March 29, 2017
If promotion is the key to a town’s growth and success, Ottawa, Kansas, should be flourishing. The city of 12,600 residents, about an hour’s drive southwest of the Kansas City suburbs and a half-hour from Kansas University in Lawrence, knows how to put its best foot forward. An email to their visitors’ bureau produced a response such as I’ve never had before, virtually an entire day of being shepherded around and treated as a celebrity.
Susan Rader, manager of the Franklin County Convention and Visitor Information Bureau, arranged my schedule, picked me up at my motel and served as my guide. It was far more than the usual tour, a day of being introduced to local civic leaders, being interviewed by the media (newspaper and radio) and seeing the local attractions. I was even given a key to the city by City Manager Richard Nienstedt, who noted with a smile, “Of course it doesn’t really unlock anything.” A friend of mine I told about the experience insists otherwise, and says I should return someday to find a cache of treasure from early Spanish explorers.
Ottawa’s appeal is based on a combination of past and present. Founded in 1864, it grew steadily into the early decades of the 20th century. As such, there is a large stock of homes in the Victorian and Arts and Crafts styles, many of which have been preserved or carefully restored. Prominent among the town’s buildings is the Franklin Country Courthouse, built in 1893 and designed by local architect George P. Washburn, who became known for many other public buildings in Kansas and the region. Carefully preserved, the county offices conduct modern business in historical surroundings. The large second floor courtroom borders on the magnificent; it’s not at all hard to imagine the likes of Clarence Darrow arguing in front of the jury box and a packed crowd at a sensational trial.
Equally well preserved and carefully tended is Ottawa’s main street and downtown. At the edge of town, near Interstate 35, is the usual collection of motels, franchise restaurants and big box stores, but they are far enough from downtown not to intrude on the period charm. We met and were joined for part of our tour by Lenni Giacin of the Ottawa Main Street Association, which works carefully, and seems to be succeeding, at the concept of “shop local.” “Sometimes it’s a struggle,” she said, “but we try hard to attract and promote our local businesses.”
One longtime local business has a very legitimate claim to fame. The Plaza Cinema has been in nearly continuous operation (under several names over the years) since 1905, and according to research conducted in 2012 is likely the oldest operating movie theater at the same location in the U.S. They maintain a wonderful little museum of movie memorabilia that includes a surprising number of items such as costumes from The Wizard of Oz, autographed publicity photos of stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and John Wayne, and shooting scripts signed by and with location notes from their directors. While there is a modern state of the art projection booth, they have also kept the old optical projection equipment, now a legacy in this digital age. It’s a delight for any movie buff.
Ottawa has natural history as well. The town is situated in the broad, shallow valley of the Marais des Cygnes River (translated from French as “marsh of the swans” and pronounced locally as “MARE de ZEEN”), a tributary of the Osage and Missouri Rivers. The innocent looking stream has occasionally been the source of disastrous flooding. A line marking the depth of the water at the old Santa Fe Depot (now a museum) from the Great Flood of 1951 is easily ten feet high, and photos displayed in local businesses show the main street completely awash. Today floodgates constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers and an extensive levee system hope to control nature’s future rampages, although climate change seems to be making formerly 100-year or even 500-year events more common.
The modern appeal of Ottawa, at least according to its promoters, is its relative proximity to larger metropolitan areas, yet with the charm of small-town life and a nod to history. Additionally, housing is reasonably affordable and available, and the population large enough to offer basic conveniences but not diminish the neighborly feeling. You want the place to succeed.
My interview for the local newspaper was conducted by a pleasant young reporter who seemed to understand what I was doing and who posed the kind of questions I would have asked of myself. We bonded as lovers of the written word and fellow English majors, and I told her of my wife’s twin daughters who were the same age and avid and committed fantasy writers. Her article and a photo are here: http://www.ottawaherald.com/news/local/ottawa-pit-stop-bicyclist-follows-warm-season-across-u-s/article_bdb1c8c4-a243-5d8d-b042-d0fddc1a5770.html
One last event in Ottawa cemented my sense of coincidence and the ways in which we are all connected. I met Rachel Giacin, daughter of the director of the Ottawa Main Street Association. She seemed genuinely interested in my trip and asked in her awkward but very appealing way if I knew about RAAM, the annual cycling ultramarathon Race Across America. I won’t go into detail about the event except to note that it borders on insanity with a death wish; the record time is just under 7 days and 16 hours for a 3000-plus-mile crossing of the United States. There was a time I thought I did well to drive coast-to-coast in three days. Imagine crossing in somewhat more than twice that time on a bicycle.
Yes, I said, I did know about RAAM; a friend of mine had crewed for a rider in the late 1990s, and I was once treated for a broken collarbone (a cycling injury) by orthopedic surgeon Dr. Bob Breedlove, a frequent competitor and three-time second-place finisher, who died after colliding with a pickup truck in Colorado while on RAAM in 2005. Rachel broke into a grin when I said I was aware of apparently what is a major interest for her. She said she had been part of the RAAM crew and among her cherished possessions were autographed jerseys worn by two of its most notable female competitors.
It’s always a joy to meet young people—or those of any age—who are committed to a passion.
The beautifully preserved brick Franklin County Courthouse in Ottawa, Kansas:
The jury box in the Franklin County Courthouse’s period second-floor main courtroom:
The Plaza Cinema, very likely the oldest (since 1905) continuously operating movie theater in the same location in the U.S.:
The old optical projectors of the Plaza Cinema’s Memorabilia Museum, a delight to an old projectionist and movie lover:
Modern craft and old ways. A handmade quilt to be raffled for charity on display at the Franklin County Visitors Center, the building constructed as a replica of a Kansas Victorian house:
Posing with host Susan Rader (on the right) of the Franklin County Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Rachel Giacin, fan of ultramarathon bicycle racing: