The sun shone brightly on Iowa fields that morning. The farther south we drove, the more leaf color we saw. The hundred and twelve miles was fairly flat land and smaller villages except for Fairfield, a college town. The two hours flew by as we enjoyed looking at the scenic route.
The visitors guide 2010 says "Keosauqua, the county seat, (pop. 1066) is the largest village in Van Buren County. It is located in the center of the county within the horseshoe bend of the Des Moines River. Keosauqua is a community of friendly neighbors with small town hospitality." I couldn’t have said that better myself.
The courthouse is the oldest in Iowa and on the National Register of Historic Places. Second oldest in the country. In 1846, the courthouse was the scene of the first legal death sentencing and hanging in Iowa. Don’t know when the town was founded but that tells me some time around 1846.
Van Buren Hospital is a much needed medical benefit to everyone as all our small hospitals are. The building was filled with friendly staff, and volunteers manned a table to greet the visitors at the door. The grounds were neatly groomed with trees and flowers beds, many of which had stones with the names the spots were dedicated to.
The health fair tables were spread out from one end of the building to the other down the maze of halls. Women came, interested in information about diseases that will or have affected them. Plus, there were other businesses doing therapy, massages, selling children books, nutrition drinks and much more. I had a drawing for one of my books. The addresses on the papers in my basket proved women were willing to drive some distance to attended this annual event.
Now step out of this modern hospital and tour the town. I loved that Keosauqua has preserved buildings that must have been some of the first built when the town was settled in the 1800’s. By now a lot of small towns historic buildings have been torn down to make way for progress.
We drove down a street headed east and watched a fisherman unload his boat into the Des Moines River’s fast curant right in front of us. We turned the corner. That street ran between the river and century or better old Riverbend hotel with a porch on the end that was built around the front of the building as well. If the long modern bridge hadn’t been in view, I might have expected a riverboat to slowly round the bend and trappers in canoes gliding over to dock. Coming to town to sell their bundle of furs in the back of the boat. Perhaps, women, in their finery, holding onto a parasol and paper fan sat on the porch, waiting to go up the gang plank of that riverboat for a ride back home.
We turned back west and drove along the front of the hotel. The long porch is held up with porch posts from back in the day. A picture flashed through my head of elderly bearded gents sitting on benches. Some smoking a pipe and others spitting amber in the dirt street (that used to be there) from the chewing tobacco in their jaws as they watched the younger generations move about town energetically.
Another neat sight was a church that looked like it should have been in Little House On The Prairie. The tower on the side of the church held a bell, rusted from all the years it tolled in inclement elements. Another building was the Farmers Creamery, long closed and perhaps part of the extension office built on the back. A reminder that this was a farming community then and now. At one time all over the country, farmers separated the cream from the milk and brought the cream into the Creamery to sell. Downtown still has that fifties look. Nothing wrong with that for a person like me that likes the familiar small town feel.
We were too early for the health fair, because we hadn’t expected to get to Keosauqua so quickly. By the time, we set up our table it was lunch time. I asked for a place to eat. Several choices of restaurants were suggested, but all of those were much the same menus that we can get at home. The one that interested me was Billy Ray’s Smokehouse just because I love fried catfish.
The interior decorating looks new. Dark brown booths, a dark red wall and the rest white or cream. Two of the lights hanging down over tables had round wash tubs painted bright red for shades.
We’d quietly entered Billy Ray’s behind another couple. They sat on one side the room and we sat in a booth on the other. In a minute or two, the two waitresses spotted they had customers. We barely glanced at the menu since we knew what we wanted. Fried CATFISH. The waitress suggested the smoked barbecued chicken was good. We turned that down, because that wasn’t what we came in to eat.
And what a treat. The catfish was golden, large fillets. Taken from larger catfish than I ever catch and tastier than how the ones I fry turn out. French fries were just right, too. By the time we finished eating we were stuffed but already planning our return to Billy Ray’s before we headed for home to try another meal on the menu. I asked what time the restaurant closed. The answer was 8 p.m. "We would be ready to box up my books by 5:30" I said, thinking out loud. The waitress said, "Are you telling me you’re coming back tonight?" Why not. We had to try that smoked chicken.
The two waitresses were watching for us this time. We enjoyed visiting with them almost as much as their good meal. We said no need to hand us the menu. We were back for the smoked chicken which turned out just as delicious as the catfish. We eat out quite a bit, but we couldn’t order smoked barbecued food and though we love the walleye we eat in our area that fried catfish on the same menu would have had me flipping a coin to decided. I don’t think I could have made the decision about which fish to order on my own. As a side, we had the special for the night - fried potatoes and onions.
We promised to come back sometime soon. With all the interesting sights to see in the visitors guide the waitress gave me, we can spend a day going from one small town to the next. Just so we end up at Billy Ray’s for meals.