The seat of Franklin County in eastern Kansas, Ottawa is a welcoming town with a vibrant Main Street, lots of exciting events and spellbinding architecture from the 19th and early 20th century.
Many of the finest landmarks in Ottawa, including the Franklin County Courthouse, were designed by the noted architect, George P. Washburn (1846-1922), whose firm was based in the city.
The right-of-way of the Leavenworth, Lawrence and Galveston Railroad, built in the 1860s, runs down the center of Ottawa, and the old depot building houses a sensational local history museum.
The city’s name comes from the Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma, who arrived here from Iowa in the 1830s and sold this patch of land in the 1860s before moving to Oklahoma.
1. Old Depot Museum
This exceptional local history museum has the perfect setting, in an historic two-story depot building on the Leavenworth, Lawrence, and Galveston Railroad (LL&G).
Composed of limestone brought in from Cowley County, 150 miles away in the south of Kansas, the depot is one of many local buildings designed by George P. Washburn, who we’ll talk about a little later.
The museum is a treat, recreating historic rooms from over a century ago, like a general store, soda fountain, dentist’s office, parlor and a one-room schoolhouse.
There’s a permanent exhibit devoted to the Abolitionist John Brown and Bleeding Kansas, a series of tit-for-tat confrontations between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in Kansas Territory in the late 1850s. Outside stands a caboose, built in the 1940s and placed here in 2013.
2. Downtown Ottawa
Along Main Street, just south of the Marais Des Cygnes River, downtown Ottawa is preserved as an historic district.
Commercial districts don’t come much prettier or so full of life, and the latter is thanks to a big helping of locally owned stores, restaurants and other businesses.
Antiques are a real local specialty and you’ll come across as many as five stores on Main Street alone.
Downtown Ottawa has a cultural scene bolstered by the likes of the Ottawa Memorial Auditorium, the Carnegie Cultural Center and the record-breaking Plaza 1907 theater, along with adorable pocket parks and the Prairie Spirit Trail, which runs down the west side of downtown.
Head to City Park for outdoor concerts in summer, while the refined Franklin County Courthouse is the backdrop for events like September’s Ol’ Marais River Run Car Show.
3. Prairie Spirit Trail
The Old Depot Museum is also the northern trailhead for a 50-mile path along the right-of-way of the Leavenworth, Lawrence and Galveston Railroad as far as Iola.
Connecting 10 communities, the Prairie Spirit Trail is paved where it runs through these cities, and has limestone screening on its rural portions.
Since the path runs down the spine of Ottawa, a couple of blocks west of Main Street, it’s a convenient way to get around without a car, connecting Kanza Park, the County Fairgrounds and the site of the Ottawa Farmers’ Market in the south of the city.
4. Franklin County Courthouse
An abiding landmark for downtown Ottawa is the seat of government, completed in a Romanesque Revival style in 1893.
The architect was one George P. Washburn (1846-1922), whose practice was right here in Ottawa and designed no fewer than 13 courthouses and nine Carnegie libraries in Kansas.
The Franklin County Courthouse is considered one of his greatest works, and has several of his signature elements, with four square corner towers, and two cupolas, one containing bells, the other a clock.
On a visit you can stop to read the NRHP marker in front, and view the moving Veterans Memorial on the lawn’s southwest corner.
5. Plaza 1907
A star in downtown Ottawa, Plaza 1907 has recently been certified by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest operating movie theater in the world.
Using a number of names since that time, Plaza 1907 can trace its history back to 1905 when one Fred Beeler screened movies here.
This was officially a cinema from 1907 when it opened as The Bijou, while the Plaza name dates to a remodel in the mid-1930s.
The theater was converted into a duplex in the 1980s and continues to screen the latest first-run releases.
In the old stage area you can visit the Memorabilia Museum, presenting a collection of posters, cameras, scripts and props from the 19th century to the present.
6. Ottawa Memorial Auditorium
This fine performing arts stage downtown opened in 1921 to honor Ottawa’s residents who had died in WWI.
The Ottawa Memorial Auditorium was one of many buildings damaged by the Great Flood of 1951, and by the 1970s required a complete renovation.
Since then the auditorium has had a capacity of 830, with a 30-foot proscenium stage, mostly for live music in the Country and American genres.
An event to mark in your diary is the Grand Ottawa Opry, a recurring Branson-style country music show, mostly for Old Country music, combined with some Gospel and Rockabilly. This is a family-friendly spectacle, taking place on the 2nd and 4th Friday of every month.
7. Ol’ Marais River Run Car Show
In September one of the largest car shows in the Midwest goes down in Ottawa. The Ol’ Marais River Run Car Show has been an annual tradition since 1985 and is restricted to cars from 1972 or earlier.
This is normally a two-day event, beginning on the Friday night with a sociable cruise-in at Forest Park, accompanied by live music.
The main event is on the Saturday, when Main Street is closed off for a cruise, with extended hours for many stores, suitable oldies music and food vendors setting up on the courthouse lawn.
8. Forest Park
Resting on the north bank of the Marais Des Cygnes River, Forest Park is in the northwest of the city and is loved for its grand old oak and walnut trees.
It’s all a picture perfect venue for events like the Chautauqua Festival and Fireworks Show (Ottawa’s July 4th celebration), as well as the cruise-in for the Ol’ Marais River Run Car Show.
Beyond that, Forest Park is endowed with a lot of facilities, like the municipal outdoor pool, five new lighted tennis courts, 18 horseshoe courts, lighted baseball and softball diamonds, a disc golf course and no fewer than four playgrounds, one of which is a tot lot.
9. Smoked Creations BBQ
Despite the fact that Ottawa is less than 30 miles from the Kansas City area, there’s only one BBQ joint in town.
Fortunately Smoked Creations, founded in 2010, is one of the best in the region. The Traditional BBQ selection features hickory-smoked brisket, hand-rubbed pulled pork, lean smoked turkey breast, seasoned pulled chicken, smoked chicken, jalapeño-blend smoked sausage and honey and brown sugar ham.
Don’t ignore the St. Louis Cut Spareribs smoked slowly over select hardwoods, and served a whole slab, half slab, plate of three ribs or as a single bone.
For sides you can choose from BBQ pit beans, cole slaw, fried corn on the cob, hand-cut fries and many more. The best time to come is weekends, when the restaurant’s signature burnt ends are on the menu.
10. Ottawa Farmers’ Market
Ottawa has a thriving little farmers’ market, happening May through October on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings.
The venue is the Orscheln Parking Lot at 2008 Princeton, not far from a Prairie Spirit trailhead if you’re coming on foot or by bike.
There’s no better option for fresh produce and seasonal flowers in Franklin County, all sold by growers within a few miles of Ottawa.
Other specialties include pies and other baked goods, made with traditional Mennonite recipes that have been passed down the generations, along with locally-raised meats.
11. Carnegie Cultural Center
One of the finest sights in Ottawa is this historic Carnegie library building sitting among the tall mature trees of City Park.
The old Ottawa Library is another work by George P. Washburn (1902), in a Free Classical style with an imposing portico and a pair of Ionic columns flanking the main entrance.
The public library moved out in the 1990s, and the building became a cultural center, hosting fine art exhibits, concerts, theatrical productions and lectures, along with educational programs like art workshops and music classes.
The second floor is home to Ottawa Suzuki Strings, a music school specializing in string instruments, putting on regular performances.
12. City Park
The main park serving downtown Ottawa is the stately City Park, commanded by the Carnegie Cultural Center.
And while this is the main draw, there’s a compelling piece of local history a short hop south in the form of the Dietrich Cabin, one of the few remaining original log cabins in Kansas.
The German immigrant Jacob Dietrich built this dwelling for his family in 1859, and it replaced a cabin that had burned down in 1857.
The cabin was expanded over time and then restored in 1961 to become a pioneer museum that you can visit on Sunday afternoons in the summer. Other elements at City Park are an artillery gun from before WWII, a bandstand hosting summer concerts and a children’s playground.
13. Kanza Park
Another park along the Prairie Spirit Trail is this leafy space in the south of Ottawa, divided by the Skunk Run stormwater drain.
A defining feature at Kanza Park is the mile-long multi-use trail, which is lit with charming Victorian lighting fixtures that used to be on Main Street in the early 20th century.
This circular path is used for a variety of annual events, such as runs and walks and a beautiful luminary display at Christmas. There’s also a children’s playground, a workout area and a disc golf course, zigzagging through the trees.
14. Pleasant Ridge Pumpkin Patch
Out in the countryside east of Ottawa, this family-owned farm has been opening up to the public for seasonal celebrations since the late 1980s.
Pleasant Ridge has been in the Peckham family since 1914 and raises some 1,000 acres of soybeans, corn, wheat and hay, as well as pumpkins and Christmas trees.
The pumpkin patch is open late September through October, and you can take a hay wagon ride to this two-acre field.
There’s a ton of activities for children in fall, like a hay maze, pedal carts, bean bag toss, rubber duck races and a 40-foot tube slide.
Then, during the holiday season, the farm welcomes you to pick out a fresh Christmas tree, taking a ride on the hay wagon and admiring a charming light display.
15. Franklin County Fair
Franklin County has one of the longest-running fairs in the state, now coming up for its 160th edition and bringing thousands of people to the city.
Usually a six-day celebration around mid-July, the Franklin County Fair is your chance to witness time-honored skills in action.
There’s a slew of 4-H exhibits in numerous categories, and kids will love seeing the many animals spruced up for judging.
Among the fair’s annual traditions are a youth rodeo on Wednesday, followed by the URA Rodeo on Thursday and Friday, while Thursday night is the popular community barbecue. Familiar fair food is always part of the fun, and the same goes for the carnival and demolition derby.