On both banks of the Des Moines River, the seat of Wapello County grew up on the back of coal mining, which powered the economy into the early 20th century.
In the 1890s the giant Coal Palace, a temporary exhibition center, was built by the river to showcase the local coal industry, and 23rd President Benjamin Harrison was among its visitors.
If you’re wondering about the name, it comes from the Sauk word “Au-tum-way-e-naukor” meaning “land of the rippling waters”.
The river has always been key to life in Ottumwa, and its banks are still home to many of the city’s top attractions, as well as an excellent network of trails that let you experience Ottumwa on foot or by bike.
1. American Gothic House & Center
Ottumwa is the closest large city to the house that served as the backdrop to Grant Wood’s iconic painting, American Gothic (1930).
This sits about 20 minutes away by road, on the edge of the little town of Eldon. Wood sketched the building when he came through in 1930, and this was one of only two occasions that he actually visited the house.
The house, with a distinctive Gothic-style window in the gable, dates to the early 1880s and in 1991 was donated to the State Historical Society of Iowa following a 30-year preservation effort.
The nearby visitor center has a gallery documenting the history of the house, Grant Wood and his famous painting, along with a gift shop and a media room. You can also borrow period costumes if you’d like to stage your own American Gothic in front of the house.
2. Ottumwa River Trails
The city’s history and culture are entwined with the Des Moines River, so there’s no better way to discover Ottumwa than on the network of trails anchored by the river.
The network adds up to 16 miles, atop the levees on both banks of the river, crossing the historic Wabash Bridge (1888) and continuing as far as the city limits.
You can download maps of this system, and use the trails to get to riverfront parks and attractions from the Bridge View Center to Beach Ottumwa, the Ottumwa 8 Theatre and Wapello County Farmers’ Market, to name a small handful.
3. Beach Ottumwa
Right across the river from downtown Ottumwa is a water park with indoor and outdoor attraction. This allows Beach Ottumwa to be open year round, with an outdoor season that runs from Memorial Day weekend through the last weekend in August.
Outside, you’ve got a gigantic, 300,000-gallon wave pool, an aquatic playground for smaller children and a sand volleyball area.
Rising high above the complex are two curly slides and the Speed Slide, one of the longest in the Midwest, at 100 feet tall. Inside there’s yet another slide, an eight-lane competitive pool and an inflatable obstacle course.
4. Main Street Ottumwa
A lot of investment has gone into downtown Ottumwa since the 2000s, breathing new life in streets lined with handsome, century-old brick storefronts.
Now, Main Street and the parallel 2nd Street are emerging as a vibrant downtown district, underpinned by attractions like the Bridge View Center across the river. Downtown Ottumwa’s appeal lies most of all in its dining choices, reflecting the city’s cultural diversity.
We’ll talk about historic mainstays like Canteen Lunch in the Alley and Graham’s Dairy Freez a little later, but there are many more options for Vietnamese, Mexican, Eritrean, Filipino and American comfort food.
For sweet treats you could head up to Main Street Donuts, with a tempting selection at the counter, made fresh every day.
5. Canteen Lunch in the Alley
This little eatery has been a fixture since 1927, and is a first port of call for Ottumwans returning to their hometown.
The Canteen Lunch in the Alley moved to its current spot in 1936, and is hidden in an alley partially under a parking garage. Pocket-sized restaurants like these, providing a lunch option for people on a small budget, were a lifeline during the Great Depression.
Around a horseshoe counter, there’s seating for 16 customers, and a simple menu with just a few items.
The specialty here is the Canteen Sandwich, an Iowa-style loose meat sandwich, served with hamburger condiments like ketchup, mustard, pickles and cheese sauce (for an extra charge).
6. Bridge View Center
One of Southeast Iowa’s top events centers has a spectacular location overlooking the Des Moines River.
Completed in 2007, the Bridge View Center has a 664-seat theater, a 30,000-square-foot exposition hall and numerous smaller spaces for community gatherings.
This is a place to catch big-time events, whether it’s a concert, broadway show, trade convention, rodeo, dance performance, the list goes on. Among the major artists to take the stage here are Cole Swindell, Hairball and Lee Greenwood.
The complex is also infused with public art, including Freedom Rock, a collection of photography by Michael Lemberger, a painting by Fred Easker, the Ferber sculpture and finally Harmony Park, which is an interactive musical exhibit on the riverbank.
7. Graham’s Dairy Freez
This cherished ice cream stand has been an Ottumwa staple since 1908. At the time of writing, the business was in its third generation since the current owners’ grandparents took over in 1968.
Even now, around two thirds of the staff come from that same family. Graham’s Dairy Freez is known for its soft serve, from cones and flurries to shakes, malts, sundaes, parfaits, slushies and much more.
You may need a minute to get your head around the menu and its multitude of options, which include savory bites like brats, nachos, burgers and pretzels.
8. Wapello County Farmers’ Market
For a truly local shopping experience, the county’s farmers’ market sets up at Central Addition Park by the Des Moines River.
This is just past Beach Ottumwa and the Ottumwa City Campground, next to HIghway 34. June Through September, you can visit the market on Monday and Thursday afternoons. With tons of fresh produce from local farms, the selection varies throughout the summer.
Some of the exceptional, farm-fresh vegetables include tomatoes, okra, peppers both sweet and hot, potatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers, zucchini, squash and a whole lot more. There’s also honey, eggs and a whole array of baked goods, from pies to cookies, cakes and breads.
9. Wapello County Courthouse
A commanding landmark for Ottumwa, the Wapello County Courthouse looks like few courthouses in the Midwest.
Built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style in the early 1890s, this is the city’s fourth courthouse, going back to a single-story log cabin in the 1840s.
The current courthouse was built from rusticated sandstone blocks, and has an impressive round-arch portal flanked by three granite columns on each side.
This building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1981. Up to 1950 the flat platform at the corner of 4th and Court Street was topped with a clock tower, which was dismantled for safety reasons.
10. Iowa Heartland History Connection
Founded in 1959, the Wapello County Historical Society runs a fine museum documenting life in the county in the 19th and 20th centuries.
When we made this list, the museum was in the process of moving to a large new campus at 700 Farm Credit Drive in the north of Ottumwa.
Given the depth of the collection, and some of the amazing pieces belonging to the society, this attraction will quickly become a go-to for anyone intrigued by this area’s past.
There’s a scale replica of the Coal Palace exhibition center that dominated Ottumwa’s riverfront in the early 1890s, as well as a gleaming, restored 1925 American LaFrance fire engine.
11. Cedar Creek Golf Course
This 18-hole public course is out in the low rolling hills just north of Ottumwa. There are some tricky challenges at Cedar Creek Golf Course, but above all this is a forgiving track where less experienced players can hope to post a low score.
The practice facility is also one of the best in the area, particularly the manicured driving range, with a practice fairway and bunkers.
The pro shop is stocked with all the top brands and has club-fitting experts on staff, while you can wrap up your outing with something from the snack bar.
12. Pioneer Ridge Nature Area
A short drive south of Ottumwa you’ll come to a 1,000-acre parcel of rolling nature, with grassy ridge tops overlooking mature oak-hickory woodlands.
You can make your way along 15 miles of trails, on foot, by bike or on horseback, while there are four stocked ponds for public fishing.
There’s also a small campground, with nine electric hookups and three primitive sites, together with two modern, four-season cabins.
Close by is a two-story nature center, with fascinating natural history displays and a full-time naturalist present.
13. Wildwood Park
A spot for outdoor recreation, Wildwood Park is on Ottumwa’s southwestern edge, ten minutes from downtown. In 57 rolling acres there’s an 18-hole disc golf course, a set of ballfields, tennis courts, basketball courts and volleyball courts.
The hilly terrain makes this a great place for sledding in the winter, while in warmer weather you can amble along the trails and visit for a family picnic in beautiful surroundings.
Wildwood Park has several picnic tables and grills, as well as a shelter close to a large children’s play area.
14. Airpower Museum
Around ten miles west of Ottumwa is the Antique Airfield, a private facility home to the Antique Airplane Association (AAA), which was founded in 1953 and is thought to be the oldest organization of its kind in the world.
The AAA runs a museum in a hangar at the airfield, with more than 30 aircraft on display, mostly dating from the mid-20th century.
These include gliders, monoplanes, biplanes, light aircraft and several trainers. The museum has special sections dedicated to the Golden Age of flight and World War II.
15. Lake Wapello State Park
Meriting the half-hour drive southwest of Ottumwa is a 1,150-acre state park, on scenic wooded hillsides surrounding the manmade Lake Wapello.
There’s a sandy beach on the northern shore, complemented by a newly renovated stone and timber building raised during the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
This contains a seasonal restaurant, bathhouse, restrooms and has a beautiful observation deck. You can rent a boat at the concession area, and if you’re here for fishing, the lake has plentiful bass (catch and release), bluegill, catfish and crappie.
The campground has 89 sites, 44 of which have electrical hookups, while up-to-date restroom and shower facilities are available.