Small-Town Tourist

“You should visit Ottawa,” my new hair stylist said as she trimmed around one ear. I’d just announced that I was a blogger, and she was doing her best to roll with the conversational punches. “It’s a great little town. We have a historic courthouse and an active downtown shopping district. You really should see it.”

I warmed to the pride in her voice. She sounded like she knew what she was talking about. “Is that your family?” I asked, and pointed to a photo of four blondies in boots and cowboy hats, swinging on a metal gate.

She nodded in the mirror. “We raise livestock.”

There’s something about a farmer that makes me want to trust her. And so, on the first warm day in March, I picked up my friend April and headed 30 miles south on I-35 to Ottawa, Kansas, the Franklin County seat. We parked a block off Main Street, in the Downtown Ottawa Historic District, and headed off to tour on foot.

Picture courtesy of Ichabod,
Picture courtesy of Ichabod,

A historical marker greeted us as we rounded the corner onto Main. Being good tourists, we stopped and read every word about the imposing structure across the street. The Franklin County Courthouse anchors the Downtown Historic District with its dignified red brick presence. It was built in 1893 by George P. Washburn, a hometown Ottawa man who designed fifteen Kansas courthouses, and (I read later) had a hand in over 300 other municipal buildings. A Charlie Norton sculpture called “Buffalo Woman,” her papoose strapped to her back, stands on a pedestal outside the main entrance, while blind Justice balances precariously on the roof above.

Pillar detail on the Franklin County Courthouse
Pillar detail on the Franklin County Courthouse

The historical marker tipped us off to the limestone details of Washburn’s work, so we climbed the steps to examine the building up close. Sure enough, just as gargoyles in Paris have individually carved faces, Washburn added a little whimsy to his design. We found apples, stars and butterflies set into the pillars around the porch.

We set out to walk the perimeter of the courthouse square, but as we rounded the second corner our attention was caught by a lovely old church across the street. First Baptist Church looked to be about the same age as the courthouse, and just as majestic, with stained glass sanctuary windows and a belfry above the entrance.

“It doesn’t look open,” I said doubtfully.

April shrugged. “Try the door. If it’s locked, then we’ll know.”

We mounted the steps and tugged on the brass door handle, and—lo and behold!—it opened. After a quick glance around we stepped inside.

“How did you get in here?”

We turned to find a woman with a stack of mail in one hand following us in surprise. We explained about the door, and apologized for intruding. She waved away our apologies. “It’s good to know the place was unlocked. Would you like a tour?”

Ah, yes. The pinnacle of all tourist experiences: A willing local guide.

First Baptist Church ties with Ottawa University as the oldest institution in town. The current church building was indeed built within a year of the courthouse, and its sanctuary is a jewel of late nineteenth-century church architecture. She pointed out the grand fixture in the ceiling. “See the holes around the bottom? Apparently it was designed to draw air upward and keep the room temperature comfortable before there was central heating.”

Stained glass with the Kansas sun behind it
Stained glass with the Kansas sun behind it
First Baptist Church ceiling pedestal.
First Baptist Church ceiling pedestal.

I asked about the bell tower, and her face lit up. “It’s not a bell, it’s a carillon.” We traipsed up the balcony steps to see the machine that controls the carillon, then stood at the elegantly curved balcony for another look at the room below. A feast for the eyes.

When our tour concluded, we asked about good lunch spots. “Do you like barbeque?” our tour guide asked.

We nodded.

She sounded a little hungry herself as she gave us directions to Smoked Creations. We said goodbye and started off, our stomachs growling. We took our walking tour a block farther, to the old Carnegie library (now an arts center) and the Dietrich Log Cabin (not open on a Friday in March). But our hearts were no longer in it. We agreed to break for lunch.

Now, here’s the thing. When you’re from Kansas City, you don’t go out of town to eat barbeque. Not even if “out of town” is thirty miles down the road. Especially not if one of you dined at Joe’s Kansas City the night before. So, with all due respect to Smoked Creations, we tried the Keim Bakery instead, and we weren’t disappointed. The bakery, located in an old drug store building, has a restored lunch counter and a killer sandwich menu. One warning: those little round soda fountain stools aren’t as comfy as they look. Maybe next time we’ll opt for a booth.

After lunch we visited the Old Depot Museum, where we read about the Pottawatomie Massacre and stared into the stone-cold killer eyes of John Brown, who (luckily) now “lies a-mouldering in his grave.” Not a man I’d care to find prowling around my homestead on a dark prairie night.

JohnBrownThat concluded our tour of historic Ottawa, Kansas. As I turned the minivan north toward the suburbs, I felt refreshed. Good food, good friend, good visit. It’s going to be a wonderful spring.


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