The Ottumwa Courier

October 5, 2012

Locals will transform into historical Ottumwa figures

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Eight individuals from Ottumwa’s past will come back to life Saturday night.

The second annual History Walk will kick off at the Train Depot starting at 5 p.m. Saturday, with tour guides and characters taking participants back to 1950s Ottumwa.

Crystal James will entertain the crowd as a typical, gum-smacking waitress at The Diner, which used to sit at the corner of Third and Washington streets.

“They had very long hours,” James said of the waitresses.

Customers would start their day at The Diner with breakfast, and by the time they swung back after work for dinner, the same waitresses were still there, taking orders and collecting town gossip.

“They knew everyone’s business,” James said. “If you wanted to know something, you’d ask the waitress.”

She said The Diner would be filled to capacity, wall-to-wall, much like the Canteen often is today.

“I remember going in with my parents, and it was standing-room only, but like the Canteen, you didn’t mind,” James said.

Patrons would come in after movies and bowling on the weekends, and policemen could always stop by for free cups of coffee.

“And they had all sorts of pie — any kind you wanted,” James said. “But you had to get there early enough for your special piece of pie or have one of the waitresses save you a piece.”

Everyone would save their nickels to play their favorite songs on the jukeboxes, which were placed every few feet in the restaurant.

“They would play the same songs over and over and over again,” James laughed.

Main Street Ottumwa board president Fred Zesiger said at one time in the ’50s, there were as many as 35 cafes and diners in downtown Ottumwa.

The Diner was known for good, homemade food, and James said she remembers watching them continually make running orders of thick French fries.

“It was a very upbeat place,” she said.

Dr. Kent Walker, a local dermatologist, will barely have to change his appearance in his portrayal of Dr. Steven Fox at the former Medical Arts Building.

Fox was an orthopedic surgeon well-known throughout southeast Iowa, and had an office in Ottumwa through the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s.

“I’ve talked to doctors who knew him and patients he had,” Walker said. “He did a lot of hip repairs. These were the days before prosthetic hip implants, so he pinned hips.”

And Fox did not want to lease space for a waiting room, Walker said, so people would stand outside the building to wait for their appointments.

Outside of work, Walker said Fox was an aficionado of Japanese culture, traveling to Japan one month a year to collect art and other items.

Julie Schuck will portray Bessie Ullman, former director of the YWCA on the corner of Second and Washington streets.

The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) was founded in London in 1855, came to the U.S. in 1858 and came to Ottumwa in the 1920s. The first YWCA sat where the First Baptist Church stands today.

YWCAs across the nation became residences and boarding houses for women working in the communities.

Ottumwa’s YWCA had office space, a club room and a kitchen on the first floor, a theater and meeting rooms on the second floor and living quarters on the third floor.

“Ottumwa was a big manufacturer of cigars, and the ladies who rolled the cigars lived at the YWCA, as did people who worked at the phone company,” Zesiger said.

The YWCA also featured the Bulldog Lounge, a popular spot for high school dances, live bands every Saturday night and the KLEE Hop.

The YWCA closed in 2007 after losing its designation as a YWCA chapter.

History Walk

5-7 p.m. Saturday

Tours will begin at the Train Depot

Tickets are $5 and can be purchased at the MSO office, Hotel Ottumwa or North and South Hy-Vee.

The historic tour of downtown Ottumwa will include volunteers in character, telling stories at each landmark.

The Wapello County Historical Museum will be open 4-7 p.m. Saturday, offering “two for the price of one” tickets.

Historical figures

Eight community members will be portraying historical characters throughout the tour Saturday night:

• Mark Eckman: Train Depot

• Brian Morgan: Ackerman Auto

• Bill Schiller: Heady’s DX

• Crystal James: The Diner

• Dr. Kent Walker: Medical Arts Center

• David Barajas Jr.: Wards Drug

• Julie Schuck: YWCA

• Tom Konrad: Coca-Cola