As you enter Balltown from the north, you are actually entering Upper Balltown, which is the incorporated village. After a brief stretch of open fields, you descend into Lower Balltown, which is an unincorporated village but was the site of the original village. Upper Balltown has the distinction of residing at the second highest elevation in Iowa: 1,220 feet. Stop laughing. The river is 550 feet below Upper Balltown.
Your best bet is to stop in at Breitbach’s Country Dining; see below.
The first settlers were John Ball and his family, who, according to local legend, lived on an island in the Mississippi River prior to 1850. It appears he bought some land on speculation in Lower Balltown and vanished by 1864. Their fate is something of a mystery. No death records exist for him or any family members. Many people believe they were buried in unmarked graves in town, while others believe that they simply sold their land and moved on to another area. Thomas Cooney was another early settler, and the first to purchase land, doing so in 1848. Many early settlers, however, moved to nearby Waupeton because it was closer to the railroad.
St. Francis Church, completed in 1891, and the German Methodist Episcopal Church formed the nucleus of Upper Balltown, which became the incorporated village. In 1910, Lower Balltown was a rundown community with a dirt road and frame houses that had seen better times. A few random facts about Balltown:
• The major employer from 1915–1965 was the Balltown Farmers Co-Operative Creamery.
• Balltown incorporated in 1933 for the same reason as its neighbors Sherrill and Sageville: it was believed that only incorporated communities could license taverns in Iowa after the end of Prohibition.
• Main Street was finally paved in 1954, which must have been cause for some sort of celebration.
• The population of Balltown peaked in 1975 at 106 residents.
The overlook at the north end of town has signs that point out features on the horizon, but, when I stopped and surveyed the landscape, all I could do was imagine what it must have been like to cross that rough landscape in a wagon. Yikes.
Finley’s Landing Park (24500 Finley’s Landing Rd.; 563.552.1571) is about 4½ miles south of Balltown and is a popular place for camping, picnicking, and river swimming.
Breitbach’s Country Dining (563 Balltown Rd.; 563.552.2220) has been a local favorite for generations. The Breitbach name goes back to pioneer days in this area. Jacob Breitbach, born in 1824 in Germany, immigrated to the United States in 1846. He bought land in Jefferson township in 1855, purchased from the mysterious John Ball. Although he moved around a lot, some of his children stayed in Balltown and were destined for the restaurant business. Jacob Breitbach bought the town’s restaurant in 1891 (it originally opened in 1852) and it has been in the Breitbach family since, for six generations. During Prohibition, Victor Breitbach, Sr., made and sold homemade beer and wine; during a Federal raid, he broke enough bottles to turn the street into a small creek. During the Depression, gypsies painted a mural of the scenic view in exchange for food and lodging for two weeks. That mural was uncovered during renovations decades later but was lost for good in the restaurant’s recent tragic history: the original restaurant burned to the ground at the end of 2007, was rebuilt, then burned to the ground again less than a year later. The intrepid Breitbach’s gave it one more shot and the newly-newly rebuilt restaurant reopened in the late summer of 2009. They are popular for their hearty country fare, deservedly so, but save room for pie.
Finley’s Landing Park (24500 Finley’s Landing Rd.; 563.552.1571) has 42 sites, most with electricity, in an area with little shade.
Heading upriver? Check out North Buena Vista.
Heading downriver? Check out Sherrill.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2009
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