The Ottumwa Courier

February 28, 2014

The river is the heart of Ottumwa

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — The Des Moines River has been the defining feature of Ottumwa since before it was a town, and a new book by Leigh Michaels and Michael W. Lemberger is spotlighting this heart of the community.

"On the Riverfront: Ottumwa, Iowa from Turkey Island to the Mixmaster" is the newest installment in a series of more than 20 books the two Ottumwans have collaborated on.

"The river is the reason for the town," Michaels explained. "It's the focus in Ottumwa and it always has been. The town was established here because of the bends in the river ... and there were Indian villages here before that. It's always been a community, and the river has always been the heart of the town."

The photographs for the 125-page book have come from Lemberger's extensive collection, and the captions and stories are from Michaels' research and conversations over the years. Both a photographer and an archivist, Lemberger began collecting images at an early age after discovering glass negatives in his great-aunt's attic. Sixty years later, he has more than a million images, including his own photos and those of other professional and amateur photographers.

"I went around and took pictures of everything that I thought was going to disappear," he said. "I went street by street and took pictures of every building."

So finding pictures to chronicle the history of the Des Moines River wasn't too much of a challenge. His collection has been called the largest and best-documented privately owned collection in the world.

Beginning with an 1844 map of Louis Ville, the town's name before "Ottumwa" was chosen 18 months later, the book winds its way through the bends and turns of the Des Moines River's history and its profound effect on the community. Readers will watch the bridges go up, see the Coliseum be built, follow trolley cars and experience several historic floods. The story ends, if only temporarily, at the final page, with the building of the Bridge View Center and the way the river looks today.

"This is a very special part of the state. There's so much history here," Michaels said.

The book is a companion piece to a 10-minute slide show of historic images of Ottumwa's riverfront development made at the request of Bridge View Center and the 2014 Home and Garden Show. Michaels and Lemberger will have a booth set up throughout the show with a wide selection of their books for sale. They will also give a 30-minute presentation based on the slide show at 6 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. There will be question-and-answer times after each one.

"We did the slide show and then thought how nice it would be to have a book to go along with it," Michaels said. "We all have a slightly different focus on the river," so having the book to take home will be a very special keepsake.

For more information about the collection or the new riverfront book, visit or

— Follow reporter Laura Carrell on Twitter @CourierLauraC