OTTAWA — Throughout downtown Ottawa, seven murals portray pieces of the city’s history. The vivid paintings are easy to find, but to find out who’s in the paintings and why they’re important to Ottawa’s history, you’ll need to know who to call.
Ottawa Visitors Center has set up an audio tour that’s available by cell phone whenever tourists — or residents — want to get more informed about the art on the street.
Julie Johnson, executive director of the visitors center, said the cell phone tour has been available for five years. And while it’s the only one she knows of in the area, she said it’s not an unusual concept for museums or historic sites.
The paintings surely are worth more than a thousand words — one used buckets of paint, at $150 each, to ensure colors that would remain true for generations. But the tour, put together by the Ottawa Visitors Center and voiced by members of Court Street Cabaret, makes it easy to learn the stories behind these captured moments.
Mayor Bob Eschbach, in the recorded tour introduction, describes the series of murals as a unique attraction and a chance to learn about Ottawa’s colorful history. After the introduction, listeners can choose from a numbered menu to hear about the I & M Canal, William Wallace, “Ottawa’s First Residents” (the buffalo mural), the Peltier Glass Co., a 1950s streetscape, or the mural at Jefferson Elementary School, which features Big Bird and Ottawa native Bob McGrath of PBS’ “Sesame Street” fame. Julie Johnson said the tour will be updated this spring to include information about the city’s newest murals.
Denny Bute, an employee of the visitors center who sometimes gives tours, said his favorite is “A Hero for All Times,” the mural celebrating William H.L. Wallace on La Salle Street (southbound Route 23).
The narration for the mural depicting “Ottawa’s most famous soldier” is told from the perspective of his wife, Ann Dickey Wallace, who also is depicted in the mural.
“He was all that was greatest, best, truest and most tender,” the speaker says.
The couple met after her father, T. Lyle Dickey, met William Wallace on a train as he was headed for Springfield to work on Abraham Lincoln’s campaign. William Wallace set up a law practice with the elder Dickey and was expected to be a great politician someday.
The narration includes excerpts from letters, as well as the story of her journey to visit him at the Battle of Shiloh, where he was mortally injured and died with Ann by his side.
Painted in 2003 by G. Byron Peck, the mural shows Wallace riding a horse, surrounded by other soldiers from the area.
Bute said part of what makes these paintings unique — and of particular importance to local history — is the painters’ attention to detail.
The men surrounding Wallace aren’t just generic depictions of what a Civil War soldier may have looked like.
Each is based on a picture of another local soldier who fought in that war.
Similarly, a little farther south and around the corner, the 1950s
streetscape contains many individual portraits of local residents. The painting includes then-mayor Phil Bailey in a parade, while the very young Bob Eschbach, watches from his father’s shoulders, many years before he could have run for mayor. Alderman Wayne Eichelkraut also is pictured, as well as the late John Pocivasek, who at that time served as football coach for Ottawa Township High School.
The painting actually portrays the street on which it stands — the buildings depicted match, on a smaller scale, the buildings still standing just to the east. The visitors center has compiled a list of the names of the subjects that often is available at the Bee Hive restaurant on the corner; its south facade is incorporated into the mural.
Johnson said an unintended aspect of the mural creation was the community involvement that developed. Sometimes people would come out just to watch the painters at work.
To the north, another painting pays tribute to an Ottawa business. The first mural painted as part of the project, it honors the Peltier Glass Co. that produced glass for Louis Comfort Tiffany of stained glass window fame and Ford Motor Co. The company still operates in Ottawa.
The tour speech for Peltier Glass Co. is narrated from the perspective of Victor Peltier and his wife, Marie, who identify themselves as “the couple up to the left” in the painting.
The speech describes Ottawa “on its way to prosperity,” in the mid-1800s, when the city’s population was just 8,000 and Victor, a French immigrant, founded the company. It would later be known for its unique marble-making machine that produced up to 250,000 marbles per day.
“In the 1920s and 30s, there was no television, no video, and we relied on simple games and our imagination. And the children’s favorite game was marbles,” the voice of Victor Peltier says.
Bute said that muralist strayed from the vision presented to the Brush with History committee. During the weeks he was working on the mural, residents interrupted to bring him pictures of their children that he often incorporated into the scene. Johnson said that interactive contribution was an unintended result of the public art process.
“He kind of got carried away,” Bute said.
The murals project is nearing its completion. The newest mural that covers the history of communication technology, will be unveiled May 25 on the side of the WCMY building. Unlike the previous seven murals, each painted on the buildings over the course of several weeks, the newest mural was completed on panels in the artist’s basement. Johnson said this allowed the work to be created in the winter, when weather was not conducive to outdoor painting.
Only one or two more murals would be painted and likely completed within the next four years, according to Johnson.
“We’re running out of sides of buildings,” Johnson said.
Hit the streets in Ottawa and dial (866) murals1. The self-guided, cell phone tour is free. For information and a brochure, Ottawa Visitors Center is located at 100 W. Lafayette St. (on the grounds of Reddick Mansion), (888) 688-2924.
— The Day of the Great Debate, featuring the famous encounter between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, is a good place to start. On the south side of Washington Park, it’s easy to see at the corner of Jackson and La Salle streets. This mural is not yet included in the audio tour.
— Head west one block on Jackson to see Ottawa as a Canal Town at 909 Clinton St.
— Turn back east to La Salle Street, where you’ll find The Life of General W.H.L. Wallace at 815 La Salle St. on the west side of the street. Look up to see the buffalo in Ottawa’s Earliest Residents at 812 La Salle St., on the east side.
— A little further south, the Peltier Glass Factory mural can be seen on the south side of Jefferson Street, between La Salle and Columbus streets.
— One block south of Peltier Glass, find Streetscape Reflections on the north side of Madison Street, between La Salle and Columbus streets, facing the downtown courthouse.
— Imagine and Learn with Bob McGrath, the Sesame Street-themed mural, can be found further north at 1709 Columbus St., north of U.S. 6. It’s easily visible from Route 23/Columbus Street.
— COMING SOON: A mural on the history of communications will be unveiled May 25 at 216 W. Lafayette St., north of the Canal Town mural.