Ottumwa is a city of rich history and unusual quality. In the early 1800’s the area was populated by several Native Peoples.  The Ioway tribe had pre-historic connections to the area; the Mesquaki and Sac were relative newcomers.  As westward expansion approached, these tribes were moved to western reservations and Wapello County was opened for a land rush on May 1, 1843. By the end of May over 5,000 settlers came to the county to claim land for crop, livestock and homesteading. About 470 acres of the Ottumwa area was settled by investors of the Appanoose Rapids Company. Over time the name of the community changed from Louisville to Ottumwa. By 1844, Ottumwa was declared the county seat of Wapello County and began to develop as a city.

The population of Ottumwa boomed from 1,632 to over 5,000 from 1860 to 1870 and continued to grow to a peak population of 33,871 in 1960 before declining to 25,000 in 2000. The closure of several manufacturing plants in the 1960’s left a shortage of jobs in Ottumwa, forcing many to leave the city. The region also suffered agricultural crises and flooding, further contributing to out-migration. Ottumwa has traditionally served as the trade and economic center of Southeast Iowa. Community leaders realize that it will take vision, commitment and hard work to continue this role into the 21st century. Ottumwa is growing. A number of sizable developments have spurred a great deal of additional commercial interest in Ottumwa. Locally owned businesses, as well as national corporations continue investing in our community through expansion and/or opening new facilities in Ottumwa.    The expanding commercial districts and industrial base make Ottumwa a strong, viable and expanding community. Through progressive partnerships between City government and private business and industry, we are looking forward to an era of growth.

Links To History
Old Iowa Press – Online transcriptions from 19th and early 20th century Iowa newspapers.
Wapello County IAGenWeb – Online historical resources geared to geneology.







Fun Facts and Tidbits

Radar O'Reilly

Ottumwa is the hometown of Corporal Walter Eugene "Radar" O’Reilly, a fictional character in the M*A*S*H novels, film and television series. The character is inspired by company clerk Don Shaffer, also born in Ottumwa and nicknamed "Radar" by his compatriots, and who served alongside the creator of M*A*S*H in the Korean War.

Video Game Capital of the World

Ottumwa, Iowa is the Video Game Capital of the World! How did we get this unique distinction? Back in the early 1980's, our hometown video arcade, Twin Galaxies, began keeping official high scores and records for video gaming. Ottumwa hosted the first North American Video Olympics in the fall of 1982 where top players gathered and played in Ottumwa. This event was featured in a LIFE magazine photograph. Twin Galaxies organized the first significant video-game championship, to crown a world champion. This event was filmed in Ottumwa by ABC-TV's That's Incredible! and was aired on the night of February 21, 1983. Twin Galaxies - the arcade - is long gone. But Twin Galaxies lives on as the official organization that tracks video game world records - like the Guinness Book of World Records for video gaming achievement. As the original "Dodge City of Video Games", where high scoring players came to complete and break records, Ottumwa holds a unique place in the golden age of video gaming.

The Foam Hand Connection

Back in 1971, Ottumwa High School senior Steve Chmelar constructed a giant hand out of hardware cloth and papier-mâché for the Boy's State Basketball Finals. As the Ottumwa Bulldogs battled the Davenport West Falcons, Steve showed everyone who's #1 with his giant hand. Photos of this creative fan were taken by the Associated Press and published in the Des Moines Tribune and the 1971 Ottumwa High School Class Yearbook, the "Argus" in Ottumwa, Iowa. Other sports fans tinkered with the same idea until I979, the first commercially produced polyurethane foam hands with the raised index finger hit the market. While others may have brought the foam hand to the masses, and made lots of money doing it, Ottumwan's know who really was #1.

Little Chicago?

Legend has it, in the days when Prohibition was the law of the land, that members of a certain Chicago based underground business would frequently come to Ottumwa. Perhaps they needed to "get out of town" for a while, or came to meet "business associates" from other parts of the mid-west. In any case, we do know that Ottumwa was on the train route to Chicago, and other cities, and that we boasted a number of fine hotels. Gangsters of that era may well have visited, but due to the nature of their business, they remained low key, out of sight, off the record and on the QT. The nickname "Little Chicago" comes from those heady days of hot jazz, gangsters, G-men and speakeasys. Are the stories true? We ain't snitchin'.

Worst School Song In Iowa

Once upon a time, Des Moines Register columnist Chuck Offenburger named our beloved high school fight song as the worst in the state. Here's the scoop in Offenburger's own words: "In the early 1980s, I had conducted a contest one fall in my Des Moines Register column, asking my readers to help pick the “Worsts of Iowa” – the worst display of lawn ornaments in someone’s yard, the worst-looking girls’ basketball uniform, the worst dog in the state, the worst school name, worst town slogan, worst high school fight song, and more. I had correctly picked the Ottumwa High School Fight Song as the worst in that category. If you’ve ever heard it, you know what I mean. “But it’s an original!” Ottumwans would say in defense. Of course it is, I’d respond, who else would copy it?
When they invited me the following spring to speak at the Ottumwa High commencement, well, I gave them my best message. Then I closed by caving in and singing a stirring solo on the fight song – using all the words and hitting all the notes. I had memorized them. I even did the “Johnny get a rat trap, bigger than a cat trap…” chant in the middle of the song. And also the “La-veevo, la-vivo, sis, boom, bah!” Heck, I can still sing every word of it now, more than 20 years later, which I guess proves that the Ottumwa Fight Song is so bad that it’s actually good."

For the record, here is the finest high school fight song in Iowa... and the entire upper mid-west...
Ottumwa High School Song:

Ottumwa High will always be our school
And we’ll ever love her true.
We’ll sing for her, we’ll yell for her
And my, what we won’t do!
We’ll put her on the map,
And see that she stands pat,
For we love her true we do.

Northside, southside, and all around the town
We’ll all join in together to root for OHS
In football, basketball, and every kind of sport,
We’ll cheer her on to victory
For Dear Old OHS, Rah! Rah! Rah! For Ottumwa!

LaVevo! LaVivo! LaVevo! Vivo Vum!
Johnny Get a Rat Trap, Bigger than a cat trap,
Johnny Get a Rat Trap, Bigger than a cat trap,
LaVevo! LaVivo! SST! Boom! Bah!

Northside, southside, and all around the town
We’ll all join in together to root for OHS
In football, basketball, and every kind of sport,
We’ll cheer her on to victory
For Dear Old OHS, Rah! Rah! Rah! For Ottumwa!

Who Is The Book Bandit?

Stephen Blumberg (born St. Paul, Minnesota) was a rare book collector who lived in Ottumwa. On March 20, 1990, the F.B.I. raided Blumberg's home where they recovered more than 23,600 rare, valuable and assorted other books stolen from 268 or more universities and museums in 45 states, Washington D.C. and 2 Canadian provinces. His stolen collection was worth $5.3 million in 1990; Blumberg became known as the Book Bandit and was recognized as the "most successful book thief in the history of the United States."