Walter O’Reilly left his hometown of Ottumwa to serve in his country’s Army during the Korean War. “Radar,” as he was known by his comrades in the 4077th M*A*S*H unit, served his country honorably. Following his military service, he lived in Kansas City, along with Col. Potter and his wife.
If Radar were to return to his hometown today, he’d hardly recognize it. From a quaint rural community in the 1950s, Ottumwa now has more than 20,000 residents, hailing from about 50 countries. The diverse community is home to the JBS (formerly John Morrell) pork plant and a John Deere factory.
Take a walk downtown, and the scenery Radar might recall, is coming back to reflect the good ol’ days. The main downtown business district has undergone a resurgence the last five years, said Mayor Tom Lazio. Once reflecting “a bombed-out war zone,” as someone described to him, downtown is on the cusp of being a beautiful tourist draw.
With building facades taking on the look of yesteryear, streetscapes adding new pavement, sidewalks and landscapes featuring trees, a three-block section of Main Street will be a popular area for festivals and events.
Canteen Lunch in the Alley
Just off Main Street, Canteen Alley adds charm centering around a nearly 90- year-old eatery. Canteen Lunch in the Alley serves loose meat sandwiches in an 18-seat building, where you order and eat the counter. Watching the sandwiches made at a station in the middle of the restaurant, with little more than elbow room, a staff of three to four people call out the order – everything on the Canteen sandwich includes ketchup, mustard, pickles, onions and cheese – the sandwich on a hamburger bun is wrapped in butcher paper and served with a spoon at the counter.
Add a soda or shake and it’s a quick, affordable lunch. Top the meal with a warm slice of pie – from apple, coconut and cherry to strawberry-rhubarb – and scoop of ice cream.
The Canteen has been at the same spot but in two variations since opening in 1929. Radar likely ate here as a kid. Serving about 150 lbs. of ground beef daily six times a week, the sandwich is considered world-famous. Competitive eating champion Joey Chestnut downed 26 1/2 of the mouth-watering sandwiches in 10 minutes in 2018.
Because of its historical significance, city leaders developed the block-long alleyway. Reflecting the city’s diversity, a public art exhibit that projects photos highlighting the cultural positives with people from around almost every continent.
Canteen Alley is considered a “green” space, using art pieces to help recycle rain water. The alley’s brickway is permeable, allowing water to easily soak through the surface. Unique art pieces allow water to drain from buildings into the ground.
Several businesses call downtown home. From vintage and antique shops to the local newspaper, downtown Ottumwa resembles a typical small city.
Bridge View Center anchors river
As the city seeks to improve its riverfront and develop attractions and businesses along the Des Moines River, it’s sure to attract more visitors. With an outstanding convention center and theater, Ottumwa has an anchor for development.
The Bridge View Center, opened in 2007, calls the city’s former armory home. With a 600-seat theater, Bridge View hosts major shows, including plays, musicals and other stage shows. With a convention center capable of hosting meetings and concerts, the center attracts concerts featuring acts like Foreigner and Mannheim Steamroller, as well as events such as pro bull riding. Bridge View’s seating capacity reaches up to about 3,000 people.
The center has an outstanding catering section, led by Chef Bob. A veteran of the food scene, the chef studied culinary arts in the Des Moines area.
With the largest number of parks per capita of any city in Iowa, Ottumwa’s 22 parks encompass 600 acres and include walking and bicycling trails that hug the Des Moines River. Take a walk across a converted railroad bridge on the Chief Wapello Trail.
‘American Gothic’ house
The Ottumwa area offers unique cultural experiences, such as a visit to the American Gothic House in Eldon. Made famous in a painting by Iowa artist Grant Wood, “American Gothic” is considered one of the top pieces in regionalism art. While there, don a costume and create your own photo version of American Gothic.
A short drive outside Ottumwa, the Antique Airplane Association sponsors the Airpower Museum. Home to antique airplanes, models and other artifacts and exhibits, the Blakesburg airfield hosts an annual “Fly-in” show each Labor Day weekend.
Train depot museum
Meanwhile in Ottumwa, as Radar O’Reilly traverses the area, he may recall the old train depot. With the original destroyed by a flood in the late 1940s, the current depot features a prairie school design, a style made famous by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. While it serves as the local stop for Amtrak, the Wapello County Historical Museum occupies the rest of the building. With more than 40,000 artifacts, the museum traces the history of the area from early Native American life, European settlers and county churches to military service and public education.
Home to the former John Morrell Company (now JBC) and the John Deere plant, those companies’ histories are explored with impressive exhibits.
While Ottumwa has outstanding hotels, some people prefer camping in county or state parks. Pioneer Ridge Nature Area offers RV and camper sites, as well as a few cabins. The park is a popular destination for weddings and other events. Enjoy a walk in nature around a small lake.
With several attractions to enjoy, you’ll work up an appetite. Don’t worry, Ottumwa is home to outstanding eateries.
Remember Chef Bob? As part of a group visiting the city, I joined six other writers and our Greater Ottumwa visitors bureau hosts in a special dinner prepared by Chef Bob at Bridge View Center. Showcasing meals he creates for special events, the chef created a dinner featuring a moist well-seasoned chicken breast with sides of couscous and seasonal vegetables. Topped with a dessert featuring oranges and pudding, it seemed a decadent dinner.
While others enjoyed breakfast at the Hotel Ottumwa the next day, I ventured out to Top Hat Coffee and Entertainment a few blocks away. With a hot vanilla latte and a warm cinnamon roll, I thoroughly enjoyed a delicious breakfast. Top Hat uses its profits to help fund Blessings, which serves free meals to people in need.
The next morning, I did eat at Second Street Cafe at the hotel. Enjoying a plate of biscuits and gravy, the dish reminded me of one you might find at a southern cafe.
Mimi’s Taqueria serves authentic Mexican food, from street tacos to fajitas. Dishes are topped with freshly-cut avocado.
Dinner at Appanoose Rapids featured a special menu. I chose the Rapids Burger, an eight-ounce burger topped with bacon, cheddar cheese, fried egg, hash browns, pickles, lettuce and tomato. Sitting on a pretzel bun, the entree was so tall I needed to use a fork and knife to enjoy it.
Main Street market
During his return home, Radar wouldn’t recognize the Market on Main. An incubator to help develop new businesses, the open space houses Hawaiian, Filipino and Mexican restaurants, as well as a bar featuring live music acts.
Of course, no visit to Ottumwa is complete without a classic hotel stay. The Hotel Ottumwa is a vintage hotel located in a century-old brick building. With well-appointed suites, the hotel mixes contemporary amenities with an old-fashioned ambience.
Incorporated in the mid-1800s, Ottumwa was chugging along when Walter O’Reilly grew up. As he left his hometown for military service, no one had any idea he wouldn’t return home. But, should the Army veteran find his way home today, he’ll see a completely different – yet similar – hometown. Anchored by a downtown seeking to represent the past while providing a path to the future, Ottumwa is an inviting city, eager to share its history, culture and culinary scene with you.