“[We aim to] get more people into the parks,” Ottumwa Parks and Recreation Director Gene Rathje says of the department’s mission.
“Parks are for people—to serve taxpayers in the community, [and to provide] green space,” Rathje adds.
Rathje has served the department for the past eight-and-a-half years.
During that time, he initiated his original urban trout stocking plan and supervised renovations of City Hall, the Beach Ottumwa, Central Park, and the campground and ponds at Greater Ottumwa Park.
Rathje notes that one of the department’s most valuable projects was “getting [the] campground turned around and working properly [such that] since 2009, attendance and revenue has tripled”.
The department has also replaced outdated equipment at several city parks during the past few years.
According to Rathje, the department’s budget for improvements can range anywhere from $30,000 to $500,000 per year, depending on the amount of money that is available.
Funds come mostly from grants, federal allowances, and volunteer contributions.
The Parks and Recreation Department spends the majority of its funds on operations, maintenance, sanitation, and local events.
Without revealing too many details, Rathje added that Disc Golf fans may have something to cheer about in the coming months.
Wapello County Supervisor Jerry Parker served the department during the parks’ heyday in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Parker became Park Commissioner in 1974 and oversaw dozens of improvements to Ottumwa’s public lands.
“We wanted a park in every neighborhood, [so we] put standard equipment in each one,” Parker notes.
In conjunction with information gathered from park-experienced professionals Gene Rathje and Jerry Parker, Ottumwa Radio News assigned a unique award and in-depth perspective to each of Ottumwa’s 19 parks.
Ballingall Park earns the “Most Beautiful” Award for its 1950’s-era fountain and train depot. According to the City of Ottumwa website, “Ballingall Park is on the National Register of Historic Places as part of a historical railroad district”. Ottumwa Radio employee Tracy Songer recalls hot summer days spent wading in the fountain. Today, the park is most used as a scenic walkway for individuals when boarding and departing from the Amtrak train station.
The Bark Park earns the award for “Most Pet Friendly” park as it’s one of the only public places a dog can roam leash-free to meet and interact with other pets and people. According to Rathje, the park was constructed in 2009 after a local citizen suggested the idea. Area individuals raised the $22,000 needed to build the park, and since its construction the parks department has never charged a fee for its use. The Bark Park includes equipment one might find at a dog show, supplies to clean up any mess your dog might make while visiting, as well as a specially-designed water fountain for both pets and people.
Bell Park earns the “Most Private and Peaceful” award. Located in the heart of Schwartz Drive’s suburban neighborhood on Ottumwa’s north side, Bell Park is the perfect spot for family fun. The park was originally a piece of city property filled with around 4 acres of corn. After the purchase of the land and two adjacent lots for street access, the area was accessorized with playground equipment and trees courtesy of an arrangement made with the local Isaac Walton League.
Caldwell Park earns the “Most Natural” award. The park was originally filled with standard playground equipment and utilized as a typical park. Park maintenance fell by the wayside following massive reductions in park staff. Today, according to the City of Ottumwa website, the park is “maintained as an upland oak Savannah, a once common Iowa landscape”.
Central park, located in the heart of the city, earns the “Most Event-Friendly” award. The park’s bandstand was renovated during Parker’s term as commissioner, and he remembers being able to drive around the park. “[It] made it more useable,” Parker says of the park’s former design with a roadway all around. Today, the park is used to host a variety of entertainment and community events. Rathje notes that the park has received such recent improvements as roll-down curtains on the side of the stage, engraved monuments, and a $15,000 electric sign that displays upcoming event information.
Foster Park earns the “Most Historic” award. The park is one of Rathje’s favorites, as it is a “scenic overlook park [with] history”. The park is located on Ottumwa’s east side, near the city’s larger factories. According to the City of Ottumwa website, the park is “named after George Foster, grandson of John Morrell, founder of Morrell Meat Packing”. In addition to a beautiful view, the park has playground equipment, restroom facilities, a picnic table, and a shelter.
Franklin Park earns the “Best for Sledding: North Side” award. The park was originally a part of Ottumwa’s Franklin School. Parker notes that the park was constructed during a period of “urban renewal… [in order] to benefit low-income to moderate families”. The park is home to a steep hill perfect for sledding or rolling down the hill in a blanket, standard playground equipment, picnic tables, and disc golf equipment.
Hamilton Park earns the “Best Place to Climb a Tree” award for its multitude of wild trees and unchartered gully. The City of Ottumwa website notes the park is “an excellent place to get ‘close to nature’”. The park will likely remain a place for citizens of Ottumwa to explore the wilderness without leaving city limits.
Harmon Park earns both the “Most Promising for Future Development” and “That’s a park?” awards. Located between the Westgate Tower Apartment Complex and a set of railroad tracks on Ottumwa’s west side, the park is small and sparse. Its only features are a picnic table and a scattered handful of trees. Parker notes that the park’s trees came from the Isaac Walton League as well. Today, local citizens can enjoy a picnic in Ottumwa’s quietest park.
Hillcrest Park earns the “Most in Need of New Equipment” award. The park sits on top of a large underground water tank used by the Ottumwa Water Works. Built during Parker’s term, the Parks and Recreation Department had to be careful not to damage the reservoir buried underneath. “We only had about two feet of fill, then it’s the tank,” Parker notes. Today, the park’s sparse and awkward layout of outdated equipment (circa 1970s) is virtually an untouchable problem for the department. However, local citizens can still enjoy its “playground equipment, shelter, facilities for baseball/softball, [and] basketball and tennis,” according to the City of Ottumwa website.
Jefferson Park earns the “Most Urban Park” award. The park was constructed in an effort to provide local public space for every neighborhood in Ottumwa, Parker says. Though the park is located in a gully and has limited parking options, its vast green space is perfect for family fun. The park also contains a merry-go-round, swing set, and a basketball court.
Memorial Park earns the “Most Scenic” award. The park has “been there forever,” according to Parker. The park boasts amenities including multiple entrances, and it is constantly being maintained and updated by the Parks and Recreation Department. Aside from typical playground equipment and green space, the City of Ottumwa website notes that the park has a “disc golf course, a 4-mile mountain bike trail constructed by volunteers, picnic tables, bar-be-cue grill, restrooms, trails, bridges, ponds, benches, and drinking fountains”. The park is also the site of the historic Merrill Cabin which can be rented for special events. Rathje notes that recent improvements to the watershed in the area have been completed. The mountain bike trail was damaged during the process, but Rathje says it’s been “almost completely repaired already”.
The Greater Ottumwa Park (GOP) easily earns the “Best Overall Park” award. The GOP was constructed on Ottumwa’s south side. It was later expanded following the straightening of the Des Moines River as it flows through Ottumwa. The expansion allowed then-director Paul Troeger to plant dozens of trees (transplanted from the tree nursery at Wildwood Park) all throughout the area. Jerry Parker succeeded Troeger as Parks Commissioner in 1974. He notes that Troeger “made it beautiful, and I came in after him and put people in there with activities”. During the years following the river expansion, several builders (such as Kmart) attempted to purchase the piece of riverfront land that would later become the Beach Ottumwa. However, according to Parker, those companies were unable to build along the river because the department had “used federal funds to develop [that area of] Ottumwa Park”. Today, the park is home to an impressive array of playground equipment, several ponds, athletic facilities for volleyball, softball, baseball and tennis, multiple shelters, and extensive trails for walking and biking.
Pickwick Park earns the “Best Neighborhood Park: South Side” award. According to Parker, the park lost some of its size when the nearby Douma School purchased some of the city land to make space for a field and parking lot. Today, the park has plenty of room for activities and family fun. The City of Ottumwa website notes that the park has a shelter, picnic tables and playground equipment.
The Skate Park earns the “Most Likely to See an Ambulance” award. Built in the late 1990’s, the park is the perfect place for individuals to test out skateboard equipment. The park has excellent river and railroad track views due to its location on the riverbank edge of the Market Street Bridge. According to the City of Ottumwa website, the “free park features miniramps, a spine ramp, and a street course with boxes, rails, banks, and quarterpipes… [and is] open 24/7”. Individuals should wear protective helmets and kneepads when participating in activities at the Ottumwa Skate Park. Skateboards, roller blades, BMX bikes and more are all welcome at the Skate Park. Recent improvements by the Ottumwa Police Department, including the installation of the Downtown Camera System, have improved the park’s security and reputation. The Ottumwa Rotary Club recently installed a flag display and monument between the Skate Park and the Des Moines River.
Sycamore Park earns the “Best Shelter” and “Best Playground” awards. The park’s namesake comes from the manifold sycamore trees planted by Troeger during the development of the Greater Ottumwa Park. The City of Ottumwa website notes that the park “features the Kids First Playground, a picnic shelter and plenty of fresh air”. The park is located right next to the Beach Ottumwa along the Des Moines River.
Troeger Park earns the “Best Tennis Courts” award. Originally part of Riverside Park, Troeger Park is home to tennis courts and horseshoe courts. The tennis courts are utilized by Ottumwa High School teams for practices and tennis matches. The park also offers great views of the Oxbow Lagoon by the Beach Ottumwa and a monument honoring Troeger’s legacy.
Union Park earns the “Best Neighborhood Park: North Side” award. According to Parker, Union Park was originally much bigger, and once hosted Ottumwa’s semi-pro baseball teams. The fields were eventually torn down and the area was converted into a city park. Local union workers helped construct the iconic “Union Park” brick pillars that mark the perimeter of the park. Several years later, the city of Ottumwa allowed the Mid-West Little League to build baseball fields within the park. Today, the park hosts ball games in addition to typical playground and park equipment and plenty of green space.
Lastly, Wildwood Park earns the “Best Park for Year-Round Activities” award. The park is home to an adventurous disc golf course as well as rolling hills, playground equipment, picnic shelters, plenty of trees, fields for baseball, softball, and tennis, and wide expanses of green space. Local residents recommend the park’s hills for sledding during the snowy winter season. The park is also an excellent place to bust out your kite, RC plane or drone and take to the skies.
While not technically a city park, the Ottumwa/Wapello County Trail System earns the award for “Best park for exercising and weight loss opportunities.” Maintained by the Ottumwa Parks Department, the Wapello County Trails Council has raised more than $2 Million to date for the construction of the more than 10 miles of trails throughout town. Construction began in 1998 with the Ottumwa Park Trail. Major expansions and improvements occurred in 2002 and every year between 2006 and 2011. More recent improvements include the expansion of the trail crossing on the Market Street Bridge, the construction of the Highway 34 underpass near Jimmy Jones Shelter and the installation of exercise equipment at the trail head nearest the playground in the Greater Ottumwa Park (a parks department project).
The city of Ottumwa holds 19 city parks within its 16.5 square mile area. Local citizens should visit at least one park a day (or 19 a day, as we did). Parks and Recreation employees encourage individuals to get out there and enjoy the fresh air at Ottumwa’s parks.
The department is always open to improvement and renovation suggestions through phone, email, office visits, and Parks and Recreation Department board meetings.
Individuals can volunteer with the department by simply filling out a volunteer waiver and requesting an assignment for improvement.
For more information on the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, click HERE.
For information on picnic shelter reservations, call 682-7873 or visit the department’s office at the Beach Ottumwa at 101 Church Street.