The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

April 23, 2010

Four sitting presidents have visited Ottumwa

Obama will make it five next Tuesday

OTTUMWA — President Barack Obama’s visit to Ottumwa next week will be historic, but not the first by a sitting president.

At least four other presidents have visited Ottumwa while they were serving in the White House: Benjamin Harrison, 1890; Theodore Roosevelt, 1903; Harry Truman, May 8, 1950 (his birthday); and Richard Nixon, July 31, 1971.

President Harrison stopped in Ottumwa in the fall of 1890 because of the Ottumwa Coal Palace, which opened Sept. 16 and closed Oct. 11. And, it didn’t hurt that his sister lived in Ottumwa as well.

According to Courier archives, at about 10 a.m. Oct. 9, he toured the Coal Palace privately and later spoke to a crowd estimated at 40,000 people.

“If I should attempt to interpret the lesson of this structure, I should say it was an illustration of how much that is artistic and graceful is to be found in the common things of life, and if I should make an application of this lesson, it would be to suggest that we might profitably carry into all our homes and into all neighborly intercourse the same transforming spirit,” Harrison said.

A few minutes after this portion of the speech the waterfall began, and Harrison's voice was briefly drowned out. The president suspected the waterfall was turned on by a political opponent.

In 1903, President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was the next sitting president to visit Ottumwa. He was on a train trip and visited several cities.

While in Ottumwa, he said, “As I have passed through Iowa today I have been struck with the soil, the climate, rich farms, the prosperity and happiness of the towns and cities and by the high average of citizenship which is noticeable everywhere.

“It has been my pleasure in the country districts to notice how the electric cars, the telephones and the rural free delivery have joined to make the life of the farm less weary and to bring it more upon an equitable plane with the pleasures and the conveniences of the day,” Roosevelt said. “I admire the people and I congratulate them upon their crops and their products.”

There was a long wait for the next president to choose Ottumwa. Harry S. Truman visited Ottumwa on his 66th birthday while he was in his second term as president.

The presidential visit was May 8, 1950, when Truman made a 16-state tour by train on behalf of his “fair deal” program. At 11:24 a.m., the train arrived from Burlington, where the President had spoken earlier.

In his remarks, Truman insisted his tour wasn’t political.

“I want it strictly understood that I’m here reporting to you as your servant. I am reporting on things as they are in Washington and as I would like them to be,” Truman said. “I want to let you know the facts, not garbled. I have a right as your president to do this.”

The last sitting president to visit Ottumwa was Richard Nixon.

In a 1996 special edition of the Courier about Rathbun Lake’s 25th anniversary, it noted that Nixon flew into southeast Iowa for the ceremony in 1971.

“One of the biggest boosts to the new lake came during the dedication of Rathbun Dam July 31, 1971, when Nixon flew in to give the main speech,” the Courier reported.

Nixon was a U.S. Navy officer who spent a month living in Ottumwa when the Naval Air Station operated during World War II at what is now Ottumwa Regional Airport.

The Courier also noted Nixon’s visit would be a “homecoming” for the president because he served as a lieutenant (junior grade) in 1942 at the former Ottumwa Naval Air Station.

Nixon was an attorney and an aide to the executive officers. In the spring of 1943 he was ordered to the South Pacific.

The president and his wife, Pat, lived in the Tisdale Apartments at Fourth and Green streets. She was an employee of the Union Bank and Trust Co. when they lived in Ottumwa.

Cindy Toopes can be reached at (641) 683-5376 or via e-mail at

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