By Joann M. Ringelstetter
Last year, on our spring photography trip, Ruth and I visited the town of Bonaparte, Iowa, which has a large riverfront historic district along the Des Moines River. Because many of the buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, I decided to just walk the district with my camera and tripod. I started in the center of the district, photographing the brick post office building, which was originally the Bonaparte State Bank and Masonic Lodge #73.
This building had something I always love to see on old brick buildings: a decorative star-shaped anchor plate. Anchor plates, also called wall washers, are connected to tie rods for the purpose of reinforcing the structure of masonry buildings.
I continued east on First Street, which runs parallel to the river. Most of the buildings on this street are on the National Register, such as this old-fashioned hardware store.
The Whiteley Opera House, built circa 1894, is also on the National Register. It was rebuilt after the original Haney Opera House was destroyed by fire. Seating capacity was 600.
At the end of that street, on the edge of town, was Bonaparte Pottery. This building is not only on the National Register, but it is also a National Historic Archaeological Site. It began as Parker & Hanback Pottery in 1866 and was later known as Hanback & Wilson. At its peak, the business produced over 125,000 gallons of pottery per year as well as drain pipe, flower pots, and fire-proof bricks.
There were many more historic buildings that I photographed and more I would like to have explored with my camera lens. However, it was getting late and Ruth was urging me to wrap things up so we could continue on our route. So we pulled over on a quiet street to get our logs updated with all the subjects I had captured on my walk through town.
I had the back door of the car open and I was scrolling through photos telling Ruth what to record when I was suddenly startled by a man who had come up behind me and started talking. He was wearing bib overalls, needed a shave, and was missing one of his front teeth. He said he had seen me taking photographs earlier and he asked where we were from. There was a tile blacksmith shop across the street, so I asked him if he was the blacksmith. He said he was and that he had grown up in Bonaparte in the 1950s. His name was Morris Cummings.
He told me that his grandfather, Clarence Cummings, had moved the blacksmith shop from the neighboring town of Bentonsport in the 1920s by hauling it in pieces using horses and mules. Then he asked if I had taken a picture of their public library just down the street from where we were standing. He said his parents had owned the building and had donated it to the city. It was originally a residence for the Green family and was converted to the Aunty Green Hotel in 1855 to accommodate railroad personnel.
Morris said that the hotel, which had a picturesque second-story porch, had quite a history. He hesitated for a minute and then asked, “Are you guys religious?” I said, “Are we religious? Well, we like to say we’re recovering Catholics.” He laughed and said, “Okay, then I’ll tell you the real history.”
“The Aunty Green Hotel used to be a whorehouse. I’ve got pictures of the whores hanging out on the porch. People don’t like to hear that, so I’m careful who I say that to.” I laughed and then he said, “I wish I could buy you two a drink, but the bar’s not open.” I said, “That’s okay, we have to get going anyway.” Then I shook his hand and said, “Nice meeting you, Morris Cummings. Thanks for the ‘real’ history of the hotel.” He returned to his blacksmith shop and Ruth and I went back to updating our logs.
Before we could finish our updates, Morris, who was standing in front of his blacksmith shop, started talking to me again. I told him I had to finish my log updates. He waited patiently while we finished and then struck up a conversation again. After several minutes of small talk, I told him that we really had to get going because we had a lot to photograph yet that day. I said goodbye and he lingered outside his shop until we drove away.
As we passed an old grocery store that had a ghost sign for “General Merchandise & Geyserite Soap,” and the blacksmith shop began to fade in the rearview mirror, Ruth smirked and said, “Joann’s got a boyfriend! Joann’s got a boyfriend in Bonaparte!”
And what could I do, but laugh!