OTTUMWA — For the past 25 years, the train depot at 210 W. Main St. has been the home of the Wapello County Historical Museum. This central location has given the Historical Society the opportunity to preserve, display and share important links to the area's past.
A 25th anniversary celebration of the museum's current location will be held from 5-7 p.m. June 13. The event will include door prizes, popcorn, snow cones and cupcakes, and Dizzy the Clown will be on hand from 5-6 p.m.
The main purpose of the event, organizers say, is to reintroduce the community to what the museum has to offer. The ever-changing exhibits tell the story of those who came before and paved the way for present-day southeast Iowans.
“So many people who live here now have no roots here. They think there's no connection for them,” said society treasurer Phyllis Dean. “But then they come and see, and they enjoy (the museum).”
Ken Venables' father, W. Sinclair, came to the United States from England, bringing with him an emphasis and love of history. After settling in Ottumwa, he began to collect historical pieces from around the county. This led to display areas in the Municipal Building and then a house on Chester Avenue.
“He bought more showcases on his own, and the collection grew. He looked at it as an unpaid job,” Venables said.
In 1987, the Historical Society was able, through donations and the sale of the Chester Avenue property, to purchase the current museum site from the Burlington Route. Within a year, the money was raised to install an elevator, which actually cost more than the building itself.
“It was an opportunity — Ottumwa needed someone to take this building and remodel it,” board member Jim Williams said. “It took a tremendous number of volunteer hours.”
Many Wapello County residents have been on tours of the museum over the past 25 years, but they may not realize that there are new pieces being donated all the time. Area residents are constantly giving items that have special meaning for their own families and for the history of Wapello County. This means new displays, information and memories are continuously flooding into the building.
But there are some special displays that have been in the museum for decades. The bust of Abraham Lincoln in the Ayres Room is one of only three in the country — the second is in the Lincoln Library and the third is in the Smithsonian. The replica of the Ottumwa Coal Palace Exhibit Hall is still on display, as is the 1925 fire engine.
Those taking a tour of the museum will also have the chance to see several rooms of a home decorated with period furniture, a one-room school, a fire station, agriculture exhibits, the history of coal mining in the county and a room full of military displays.
The progression of time and the advancements in technology are offering up a new challenge for museums like the one in Ottumwa.
“It's difficult to find people with the time and energy to volunteer,” Dean said. “We know they're out there, we just haven't found them all yet. We want people to know, to get involved, for them to have a special interest here.”
For more information about volunteering, the anniversary celebration or museum hours, call 641-682-8676 or visit www.wapellocountyhmuseum.com.
Walk softly along the old paths and you may hear the whispers of those who went before.