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Ottumwa, Iowa: Best 25 things to do when you visit 

One of America’s greatest art icons, Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting, is set near Ottumwa, Iowa. However, the American Gothic House Center is far from the only reason to visit Ottumwa. You also must tour the Antique Airplane Association’s airpower museum and antique airfield. Shop and eat in Downtown Ottumwa, and explore the surprising Video Game Capital of the World.

Table of contents: Antique Airfield | American Gothic House | Bridge View Center | Freedom Rock | Tuskegee Airman | NAS Ottumwa | Wapello County Trails | Beach Ottumwa | Courthouse | Civil War Trail | Iowa Heartland History Connection | Video Game Capital | Downtown | The Canteen | Graham’s Dairy Freez | Sassy Sunflower | Bontanitas Isa-Aby’s | Pioneer Ridge Nature Area | Wapello County State Park

After we explored Ottumwa’s best places, we hung out in the AmericInn by Wyndham‘s lobby (ad).

The name “Ottumwa” probably means “tumbling water” or “the rapids,” referring to the Des Moines River’s journey through the City of Ottumwa and Wapello County in Southeast Iowa. 

Meet Ottumwa sponsored my visit, but all opinions are mine. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases at no cost to you.

Roxie’s reliable report: Ottumwa gave its name to a Martian crater. The earthly Ottumwa, population 25,000, is 1:29 southeast of Des Moines.

A small red plane at the Antique Airfield, Ottumwa, Iowa
The Air Power Museum is stuffed with vintage airplanes and other aviation exhibits.

1. Fly at Ottumwa’s Antique Airfield & Air Power Museum

Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart would be at home at the 1930s-style Antique Airfield & Air Power Museum (APM) in Blakesburg, Iowa. Beautiful throwback planes shine at the vintage airstrip half an hour southwest of Ottumwa. The 2,350-foot-long grass airstrip, vintage hangars, saloon, and museum host the Invitational Fly-in every Labor Day weekend. The five-day event includes plenty of flying (and viewing) opportunities, club meetings, nightly movies, food, and drink.

If you can’t come on Labor Day, don’t worry. The airfield offers plenty to see even when pilots aren’t buzzing around the airfield. An old Ercoupe on a pole serves as the airstrip’s wind indicator. A giant “Keep the antiques flying” sign adorns the hangar. A vintage gasoline pump and a patio greet guests approaching the museum’s entrance.

Inside, the museum has over 20,000 square feet of displays, which include classic aircraft, engines, models, and other displays from various periods of aviation. We didn’t have enough time to examine everything in the museum, and I could have stayed for hours. These birds aren’t just parked; many of them still fly.

Then we went to the Mike Gretz Library of Flight. I longed to curl up with the library’s thousands of volumes, but we had to leave all too quickly. Don’t miss the “Gone West” area, where deceased aviators’ families bring engraved rocks to honor them. 

Related: Prof. James “Crash” Ryan of LeClaire, Iowa, invented the flight data recorder, one of the “black boxes.”

Reenacting American Gothic in front of the American Gothic House, Eldon, Iowa
Sarah from Creative and Ambitious, Sonja from the Happy Travel Bug, Kelly from Dining Duster, Roxie on the Road, and Travel with Sara in front of the American Gothic House. (Laura Carrell/Meet Ottumwa)

2. Parody American Gothic at the American Gothic House

The only painting that is (perhaps) more recognizable than Grant Wood’s American Gothic is Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The painting’s pitchfork-toting man in overalls was Wood’s dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby. The artist’s sister, Nan Wood Graham, portrayed the woman.

Wood saw the Carpenter Gothic house when he drove through Eldon, Iowa. The plain white house had a single lancet window centered on the second story. He envisioned two “severely strait-laced characters” posed in front. After instructing her to wear her hair straight with a part down the center, he elongated his sister’s face. The two “characters” posed separately, and Wood finished the painting in his studio.

Now, the house is a parody set with a museum and gift shop to the side. Costumes are available for reenactors. Capture the scene from the waist up to recreate the painting. However, full-body shots show a cheeky disregard for perfect recreations.

Brick Art Deco repurposed National Guard Armory entrance with a stained glass window in the Bridge View Center, Ottumwa, Iowa
The reclaimed Art Deco entrance from Ottumwa’s former Armory.

3. Gather at Ottumwa’s Bridge View Center

An old hymn asks, “Shall we gather at the river?” Ottumwa’s answer is the Bridge View Center. A full calendar of events awaits beside the Des Moines River. The offerings range from Chef Daniel’s Wednesday lunch buffets to comedy shows, dance troupes, concerts, and more.

The center is Southeast Iowa’s largest event venue. It houses a 654-seat theater, a 30,000-square-foot exposition hall, meeting rooms, and an in-house catering staff. Parking is plentiful

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Look for rescued elements from Ottumwa’s armory and the detailed bald eagle mosaic embedded in the floor.

Two Black aviators look up toward a red-tailed World War II fighter plane on the Wapello County Freedom Rock, Ottumwa, Iowa
World War II Black aviators watch the Tuskegee Airmen’s distinctive red-tailed airplane on the Wapello County Freedom Rock.

4. Celebrate freedom at the Wapello County Freedom Rock

Ray “Bubba” Sorenson II painted Wapello County’s 11.5-ton Freedom Rock in partnership with the Ottumwa Area Arts Council and local Vietnam veterans groups. The Wapello County boulder on Bridge View’s grounds honors Tuskegee Airmen, the Ottumwa Naval Air Station, and the Iowa National Guard’s 833rd Engineering Company

Related: Visit the Freedom Rocks in Fort Dodge and Winterset, Iowa.

Ottumwa’s Tuskegee Airman

The first two vignettes seem odd because Ottumwa is far from Tuskegee, Alabama, and nowhere near an ocean. However, Robert W. “Bob” Williams‘ pilot father encouraged both sons to follow in his flying footsteps. The Ottumwa natives were among only 102 Black pilots at the time. Williams tried to join the Army Air Corps when the United States entered World War II, but his color barred him.

Finally, he joined the Tuskegee Airmen in 1943, and the unit’s distinctive red-tailed planes still fly on the rock. He received numerous awards, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, Williams desired to tell his unit’s story. He persevered for 43 years until HBO aired the movie The Tuskegee Airmen. In the movie (ad), Laurence Fishburne’s character Hannibal “Iowa” Lee was from Ottumwa.

NAS Ottumwa

During World War II, training bases peppered Middle America, including Ottumwa’s Naval Air Station. Ottumwa needed a new airport, and partnering with the military would provide one. Congressman Karl LeCompte helped connect the Navy with Ottumwa. 

Ottumwa, Iowa, sent pilots to the Pacific War for 2 1/2 years. The future President Richard Nixon, Astronaut Scott Carpenter, college football Hall of Famer Bob Steuber, and Jesse L. Brown, the first Black aviator to complete the Navy’s basic flight training, served at NAS Ottumwa. The Friends of NAS Ottumwa have a museum in the former station’s Administration Building. The base is now Ottumwa Regional Airport.

Related: Lecompton, Kansas, bears the name of the Congressman’s distant cousin, Judge Samuel Lecompte.

Two bridges cross the Des Moines River in Ottumwa, Iowa
The Wapello County Trail System passes various bridges.

5. Embrace the Ottumwa area on Wapello County Trails

The Wapello County Trail System embraces the Des Moines River on five loops that span 16 miles. Practice for a 5K race on the 5-kilometer John Deere Loop. A mile-long loop connects Market Street and the Wabash Bridge, while another mile enters the Gray Eagle Wildlife Preserve. Greater Ottumwa Park encloses two loops. Download a trail map before you go.

Chimes, a xylophone, and drums in Harmony Park, Ottumwa, Iowa
Groove to the Harmony Park beat.

Roxie’s reliable report: Make music in Harmony Park on the trail between Bridge View Center and the river. Various chimes, a xylophone, and drums enticed me to invent some tunes. I wasn’t the only one under the Pied Piper’s spell. Walk further southeast to view an abandoned railroad trestle. 

6. Play in the water at Beach Ottumwa

Go the other way for Beach Ottumwa, an indoor-outdoor water park open year-round. Enjoy a 300,000-gallon wave pool, sand volleyball courts, and a children’s aquatic playground during the summer. Two curly slides and the 100-foot-tall Speed Slide complete the outdoor amenities. Inside is an eight-lane competition indoor pool, an inflatable obstacle course, and another slide.

Detail of the Wapello County Courthouse's upper stories, Ottumwa, Iowa
The Wapello County Courthouse

7. Greet Chief Wapello at the Wapello County Courthouse

The 1894 Wapello County Courthouse is the county’s fourth. Fox Chief Wapello stands on a pedestal on the gable above the front entrance. The Richardsonian Romanesque building once boasted a clock tower and spire, which became unsafe. They had to be torn down in 1950, relieving the building of 450 tons of stress. The structure joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1981.

Wapello” means “the prince.” He was the second-in-command for the Sac and Fox indigenous people during the Black Hawk War. Wapello’s village was south of present-day Ottumwa, Iowa. General Joseph Street ran the Indian agency, and he and the chief became friends. Eventually, Wapello asked to be buried near his friend. Both now rest near Agency, Iowa, in Chief Wapello’s Memorial Park.

The Appanoose Rapids Company laid out the future county seat in 1842 before the land rush that followed the indigenous people’s removal. Commissioners approved the company’s choice in 1844.

Eagle-topped white obelisk with engraved names on bronze plaques in Central Park
The veterans memorial towers over Central Park.

8. Explore the Wapello County Civil War Trail

The courthouse and library face Central Park, which includes the 1919 Wapello County Soldiers Monument. It bears the names of 2,400 Civil War servicemembers.

The monument is one stop on the Wapello County Civil War Trail, which includes Curtis King‘s grave, the oldest Union soldier. King was 80 years old and partially blind when he enlisted in the 37th Iowa Infantry. He served for four months and died less than four months after his honorable discharge. His regiment earned the nickname “The Greybeards” because all its soldiers were over age 45. 

Three Ottumwans earned the Medal of Honor during that conflict. Leonidas Godley earned it during the Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. James Gardiner‘s heroic actions came at the Battle of Chapin’s Farm during the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia. John Donaldson earned his during the Battle of Appomattox Court House. Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses Grant later that day. 

The four veterans rest in different cemeteries.

9. Remember the past at the Iowa Heartland History Connection

The Iowa Heartland History Connection‘s exhibits include Allan Johnson, who patented 130 inventions. His brother was the local Singer Sewing Machine Company’s agent, so the inventor devised two sewing machine attachments. His inventions branched out to improvements in cutlery manufacturing, ball bearings, and gears.

Roxie’s reliable report: The museum preserves local coal history. The ornate temporary Coal Palace attracted Ottumwa’s first Presidential visitor, Benjamin Harrison. (Future President William McKinley also visited the palace.) Harrison was the first of four Presidential visitors: Theodore Roosevelt, Nixon, and Barack Obama.

Roxie standing on a black and silver steam locomotive
Standing tall on Ballingall Park’s steam locomotive

Commemorate the railroad-riding Presidents at Ballingall Park next to the Amtrak depot. The park includes a lighted fountain and a steam engine. Eat at the charming Coal Palace Café and Books.

10. Certify champions in the Video Game Capital of the World

Walter Day bought the Twin Galaxies arcade in Ottumwa in 1981. He created an international video game scoreboard database a year later. Soon, gamers worldwide reported high scores to “The King of Video Game Stats.” Then, Day became the official adjudicator for Guinness World Records. Later, Twin Galaxies published eSports rulebooks. Day retired in 2014. Twin Galaxies closed its Ottumwa, Iowa, arcade, but the Old School Pinball and Arcade in Quincy Place Mall preserves memorabilia.

Man weighing meat behind the counter
A customer watches as a staff member weighs meat at the Cerro Grande Meat Market.

11-19. Explore diverse cuisines and shopping in Downtown Ottumwa

In the musical Church Basement Ladies, the song “Pale Food Polka” called Midwestern food bland. On the contrary, the food is spicy in Downtown Ottumwa, Iowa. Two Asian markets, Golden Karen Asian Market and JM Asian Market; an African market, the Agape African Market; and two Hispanic markets, La Guadalupana and Cerro Grande Meat Market, are all within walking distance in Ottumwa.

A metal sculpture of a cow, barn, and silo glows green through apertures.
The John Deere green lights honor the John Deere Ottumwa Works.

If those markets make you hungry but you don’t want to cook, try one of the Eritrean, Filipino, Vietnamese, or Mexican restaurants. Watch a movie at the Ottumwa Theater. After the show, enjoy downtown’s lighted artworks.

Keep up with the Video Game Capital theme and browse the huge selection at Spud’s Emporium of Comics and Games.

A bottle of Coke with a partially eaten loose-meat sandwich wrapped in thick yellow wax paper at a picnic table beside The Canteen.
Now, this is eating!

20. Eat at the Canteen

To eat like a local, stop at Canteen Lunch in the Alley. The restaurant opened in 1927 and moved to its current home in 1936. The low-priced, filling fare made it a perfect place to eat during the Great Depression. It’s such a treasure that the City of Ottumwa built its parking garage around the diner. Order the loose-meat sandwich, an Iowa specialty. It’s somewhat like a sloppy joe but without all the tomato sauce. And, yes, it’s delicious. Add some homemade pie (I adored the raisin cream) and a milkshake.

The lunchroom prepares 150 pounds of finely ground beef daily. The custom bun is oversized and remains hinged until just before it’s made. The canteen’s horseshoe-shaped counter wraps around the steamer. One waitress stirs the meat, another cuts the buns and adds the condiments. The third one pours the meat onto the bun, wrapping it in an extra-thick wax paper wrapper. A spoon accompanies the sandwich to scoop up any beef escaping the bun. The 720-square-foot building only seats 17 people, but the parking garage contains picnic tables.

Roxie’s reliable report: The Canteen was the model for Roseanne Conner’s diner in the Roseanne sitcom. Actress Roseanne Barr was married to Ottumwan Tom Arnold. (Buy the complete series.)

A hand holding up a Graham's Tasty Freez crunch cone.
Quick! Eat it before it melts!

21. Devour a sweet treat at Graham’s Dairy Freez

Graham’s Dairy Freez, founded in 1908, is even older than the Canteen. Does that mean a sweet tooth is more powerful than a taste for loose meat? Whatever the answer, slurp a slushie or savor various soft serve delights, like sundaes, parfaits, and cones. 

A large Christmas tree in Sassy Sunflower's entrance, decked with a sunflower theme
Sunflowers are everywhere at the Sassy Sunflower!

22. Look great and quench caffeine cravings at the Sassy Sunflower

As a Sunflower State resident, I automatically loved the Sassy Sunflower. With the cheerful flowers everywhere, the shop felt like Kansas translated to an Iowa town. The shop is full of their namesake flower, along with fun women’s apparel and home décor items. Plus, the shop includes a coffee house to start your day. I recommend the bagel sandwich and a bowl of maple brown sugar oatmeal chased with The Warrior, house espresso, Ghirardelli chocolate, and raspberry.

A staff member places tropical fruit parfaits on the counter
Everything is yummy at Botanistas Isa-Aby’s.

23. Eat well and support young entrepreneurs at Botanitas Isa-Aby’s

A family makes everything at Botanitas Isa-Aby‘s snack bar from fresh ingredients. The parents work in the kitchen while their children, Isa and Aby, work in the front of the house. The young entrepreneurs are delightful, and all the dishes are authentic Mexican. Hard-shell tacos are banned, but the soft-shell tacos are delicious. The restaurant makes slushies from fresh juices, which are frozen and served in a cup. Finish your meal with a hand-dipped ice cream cone.


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Pond with numerous lily pads on the edges, surrounded by trees and wildflowers
One of the ponds at Pioneer Ridge Nature Area.

24. Encounter nature at the Pioneer Ridge Nature Area

The Pioneer Ridge Nature Area is six miles south of Ottumwa, Iowa, north of the Davis-Wapello County line. The area’s 995 acres of land includes a nature center, a half-mile accessible trail, two shelters with picnic tables, grills, water, and restrooms. The nature center houses some exquisite taxidermy mounts. 

Wander over 12 miles of multi-use trails, fish in four ponds, and watch the birds in an observation blind. We walked the accessible trail to the lovely lily pond. I was dying to explore the other trails on my bike. For an extended stay, rent modern log cabins or camping cabins year-round. A small campground includes nine electric campsites and three unpowered ones.

25. Cruise at Lake Wapello State Park 

Lake Wapello State Park is only 20 minutes from Prairie Ridge. More than 1,000 acres of hilly woodlands wrap around the 289-acre lake. Soak in the sun at one of Iowa’s best sand beaches with a large beach house. Fish from jetties, accessible piers, and the shore for bluegill, channel catfish, sunfish, and more. Cruise the lake in your canoe, kayak, or motorboat.

On land, hike the seven-mile Lake Shore Trail or the nature trail, and reserve a shelter for gatherings. Ski cross-country skiing and ride snowmobiles during the winter. Thirteen full-service cabins welcome guests, while the campground has full hook-up, electric, and unpowered sites near the lake. Shower houses are nearby.

Roxie’s reliable report: Download a park map.

Don’t miss Ottumwa’s many interesting attractions. After all, haven’t you always wanted to be in American Gothic?

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