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Back to the Future in Ottumwa
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Back to the Future in Ottumwa

When it comes to travel, I subscribe to sentiments like those of writer Henry Miller, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” And to those of Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger, “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.”  Travel is more than entertainment or diversion or escape.  It’s always an opportunity for learning and enrichment that can come from exploration and spur emotional-cognitive growth.

And the travel does not have to be exotic or expensive.  It can happen, and often does, in one’s own backyard.  That is what gives great potency to the practice of staycation.

Let me clarify, the staycation or backyard exploration also can be very exotic. My recent travels took me to New Providence, Hardin County, Iowa; which is the home of a surge of millennial entrepreneur activity and which may be the epicenter for new models to revitalize rural communities. Those travels also took me to Iowa Falls, also in Hardin County. There I discovered the gorgeous Metropolitan Opera House, opened in 1899 and built by Eugene Ellsworth, Iowa Falls has just over 5,200 residents. New Providence has only around 228. But in those Iowa backyards, exoticism indeed reigns.


Ottumwa is pretty exotic, too.  It bills itself as a city of bridges and it has the stately Hotel Ottumwa. You might find yourself in the area to visit Indian Hills Community College or to take in a performance at the Bridge View Center. Or you might be sixteen miles away in Eldon to see Grant Wood’sAmerican Gothic” house. Take some time, however, to do an interesting experiment in time travel and cultural journeys.

By visiting two Ottumwa fast food restaurants, you can go back to the future and beyond.  


Maurice and Richard McDonald opened their first restaurant in 1948, half a country away in San Bernardino, California. The restaurant was purchased a few years later by Ray Kroc, and you know the rest of the story.  Ottumwa has two McDonald’s stores, and one is located downtown at 222 Richmond Avenue.

Last summer, this Richmond Avenue store closed and updated to the new McDonald’s restaurant format which features DIY kiosk ordering.

A Changing Landscape

There are wide-ranging economic and cultural implications – wrapped up in dynamics of minimum wage increase pushes, automation, and technology – for fast food restaurants as they move to DIY ordering. These implications may eventually decimate fast food restaurants' human workforces.  Fast food restaurants employ high school students, retirees, and immigrants and are a good source of low-skilled employment.  The labor landscape, like everything else, will always be in an evolving state.  There may even one day be guaranteed minimum income (GMI) for workers displaced by automation.

            These are heady thoughts to have while consuming a Big Mac.

For now, I invite you just to experience the appearance of fast food kiosk ordering.

At the renovated McDonald’s there are still friendly maî·tre d's present to help with ordering. As you order, you can ponder whether you have stepped into the future or are just recycling the past. Remember the Automat.

The Canteen

Across the river at 112 East Second Street and sheltered partially by a parking ramp is The Canteen, a loose-meat sandwich shop that really ought to be on the bucket list of any card-carrying Iowan. (Vegetarians and vegans excused, of course.) This restaurant was started in 1927 by Dusty Rhoades. The restaurant in its current form did not come into play until 1936.  Decades ago when a contemporary parking ramp was built, passion for the restaurant and its traditions forced the ramp to be built around the restaurant rather than over it.  Not many wanted to demolish the quaint little building and the life it held.

Like the Hamburg Inn in Iowa City, the restaurant is a go-to stop for campaigning politicians.

Your sandwich order will likely be in your hands in less than sixty seconds. And even though the sandwiches are quite filling, you will be tempted to order a second. If you want to walk into living Iowa culinary history, you cannot miss by visiting the Canteen.

A Fast Food Staycation

A meal at either McDonald’s or The Canteen won’t cost you any more than $10 and will probably cost you less.  Ottumwa is a short drive (1.5 hours or less) from any point in southeast Iowa. By having lunch at The Canteen and dinner at McDonald’s (or vice versa), you can walk the streets of Ottumwa and travel through time – without even needing a Star Trek transporter.  You will you engage a very unique way of experiencing historical and contemporary American fast food meals.  And you will have done this exploration and learning right in your Iowa backyard of Ottumwa.

            How exotic.


The Canteen.  Ottumwa, Iowa.  Photo credit: Patrick Muller

Leave a Comment

  1. Patrick Muller
    In this blog, I referenced the Hamburg Inn in Iowa City. While I can use standard links -- such as to a business' webpage, such links are easy to find on one's own. When I can, I like to add links that provide a little more texture. For my Ray Kroc reference, I linked to the trailer for the Kroc biopic, "The Founder." For my Grant Wood reference, I linked to one of the best biographies of the Iowa artist. For the Hamburg Inn link, I was able to link to another Travel Iowa blog post by another blogger. I like it when blogs don't just give information or someone's analysis but offer encourage conversation and connection.
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  2. iowegian3
    In the case of The Canteen, the parking ramp helped to reconstruct the lost ambience of what used to be known as the Canteen Lunch In The Alley. Before urban renewal in the 70s, the Canteen Lunch was surrounded by the back doors of buildings that fronted Second Street. My first to the Canteen was with my folks in the late 60s one evening after Christmas shopping. It would seem counter-intuitive to take little kids down a dark alley, but after a 100 foot walk we reached the well lit, squat building, with people waiting for seats at the horseshoe counter. It's been entirely too bright and sunny at the Canteen all these years, which is why it's only natural that a parking garage was built above it.
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    1. Patrick Muller
      Thanks for this wonderful little anecdote.
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