Family Adventures · Southeast Iowa · Unincorporated Iowa

Haunted, Juicy, Fishy, & Squeaky: Van Buren Village Hopping-Part 3


The Villages of Van Buren County, Iowa:

There’s a constant when it comes to Team Goodvin. We road trip and we road trip and we road trip again. Not so far from our Hills headquarters is Van Buren County. Just a little over an hour from the Iowa City area. We love to eat, take in history, recreate, and locate some of the most classic Iowa folks we can find. The Villages of Van Buren County has plenty of these opportunities. The best of what you’re looking for may just be in Van Buren County. How about something haunted, juicy, squeaky…

Let’s start with “Juicy” with legendary “Ass Kick’n” burger at First Street Grille in Keosauqua! (Click on the pictures for descriptions)

The First Street Grille (FSG) in Keosauqua is not only a great place to eat but turning into a legendary Iowa establishment. FSG has placed in the top ten for having the best burgers in the state of Iowa for several years in a row. We all look for road trip material, so here’s your bait! We ordered the Ass Kick’n Burger. A juicy burger with breaded jalapenos, pepper jack cheese, and their own Ass Kick’n sauce. Whoooo-wee! That wasn’t the only thing we ordered. Along with the burger came the pulled pork sliders. Did you think these would be small sandwiches when you read the word “sliders.” So did we. FSG didn’t get the memo with the slider definition because these three little piggies were packed with BBQ’d goodness! Literally dripping with sweet, smoky, meat flavor. I like FSG’s version of an appetizer. We were more than pleased with our meal and company at FSG. We saved some room for a little dessert just down the street. However, the folks at Misty’s Malt Shop don’t know the meaning of “little”. Even when you order something small. One vanilla malt, and a soft-serve cone that nearly ate my daughter. A complimentary wheel barrel would have been  nice.

As we paid our bill we asked some locals about some unique places to explore in Van Buren County. We heard some great ideas including many of the main attractions. We also picked up on another theme for the day. “I’ve heard one of the lake’s around here is haunted.” This caught our attention…Naturally.

I hear something squeaky but it’s not the ghost in the closet. It’s…..CHEESE from Milton Creamery!

Ever wonder what the inside of a snake sounds like when its swallowing a live mouse. I always have? Thanks to fresh cheese curds, I think I have a pretty good idea. That’s right, cheese lovers. The squeakier the better. And you can hear the fresh cheese Milton Creamery has to offer. They not only posses some great curds but have THEE BEST White Cheddar in America! Milton Creamery’s Prairie Breeze is absolutely one of the best cheeses in the country and highly regarded by cheese mongers, chefs, and connoisseurs everywhere. Calcium crystals that form in the aging process of this Cheddar gives it a unique flavor and texture unmatched by anyone else. Milton Creamery’s cheeses can be found in many places in Iowa and Midwest, but there’s something about getting right from their facility in Van Buren County. Shake that hand that makes the cheese is what I always say. At least now I do.

By the way…You hear about that 900 lbs catfish..I mean 90 lbs…I mean 9 lbs…I mean that filet I bought from the store? Mount Sterling is one of the best places in the Midwest and you better watch what you say. They outlawed lying in Mount Sterling. Probably a good thing for an area that brings in angler and hunters from all over the country and world.

We rolled into Mount Sterling and you could see right away that the hunting and fishing culture is the number one player in town. Mount Sterling may have had its “hay-day” many years ago, but gone is the railroad hub and there went a major chunk of its citizens, industry, and business. That always gives us the drive to visit and to see who’s thriving and what’s keeping places like Mount Sterling on the map. And Team Goodvin found just what we were looking for. AJ’s Bar and Grill has the view, the classic Iowa food, and a crew welcoming its guests all day and all year long. From turkey season to deer season, pheasant season to duck season, and fish after HUGE fish, there’s AJ’s. The small town oasis within an outdoorsmans’ oasis. And The Iowa Gallivant isn’t the only traveling band that has discovered Mount Sterling. (The beautiful picture below, of Iowa’s iconic sandwich, comes from the premier tenderloin blog, Des Loines and their trip to AJ’s. Des Loines is the authority in everything pork that’s tenderized, breaded, and fried to perfection. Check out their blog!) Beer, tenderloins, great service. Road trip, folks!

A cold beverage and some great company was had and we were on our way. We got the skinny on some great fishing holes while some of the visitors showed us their catches on their phones. Mount Sterling may be small, but it was buzzing with activity. We circled back to our car where two gentleman were taking a quick break on their motorcycles. I asked them for directions back to Bonaparte and if they ever heard of a haunted lake. “Ohhhhh…which one is it, Dale? It’s around here from what I remember.” “Boy, I used to know….which one is it….” Obviously we didn’t get the affirmative answer. But the legend was building. We hit the road and made our to the river banks. Just up the hill from the Des Moines River is the very small community of Vernon which is home to one of Iowa’s most scenic rural schoolhouse’s. We recommend parking your car in across the river in Bentonsport and taking a stroll over the historic bridge to Vernon School. If you’re a softy when it comes to authentic countryside school houses, then Vernon needs to be catapulting towards the top of your “need to visit” list. Vernon School shows off the proud educational system in the early days of Iowa in the 1800’s. When you’re done going through the school grounds, you can walk the street of Bentonsport with its shopping, lodging, and campsites. Bentonsport has done an amazing job of keeping up its 19th century ambiance and architecture as the mighty Des Moines River rolls past just yards away.

Our way home meant going through Bonaparte and that meant a trip to one of the Villages most unique shops. An antique seller, boutique, and homemade fudge maker all under one beautiful roof… Addie May Fudge Factory! The Rocky Road was amazing!

We made another incredible loop with still more villages to see for our return trips to Van Buren County. There’s the obvious that attracts us to this amazing SE-Iowa destination and now there’s the mysterious that’s calling to Team Goodvin. Where is this “haunted” lake? You’ll have to stay tuned….If you dare.

Be sure to read about The Iowa Gallivant’s last visit to Van Buren County in Village Hopping Part 1 and Part 2. Chief Black Hawk’s grave site, an authentic home cooked Amish supper, annual swap meet, Strawberry festival, and more!

Now for a very HUGE thank you to….

To Tavia Ferguson and everyone at The Villages of Van Buren Visitors Center. The Bentonsport campsite was a wonderful treat and we look forward to our next visit, and visit after that, the next one after that….

Thanks for reading! -Team Goodvin

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