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OTTUMWA — Organizers like to say events in Ottumwa and the surrounding communities help draw people back to town. This is one of those stories that illustrates how it happens.

Ken Evans, Mark Malkern, Tim Walsh and Dee Annis would probably have never all met if it wasn’t for the Power Wagon Rally in Fairfield. Walsh is from St. Ann, a suburb of St. Louis. Evans and Malkern are from Massachusetts, the former up near the New Hampshire border and the latter’s accent makes his Boston roots unquestionable.

Annis is from southeast Iowa. She said the group looks for other things to do in the area when the rally comes around. Last year it was desserts at South Side Drug’s soda fountain counter. The Canteen was a natural fit with the old-style service, so it made the list for a future visit.

The way Annis tells the story, the clincher was the Canteen Eating Contest. Her friends had to know, what was the big deal? It wasn’t the first time Walsh had heard the name.

“A friend of mine is parks and rec director in the City of St. Ann,” he said. He mentioned the Canteen as a stop close to the rally. “Dee knew about the Canteen. Everybody knows about the Canteen.”

The timing got a boost from one other factor, one no one wanted. A scheduled Thursday afternoon rally road trip to a farm was called off due to flooding.

The group’s arrival in Ottumwa was set. What they weren’t expecting was Dee’s call to the Courier and a reporter showing up. She wasn’t worried about it.

“They’re men,” she joked. “I can convince them of anything.”

That’s how, after a couple decades of meeting up in Fairfield, uncounted phone calls and messages, the group wound up at a little diner under a parking ramp, ready to try their first Canteen sandwiches.

You never know. An event a half-hour’s drive away a few decades back led to strangers from halfway across the country getting to know each other. It didn’t begin in Ottumwa. It didn’t start out about food.

It won’t end there, either.

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Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.