Bonaparte’s Main Street
Bonaparte, Van Buren county, Iowa
On August 20, 1964, an EF2 tornado ripped through the small town of Bonaparte, Iowa. While no one was injured, many buildings were damaged. The Community building lost its roof and chimney. The local post office and Hendrick’s Garage both lost their roofs. Several homes and the Legion building were damaged. Most of the damage was repairable. However, the home of a resident, Craig Fritsinger, and the local Baptist Church were destroyed. Bonaparte suffered $50,000-500,000 in damages or $407,000-4.078 million in 2018 dollars. No one was injured.
The majority of the tornado’s destruction took place along Bonaparte’s First Street. Among the damaged buildings was the White’s Shopping Center. Rollo and Helen White were integral members of the Bonaparte community. They managed the shopping center for most of their married lives. While the tornado damaged the store, it wouldn’t close until 1986 when the town was suffering from a weak economy.
The White family’s ties to the town go back to the 1800s. They owned the Whitely Market, the Opera House, and four other retail shops. By the time the White’s closed their businesses, the original shops had consolidated into the single shopping center in the old Opera House building.
When the shopping center closed, Bonaparte underwent an extensive reconstruction of the downtown area in an attempt to grow the local economy and keep the population from declining. The investments seemed to pay off. By 1993, the downtown area had undergone significant renovations that spurred growth and created 12 new jobs.
While the Whites were no longer business owners, Helen and Rollo were able to witness much of the town’s reconstruction. Rollo passed away on May 24, 1992. Helen passed away eleven years later, on December 30, 2003.
The tornado that passed through Bonaparte in 1964 brought destruction and initiated change. Spurred by abrupt changes like a tornado and incremental ones like a changing economy, the small city pursued a revision of itself through the Main Street Program.
Sources: SHSI: Clay Lanman, “History of Bonaparte,” The Record-Republican, 1967; “Bonaparte Historic Riverfront District,” National Register of Historic Places, 1989; on-line: Robin Delaney, “What Happened This Week: August 17 – 24,” Fort Madison Daily Democrat, August 2009; “Helen White 1909-2003,” Van Buren County Iowa Genealogy; “Main Street Program,” Bonaparte City; “August 1964 Tornado,” Tornado History Project.