The Ottumwa Courier

October 8, 2012

Walking through 1950s Ottumwa

MARK NEWMAN
Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — History books tend to list the “big” things. Wars. Elections. The founding of a city. But the “small” things can help bring history to life.

On Saturday, around 200 visitors took a walking tour through historic Ottumwa, complete with interpretive actors representing real-life Ottumwans from the past.

The second annual History Walk organizers hadn’t anticipated such cold weather, but there were places to get warm.

“Come in, come in, get out of the cold. At Akerman Auto, we want our customers to be comfortable. I’m Harold Akerman, and here at Akerman Auto, the customer was always first,” said Brian Morgan, portraying the man who ran the downtown Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and GMC Truck dealership starting in the 1940s.

With a cigar clutched in his teeth, the “salesman” described how dealers would block the windows with newspaper so as not to ruin the surprise of revealing the new model year cars. Akerman purchased a big spotlight to help draw attention to his dealership, he told one of the groups on the walking tour.

In the 1940s, “you couldn’t just take your car home with you. It was about a three-week wait.”

If any of the visitors Saturday did want to buy a car, he said, he didn’t want give them sticker shock.

“A Cadillac is still a Cadillac. [Ordering] a Cadillac would run you [over] $4,500.”

On the other hand, he said, a 1956 Chevy Bel Air would cost about $2,300.

That’s not something most high school history books mention, despite the message about inflation it suggests.

Those who took the time to speak to “Phil Taylor Sr.,” who took over Ottumwa’s Coca-Cola plant in 1956, could learn “first hand” a bottle would cost you 10 cents, and, in an acknowledgment to how times have changed, that the factory serviced 120 small neighborhood markets in Ottumwa.

One organizers said when she was a child, the Coca-Cola plant was on West Second Street, and children would line the windows, watching as bottles were filled.

Mark Eckman manned the train depot, which was purchased by the Wapello County Historical Society 20 year ago.

He told groups that Ottumwa really started to grow when the railroad came to town. There was a time more than 50 passenger trains passed through Ottumwa.

Yet as cars became more common, fewer passengers needed to take the train. These days, there are two stops per day by a passenger train.

By the time in the 1950s rolled around, 85 percent of revenue for rail came from freight.

But the depot, now on the National Register of Historic Places, had its share of historic visitors.

In 1950, President Harry S. Truman came to town. In 1952, Sen. Richard Nixon and his wife arrived by train.

One famous character harassing guests in front of the depot was whacky, red-headed Lucy from the I Love Lucy Show. Miriam Kenning portrayed the famous actress, who was not only the star of her show, but was the producer as well.

“Lucy” got audiences laughing as they started their walks around the “Main Street Ottumwa” area; She described some of the other shows popular in the 1950s: The Ed Sullivan Show, the $64,000 Question and The Lone Ranger. And some of the inventions popularized in the 50s, like Velcro, Saran Wrap and transistor radios.

All eight Ottumwa community figures worked hard to be historically accurate, but oddly, Kenning winked, no one remembered a time when Lucy really hung out in Ottumwa.