Another autumn of changing colors means time for one more road trip before the last leaves fall and first frost arrives.

So hug the Mississippi, south this time, then veer west before the Iowa-Missouri border, for an introduction to the Villages of Van Buren County. The area, whose population totals 7,570, markets 12 burgs as one and is proud that it lacks stoplights and fast-food businesses.

“We are not backward. We are laid back.” That’s one motto for the quietly resolved area, which had much Underground Railroad traffic during the Civil War era because Iowa was a free state, and Missouri was not.

Amish and Mennonite communities live here today. So do artists and artisans whose work is inspired by rural living. That makes these destinations worth a stop:

Bentonsport is an artists’ village with a deep reverence for folk arts. Around 20 locals and visitors teach more than 100 classes per year. Think broom making, basket weaving, barn quilt painting, chair caning and more. villagesfolkschool.com, 319-288-0047

“This isn’t a performance,” says Bill Printy, a blacksmith who takes time to chat. “It’s how we make our living.”

He and wife Betty, a potter who teaches, operate Iron and Lace. Across the road is Bennett Studio, whose many sculptures by Chris Bennett include public memorials, monuments and other works on commission.

Bonaparte Retreat is a restaurant and gift shop in a converted grist mill on the Des Moines River. It’s the kind of place where the daily special might be creamed chicken over biscuits, and you’re wise to save room for pie. Marie Hainline, a waitress who turned 94 this month, has no shortage of Facebook fans.

The restaurant is part of Bonaparte’s Riverfront District, on the National Register of Historic Places, and the village bills itself as having the nation’s smallest Main Street. bonaparte-iowa.com, bonaparteretreat.com, 319-592-3339

Dutchman’s Store, Cantril, is a massive retail outlet for Amish and other products. What began as a small country store, as the website explains, now “contains pretty much everything you’d need to run a small farm or homestead.”

The owner, a Mennonite man, speaks the Pennsylvania Dutch German dialect, which explains the store name. After opening in the 1980s, a little playpen was set up in the store window for his sons, who are now part-owners of the business. The founder’s sister does the baking, which includes many pies and breads.

Dutchman’s is a combination grocery, hardware and five-and-dime store, selling birdhouses and rocking chairs, fabrics and practical clothing, bulk ingredients for cooking, fresh and canned Amish-made goods. The building, which was expanded more than once, is almost big enough to get lost. dutchmansstore.com, 319-397-2322

Five miles west is Milton Creamery, whose Prairie Breeze Cheese – a cheddar – is 90 percent of the business and a winner of top national and world cheese awards. Co-owner Rufus “Junior” Musser IV readily admits it’s harder to sell the $16 per pound cheese to the locals than high-end retailers in Chicago and New York City. Flory’s Truckle, a one-year-old and cloth-bound cheddar, goes for $30 per pound. miltoncreamery.com, 641-656-4094

The biggest organized party at the Villages of Van Buren is the family-friendly Scenic Drive Festival, Oct. 14-15. That involves dozens of special activities: tours of historic sites and cemeteries, craft and flea markets, hands-on entertainment for children and lots of down-home cooking (Amish dinner buffets, bake sales, themed luncheons). For details: villagesofvanburen.com, 319-293-7111

Here is another reason to get acquainted with rural Iowa during the same weekend. Roughly three hours west of Van Buren County is the annual Covered Bridge Festival in Madison County. Most of the Oct. 14-15 events happen in Winterset, population 5,200 and home to the Iowa Quilt Museum and John Wayne Museum (next to the movie star cowboy’s birthplace).

Madison County’s covered bridges were made famous by Iowa author Robert James Waller’s 1992 book, “The Bridges of Madison County,” which was a springboard for the 1995 movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. Since then, vandals damaged one of the six covered bridges.

For more about the festival and other reasons to visit: madisoncounty.com, 515-462-1185