CANTRIL, Iowa — Outside Dutchman's Store, Division Street is packed with parked vehicles. Black, horse-drawn Amish buggies rest beside a more colorful collection of pickups and cars.
In its weekly flier, the store bills itself as "an old-time general store," but it could just as accurately be described as an authentic slice of living history.
"Aren't they cute," a woman exclaimed as she walked past two young Amish children patiently waiting in a shopping cart as their father paused beside a selection of Christian books inside the store. There was no begging for sweets, even though barrels of hard candies, priced at just 99 cents a pound, sat temptingly just across the aisle, near a selection of rubber boots.
The children simply reflected this area. Neat. Orderly. Polite.
Cantril is one of the 12 tiny communities that the local tourist office markets as the "Villages of Van Buren." Situated in the southeast corner of Iowa, Van Buren County's communities measure their populations in double and triple digits. Keosauqua, the county seat and home to what is billed as Iowa's oldest continually operating courthouse, almost reaches the 1,000 mark. At last count its population was 999.
There isn't a single stoplight in the whole county. There are, however, plenty of yellow-and-black signs reminding motorists to "share the road" with slow-moving buggies. The "horse apples" scattered along nearly every road provide a more graphic reminder.
Just five hours from Chicago, the villages offer a wealth of ways in which to turn back the clock to a time when craftspeople made wooden furniture by hand and taking the family out for supper didn't break the bank. Fall, when the lanes are awash in color and pumpkins adorn the front porch at Dutchman's, is a wonderful time to visit (Dutchman's Store, 319-397-2322, dutchmansstore.com).
There's no "best way" to experience the villages. They're scattered across a county that's diagonally bisected by the ambling Des Moines River. There are gems to be discovered around nearly every bend in the road.
Take, for example, Iron & Lace (319-592-3222, ironandlace.com), a charming shop in the National Historic District in tiny Bentonsport. Bill and Betty Printy sell his creative iron work, forged in the back room, while Betty sells her weavings and pieces of pottery, each with a delicate Queen Anne's Lace flower pressed into the clay. Betty's a native, having grown up just across the river in South Bentonsport.
"We had only 20 people over there. Over here, we have 40," she said with a laugh.
Despite their remote location, during a single week in October 2012, visitors from Germany, Scandinavia and Zimbabwe found their way to the Printys' gallery. In the slower months, the couple teach classes in raku pottery and blacksmithing.
"It's not a performance. This is how we make our living," Bill said.
Cross the river and head 21 miles west to reach Milton, another sleepy burg that's worth the drive because it's home to a small, award-winning cheese factory run by a family of Mennonites.
Prairie Breeze from Milton Creamery (641-656-4094, miltoncreamery.com) is among the finest mature cheddar to be found anywhere. Sold in specialty shops in the Chicago area and elsewhere, the cheese is truly world-class, having won top honors at competitions held by the American Cheese Society, Britain's Guild of Fine Food and others.
"It's just our own recipe," general manager Rufus Musser said humbly, while politely declining to share the secret for his cheddar's success.
Visitors probably will need a map to find Yoder's Indian Creek Furniture, along a hilly road about four miles north of Cantril. Being Amish, the Yoders don't have a phone, email or website. The shop's brochure, available in other businesses across the county, contains directions.
Eldon Yoder minds the store while his sons, Mark and Paul, use mostly hand tools to craft cabinets and furniture from cherry, maple, red oak and other native timber. Many of their products are made to order, though there's a representative selection in the store. Just don't plan to visit on a Sunday, when Yoder's and many other businesses are closed.
Likewise, while crisscrossing the country roads, don't plan to drive through a McDonald's to grab a quick bite to eat. There isn't a single fast-food place in the whole county. To most visitors, who feel they've entered a time warp when they arrive here, that's part of the charm.
Overnight visitors might enjoy the "steamboat gothic" architecture of the Hotel Manning B&B and Motor Inn in Keosauqua. Built in 1899 on the banks on the Des Moines River, it features 16 antique-furnished rooms, plus another 19 in the adjoining motor inn. (800-728-2718; tinyurl.com/manningbandb; rates start at $49 for a shared bath.)
In a county with just 7,500 residents, restaurants are understandably scarce. But a dependable, year-round eatery can be found on the riverbank in the hamlet of Bonaparte.
The cleverly named Bonaparte Retreat (319-293-3232, bonaparteretreat.com) occupies the historic Meek's Flour Mill, erected in 1878 during a time when grist, lumber and woolen mills were powered by water wheels on the Des Moines. The mill is one of several 19th-century buildings in the village's inviting downtown.
The restaurant is a popular gathering spot for folks from both Iowa and nearby Missouri who travel miles for tasty, plentiful portions at rock-bottom prices. The hearty one-half fried chicken dinner sells for $10.75. The "huge Windsor chop," a whopper of a pork dinner, will keep even visitors with big appetites sated the whole way home. Its price, $12.78, is as quaint and appealing as the rest of the county.
Details of attractions and accommodations in the Villages of Van Buren are available online (villagesofvanburen.com) or by calling 319-293-7111.