Published August 18th, 2023 at 6:00 AM9 minute read
OTTAWA, Kansas — Diana Staresinic-Deane pointed to a painted mark high on the wall of the Old Train Depot Museum lobby.
“The 1951 flood mark,” it read.
“Ottawa’s entire existence has been plagued by flooding,” Staresinic-Deane, executive director of the Franklin County Historical Society, said of the community straddling the Marais des Cygnes River.
“When you look at the map, you notice it’s very long, because everyone was just trying to get away from the river. But despite all of these floods, the town continued to rebuild and thrive.”
Today, downtown Ottawa maintains that historic feel with colorful Victorian facades, a stunning courthouse, the world’s oldest operating movie theatre and a wide variety of shops, restaurants and businesses to serve locals and visitors.
Squint a little while driving down Main Street and you can almost see an old Frank Capra movie. When you pop into a shop or restaurant, you half expect to see George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Ottawa, named after the native people who previously lived here (the tribe was forced into Kansas from their northern homelands during the Indian Removal Act of the early 1800s) quickly became a hub.
It was situated along a section of the Marais des Cygnes where travelers could ford the waters.
“If you look at the trails in the old survey maps from the 1850s, the trails sort of funnel like an hourglass to where Ottawa is then go back out,” Staresinic-Deane explained.
Ottawa would continue to be a local hub as trains made connections through town. It spurred development downtown as folks came to stay the night and do their shopping.
It’s no longer a stop along passenger railways, but those historic rail lines are still a draw for visitors — they now come to bike or hike along the trails.
Ottawa is intersected by the Prairie Spirit rail trail, running north-south along the old Leavenworth, Lawrence and Galveston (LL&G) railroad, and by the east-west Flint Hills Trail following what was formerly the Missouri-Pacific line.
The Flint Hills Trail State Park starts in nearby Osawatomie and stretches 118 miles to Herington, Kansas, making it the longest rail trail in Kansas and the eighth longest in the country. The Prairie Spirit Trail State Park is shorter and extends 56 miles from Ottawa to Humboldt, Kansas.
Ottawa Bike and Trail is situated right at the crossroads of the two trails in the downtown district. Jeff Carroll, the shop’s owner, said he sees plenty of traffic from folks all over the state and the country coming to bike.
Carroll has leaned into his role as a connector to the trail. He offers bike and e-bike rentals, group rides, trail maps and a drop-off service for folks who want to start somewhere along the trail and ride back to Ottawa.
“We’re bringing people from all over that come riding every weekend,” Carroll said. “We put the bike shop here because of the trails.”
Carroll is cultivating a community and sense of attraction to the trails through weekly group rides and partnerships with local businesses — including the nearby Not Lost Brewery.
“If you look at other cities like Ottawa that have really embraced the trails, (popularity) is going to go up,” Carroll said.
The trails are accessible for all skill levels and feature a variety of scenery from tree cover to Kansas farmland and the glorious Flint Hills.
“You get to experience a lot of these small towns in Kansas,” Carroll said of the trail routes. “And I think the highlight is the Flint Hills … A lot of people drive through (the Flint Hills), but the best way to really experience it is on a bike, riding slow and being in it.”
Beyond the good riding and the increased business for his shop, Carroll wants the trails to become more popular to benefit the town.
“The other thing is, when they get here, they realize that we have one of the coolest main streets in the state,” Carroll said. “If people come here, they’re going to shop here.”
“All trails lead to Ottawa,” Sara Stauffer said, quoting a slogan that the town has embraced.
Stauffer was recently named the president of the Ottawa Main Street Association, an organization that has been around since the early 2000s but was hardly active in recent years. The past year, she has collaborated with the Chamber of Commerce, the Office of Economic Development and a new board to revive the association and its impact downtown.
“Showing the community that we can all work together to grow is kind of the stage that we’re in right now,” Stauffer said.
That includes everyone. Stauffer said you don’t have to own a business downtown to be an investor in the community.
“If you have a thriving downtown, your community is thriving,” Stauffer said.
While the downtown was by no means dead, renewed revitalization efforts are making a difference. Stauffer said many of the currently vacant buildings have been sold and businesses will open soon.
Stauffer is also working with the Chamber and department of economic development to encourage downtown business owners to invest in converting their upper-level spaces into housing. Often, this includes connecting them to available grants and resources for these renovations.
“If there’s no push for the community to be involved in (downtown) it can become a ghost town very easily,” she said. “With as much growth as we have around us, it’s either we grow with it, or we’ll be absorbed by it.”
Before taking over Loyd Builders in his hometown of Ottawa, Josh Walker was working on big development projects that he felt made a difference in Kansas City.
Then it hit him.
“I made the realization that I was going to be able to live in my hometown and make it a better place,” Walker said.
And he has.
Among many local projects, in 2018 Walker started renovating an old building downtown. Throughout its history, it had been a lumberyard, car dealership, clothing manufacturer and grocery store. Before Walker bought the building, only 19% of its usable space was occupied.
Now as a multi-use building with upstairs apartments and ground-floor offices and a café /gallery, the 28,000-square-foot Corner Market is fully occupied.
Walker always appreciated how the industrial building stood out from the Victorian architecture downtown. He wanted to honor the building’s history by keeping parts of the old brick exposed and incorporating a patio in the area that was once a gas station.
All projects in downtown Ottawa, because it’s a historic area, must be approved by the State Historic Preservation Office. Despite Walker’s intentions, the office did not approve his first proposal and he had to appeal with letters of support from the community to embark on the project.
“I certainly want to preserve history and preserve the architecture, but one of the best ways that we can make sure things don’t fall in disrepair is that they’re getting used,” Walker said. “So, finding a balance between preserving that history and still being able to utilize the building for modern uses is important.”
The Corner Market now is often full of college students cramming for exams, sweet old ladies with their knitting and everything in between.
“Downtown is kind of … where the community started,” Walker said. “Being able to retain that, I think is important.”
Ottawa’s progress can also be seen through the diversity of its businesses, and their willingness to adapt to the modern consumer.
Lisa Myers took over Front Porch antiques from its retiring owner about four years ago, after keeping a booth in the shop for many years.
She didn’t want to change too much. But she decided to incorporate some locally made goods in addition to the antique booths, and so far, it’s been a hit.
Antiquing is a big draw for Ottawa. The river town has six antique stores, each with impressive collections, and owners who happily direct customers from one store to the next.
“For antique stores, people are drawn to a community that has more than just one store,” Myers said.
Folks from Kansas City, Topeka, Olathe and surrounding counties will spend a day in Ottawa to hunt for treasures of yesteryear.
“Increasingly we have people coming back and saying, ‘Hi I brought my friend,’” Myers said. “So, it’s actually worth the drive. We’re not just saying that.”
Downtown Ottawa also supports some unique shops, like the Goat Milk Soap Store, a bulk goods store, and Fue Déjà Vu which sells handcrafted clothing and accessories.
When Julie Riggins first considered opening her Goat Milk Soap store in downtown Ottawa, a town with just 12,600 people, she was nervous.
“But the community has supported us through the shutdown with the pandemic and still to this day,” Riggins said.
Riggins sells everything from pet shampoos to colorful bath bombs in her store on the 200 block of Main Street. Most of her clients are Franklin County residents, though she figures about 30% of her customers come from Kansas City, Topeka, Olathe and surrounding areas.
Riggins said the efforts made by the Main Street Association and the Chamber have been very helpful.
“I have seen some really great things … just with the work that they’ve done downtown and getting people to shop downtown,” Riggins said.
Just this week, Ottawa had its first “Third Thursday” event, an initiative Stauffer hopes will draw students from Ottawa University and other parts of the community.
Much like Atchison, downtown Ottawa doesn’t have a strong relationship with its university student population. Stauffer said this is something she’s trying to build.
“An opportunity of growth is the way I see it,” Stauffer said.
More students are moving downtown in search of housing in an incredibly tight market. Some have taken up residence in the Corner Market.
Recently, Stauffer saw a pair of students walking around downtown, so she stopped to chat and asked them why they chose Ottawa.
“The hometown feel,” the students told her.
“That says a lot because you could have picked anywhere go to school,” Stauffer said.
Similar sentiments can be found in many small towns. But somehow, Ottawa has a special charm.
Despite its size and relative proximity to larger hubs like Lawrence or Kansas City, Ottawa has always attracted visitors and free thinkers.
In the late 1800s, the Chautauquas (popular social and educational gatherings for free thinking around art, politics and religion) of New York spread to the rural community. Ottawa hosted Susan B. Anthony and other prominent figures in its Forest Park.
“These are major political figures in the United States, who said the people meeting in Ottawa are worth my time to interact with,” Staresinic-Deane said.
Ottawa has once again gained national attention.
This weekend the community will open a Smithsonian exhibit, “Voices and Votes: Democracy in America.” The exhibit at the Old Depot Museum encourages viewers to ask, “who has the right to vote, what are the freedoms and responsibilities of citizens, and whose voices will be heard?”
Ottawa is one of six Kansas cities that will host the exhibit, and is the closest to Kansas City.
Besides the 38 crates and 2,200 pounds worth of exhibit material the depot received, Staresinic-Deane and the historic society have put together Franklin County-specific pieces relating to groups and individuals who have fought for or bravely defended their democratic rights.
More information on the exhibits can be found on the Old Depot Museum website. The exhibit runs through Oct. 1.
“My entire goal is to just engage the community in the story and for them to recognize that they are part of the history,” Staresinic-Deane said. “It’s not just the big names … every single person who passes through this town is part of the town story.”
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.