Faces of the Chamber

Faces of the Chamber : Celebrating the stories of those who make Ottumwa extraordinary.

Over the last few months, we’ve been working with local freelance artist Isaac Campbell to create a photo series documenting a selection of Chamber members in Ottumwa. Each post will be accompanied by a quote, highlighting the unique stories of the people who work there. Our Chamber isn’t made up of buildings and storefronts, but by the PEOPLE who work so hard to cultivate a sense of community and pride in Ottumwa.

Starting tomorrow, we’ll release a new set of images from the series every Friday afternoon for the next 25 weeks, so be sure to like our page! We also hope you’ll join in this celebration by sharing these photographs on social media and commenting your own experiences with these great contributors to our community.

Double C - Cowboy Country

“This was my dream when I was young - to have a tack store. I’ll tell ya, when I was growing up in barrel racing, there wasn’t a leather breast collar to be found - you had to buy nylon. I always thought we needed a good leather shop. And so I’d go by this store and I was like ‘man that would be a great little place for a western store’ so I finally I stopped in when I saw the guy out mowing one day...I said ‘So you want to sell that building?’ and he was riding his lawn mower you know and he’s like ‘well I think my mom actually does want to sell it’...He shot me a price...So I came back with a counter offer and they thought about it a while and accepted it and so I was like ‘Well, I’m in business!’. It was funny because I had to sell my horse trailer to buy inventory; but it was worth it. It’s a pretty good feeling of accomplishment I think, that’s the big thing. You know, because you dream of it, and then eventually it happens; so it’s...a rewarding experience to own your own store.

- Chris Carnahan, Double C - Cowboy Country

Rhynas Jewelers

“I enjoy doing things with my hands - to turn that over to a computer, I think, is cheating. Anymore, the technology is there to do what’s known as computer aided design, or CAD, where things are done by the computer or the wax is carved by a computer. We’re more old school than that. From a young age, washing windows and cleaning sidewalks, oh, I just watched dad do his work. It’s kind of contagious to be around someone who has the skills to create jewelry from scratch. It’s kind of a rarity, even today to have those skills; most jewelers are actually just retailers. We’ve worked hard to cultivate those skills where we do our own wax work..actually we can make jewelry from sketches...from that to doing hand carving from wax and proceeding to make wax casting to finish, polish the pieces, and select and set gemstones. I learned a great deal from dad but he insisted we take professional training, not only in gemology but also in diamond studies...Judy is our certified gemologist with the American Gem Society and she is one of very few women in the state that have that title. We’ve got some gemstones you won’t find anywhere else in the state - it was my dad’s love, the colored stones. I have people coming in all the time, often times asking me ‘will my jewelry be sent away?’...we’re one of those few stores that do their own work right here. When you bring something in, it stays here. I’ll work on it myself or David will work on it. It stays here, and that’s comforting for people with sentimental pieces. It’s a wonderful business to be in..you get to meet people at the happiest times in their lives.”

- Kenneth Rhynas, Rhynas Jewelers

The Bridal Cottage

“I bought the business 14 years ago...My mom and I actually started it 28 years ago, we were in Bloomfield doing flowers and we got into doing bridal and then it became such a big business that we came to Ottumwa. I just did the bookwork from home and when my mom was ready to sell, I bought her out and took it over myself… I love everything about it. I love prom, I love the brides, I love everything about it. I love helping the customers, interacting with them; I love it when I help find the perfect dress. Everyone in the wedding party is just so happy and smiling..." - Kristie Durflinger, The Bridal Cottage

This could be your dream come true; own your own successful business today and call one of Ottumwa's experienced REALTORS™ to schedule a showing!


M & J Art Gallery

“We were young pups; I was 24, he was 25, and we bit the bullet - that was 1984. We actually bought it in 85 but moved here [from Des Moines] in 84, and we’ve been doing it ever since. We’ve done it so long that most customers are our friends, you know? So it really is nice. And we’ve done it long enough that we know how to ask a lot of questions so that what we provide for them is what they want and need. The best teacher in the world is making mistakes right? Doing it. I’ve probably made every mistake in the book, you know! I think with most craftsmen they have learned by the school of hard knocks; I think you eventually figure out. The first few years I was just ravenous in terms of getting more information on how to do it better.

A lot the shadowboxes are pretty neat. When we do something for someone who is doing it memory of their dad or whatnot, and we put it together and the customer comes in to pick it up and you see tears of joy - those are pretty touching. We love selling artwork and it may be ‘worth a lot of money’ but to a family, where we have created a family heirloom, those are really special. To them, there’s no way to put a value on it.” - Bill & Chris Abigt, Mand JGallery

Donna's Gift Court

“I met my husband [in California]...he was in the navy out there and this was his home. We moved back here in 1963. I had children; I did JC Penney's decorating for years...I worked at their downtown JC Penney store - and then I went into real estate. I sold real estate for twenty some years...and did wedding flowers out of my basement and one day the kids said ‘mom, you should go into business’ - and so we opened a store and I’ve been doing it ever since. I love it. I’ve always been my own boss - except for when I worked for JC Penney. Even in real estate I was my own boss, and now here. It isn’t so much about being your own boss, it’s something I love to do. I love decorating. I love meeting the people - I always have.” - Donna Spurgeon, Donna's Gift Court

Elegance by Design

“I had gone to my aunt’s house and she was making jewelry; she had taken a class up at the Wisconsin Dells and I thought I could do it too. I started making jewelry at home and didn’t have an outlet to sell it, and so I just decided that Ottumwa needed another unique little boutique…With the improvements that the community was making on the facades and the efforts of Main Street, I thought that downtown would be an exciting place to be...this was a good move. It’s nice to own my own business because I have young children; when I need to leave and be with them, then I can do that. I’m not tacked down to a job that you can’t do those kinds of things and spend time with your family.” - Regenia Bradley, Elegance by Design

Jade Palace

“I tell all my employees the three things that represent us are: a clean atmosphere, friendly faces, and freshly cooked food...We cut our own vegetables, we cut our own meat, we peel our own shrimp, we put a lot of work into it. Freshness is a lot better for your body than frozen foods that need microwaved... I first have to thank my friend - her name is Yen-Ling Mulholland. I have another restaurant in Fort Madison with Chuong Garden…She knows how I like to run thing; she is an asset to Jade Palace. We are blessed to have her on the team. Yen-Ling has trained Stella on how to run the restaurant now - she’s a go getter.

This is pretty much like a family here. We have relatives that work for us and people who are in town - everyone fills in for each other. We want to respect everyone here, not just as a worker, but as the reason that we are successful….I know I could not be separated between the two restaurants because it takes so much hard work and time and heart - I have kids as well. There’s no point of running anything if you can’t spend time with your family. My son’s name is Jaden - yes, so that’s how we got the name Jade Palace” - Sharon Chuong, Jade Palace

The Stitch Doctor

“I wouldn’t make it without these girls. Tara has been in this business for almost 10 years now - she started with me in January of 2014 and then we moved over here [to Main Street] March 1 and we just keep growing. Tara’s forte is screen printing - since we’ve been here, we kept hearing more and more and more people asking ‘can you start doing screen printing?’...so I remodeled the upstairs just last year and that opened in August of 2015. Jennifer started with us as a graphic designer in July of 2015...without these girls, we wouldn’t be a business. We are a real team here. ” - Jackie King, The Stitch Doctor

Oak Meadow Delight Bed & Breakfast

“Marvin took me to a beautiful bed and breakfast in the Amanas for our first anniversary, 22 years ago. We have always gone to B&Bs - absolutely loved them...loved the hosts, the food, the atmosphere, and began thinking that someday that’s something we’d like to do. We are so blessed that God had us open it up, right here in Ottumwa, to bless our friends and family and it’s just a neat way to welcome people to the community.

Marvin and I - we love people. We just enjoy serving them and pampering them - making people feel special is a really neat thing to be able to do….sharing the experiences that we had in B&Bs and bringing them to our own city….We’re definitely partners in all this - I stay here and man it all day but he helps me in the morning and as soon as he gets home...We both get up; he gets going on breakfast and I’m getting the [dining] room ready - so we serve breakfast together and then he heads on to work, takes care of his Shelter Insurance office, comes home… takes care of all the beautiful landscaping. I always have a ‘Honey-Do’ list.

There’s just something about blessing other people - it blesses you...I am very excited to get up and have that honor of starting someone’s day off on a really good note. It’s exciting to see people thrilled about their breakfast, they are so happy about having such a great night sleep in the super comfy bed and just really happy to be here - that just blesses my socks off. And a cup of coffee really gets me going too.” - Marvin & Tracy Boyer, Oak Meadow Delight Bed & Breakfast

Edd the Florist

“[Family]. It’s the reason I’m here. If my parents were not German immigrants and didn’t make the trek all the way from Germany via New York, Chicago, and then to Ottumwa to open this shop, obviously our family wouldn’t be here. 23 odd years ago, my wife Beth and I decided that that’s something that we didn’t want to see go away--just the whole story and the fact that someone gave their lives to put a store in a small town in Iowa just felt like something we should continue. Hopefully the next family that does that will have the same feeling and passion that we do about it.

I’m a second generation family owner of a 56..well make that a 60+ year old business in Ottumwa on the corner of Court and Pennsylvania. Everyone knows us as just a flower shop but we really are one of the most unique gift shops in South East Iowa with all of our reclaimed and repurposed fixings if you will...wall decor..basically we try to go out and find things that people don’t have and make it our mission to bring them to Ottumwa.

Sweet Bird and Company is a reclaimed wall decor and unique gift line that we started 4 years ago with some partners of ours in Wisconsin. It’s a mission to reclaim product all over the world...when I say reclaimed product, I mean to reclaimed wood, reclaimed metal, reclaimed glass...and then create unique home decor pieces with it. We’ve had great success across the nation with it at big stores, but the best selection of Second Nature by Hand and SWEET BIRD & Co. is right here in Ottumwa, Iowa. When people hear that, we get customers from all over the country...we call it a library on wood. It touches a heart string or brings up a memory and those are the kinds of things we want it to do. That product had a story long before it ever became a home decor piece, it has a story when we put our sentiments on it, and the last story that is told is when you buy it and take it to a friend or put it in your home.

Everything is made by hand...we just build things with integrity...We build things to become a family heirloom and move on with you, just like our family business does here in Ottumwa.” - Hans Wilz, EDD the floristSWEET BIRD & Co.

Happy Joe's Pizza & Ice Cream Parlor

“A frozen dough will never make a quality pizza--I don’t care who has it. To have the best quality pizza it takes fresh dough--not frozen...We pride ourselves on the fact that we still do fresh dough, we make the dough in house--it’s not shipped in--it’s not frozen. When that product goes out a majority of the customers can really tell the difference...We use the good materials--the good toppings. We top a pizza heavier than anybody else. We are proud of what we have for a product and the people that come here use us as a destination knowing that they’re going to get what they expect.

I think my favorite part of my job is the challenge to meet the needs of whoever the customer is. Whether it is scheduling one party run on top of another or 3 or 4 at the same time or making big deliveries to schools or catering a special event party--just the challenge to make those customers 100+ percent satisfied. The school system used to sell our pizza by the slice at Evans and the High School. Well, Evans at one time, in three lunch periods, we delivered as many as 120 large pizzas. That’s what makes it non-boring--everyday something is going to be different.

You want the truth? I’m a fortunate man to be able to have the boys here. When the family is involved, it’s a lot more vigorous and a lot more aggressive than when you just have, even good associates--you know because they’re apart of it. They’re a piece of it. It’s a piece of theirs….It’s one of those situations where, if you’re absent, you know, you still have that good feeling that things are going to be taken care of….When you’ve got 3 people rowing the boat, the boat goes a lot faster than just one person rowing it. Everyone’s got the absolute same ending--that makes it great.” - Monte Derby, Happy Joe's Pizza & Ice Cream - Ottumwa

Ottumwa YMCA

“One of the exciting things about working for a YMCA is that it is the gym and the swimming pool--but it is so much more than that. It brings people together in so many different ways. Here at the Ottumwa Y we have so many programs that people really, probably aren’t even aware of, whether it is our child care program, whether it is our after school dinner program for any kids 18 or under can come and have supper on us for free, or just coming to learn a skill--a sport skill or learning how to swim. They come together. They meet friends. They sometimes work with their parents who volunteer as coaches or program volunteers. There’s just so much that is happening here at the Y and it’s fun to be known as a place where kids can come and just feel good. They feel safe, they’re surrounded by adult supervision that’s going to be positive and help them have a good time and grow up as good kids. That’s what makes it so much fun.

I have had the opportunity to work at several different YMCAs during my career. In fact, this year celebrates 40 years for me in the YMCA as a professional director, so it’s a pretty exciting year. I think that what is unique to Ottumwa is what is unique to every YMCA: each Y is going to be the same because it is a Y, but each Y is going to be different because it responds to the needs and the challenges and the opportunities of the community it serves...The Y has served the Ottumwa area for over 130 years now which is pretty exciting. It came in 1887 as a railroad YMCA and here it is today, still operating as a Y but also operating in the challenges and the things that we do for the kids and the families right now.

What we want is a Y that is welcoming to everybody, you know? They come at all ages. They come with all different needs and all different things that they want to learn or share together--that is what makes it such a unique organization. Here in Ottumwa, as we develop, as we grow, and as there are challenges; whether it is how to be a good family or how to just grow up as a kid in today’s world, keeping yourself in shape--in your spirit, in your mind, and in your body--all those things are really important to have a good life. That’s what you can do and that’s what you can learn here at the Y.” - Tom Sisler, Ottumwa Ymca


In honor of the Greater Ottumwa Convention + Visitors Bureau Restaurant Week, we thought it would be only fitting to present one of our favorites as the Faces of the Chamber feature!

"Ben came over from the Mediterranean, oh let me think, about 30 years ago. A lot of the recipes we have are things that he learned from watching his mother cook while he was growing up... His grandpa was from Italy and his grandmother was from Macedonia. We’ve tried to keep everything true to the roots of the Mediterranean.

When it comes to the dishes though, a lot of times your Italian foods, after they’ve been in the United States for a while, they start to become Americanized...Sometimes [dishes] change depending on the region they’re in, but we try to keep it very authentic and classic.

We want to be able to accommodate mom, dad, kids, everybody with the items on our menu. So if we have a dad who might not like pasta, we have a wide variety of steaks and seafood and classic American food like burgers and sandwiches. Mom if she want’s her pasta, if she wants her chicken parmigiana or alfredos or lasagnas or shrimp alfredo, we have all that. And for kids we have chicken strips and burgers...and I think that’s something a lot of people in the area don’t realize. I think they think of us strictly as an Italian restaurant instead of realizing we have blended an Italian restaurant with a family restaurant to be able to accommodate and give everyone something in the community" - Angela & Ben Maksutoski, Tuscany

Christner Contracting, Inc.

“I couldn’t run this business without her. We split our roles and she runs the front end and the office side of things, 100%, and has done just a fabulous job. I run all of the crews, and the estimating and project management side of the business...

I’m doing what I love. So it’s not really a job. Everyday I get up and I’m excited to go to work. I started because of my father actually, this is what he’s done all his life and me growing up in it--it became natural and very interesting to me. So, things have progressed from doing small tree trimming jobs to decks to building new schools and helping to revitalize downtown Ottumwa.

It’s been an honor-[Main Street] has been Ottumwa’s home, so to be able to play a part into bringing the downtown back to life has just been a true honor--in every aspect, from seeing the new businesses down there to seeing the changes of the facades and now with 26 new apartments down there, now we can get residents downtown too...Our crew is is 100% vital in every aspect. Without them, we would have nothing.” - Anthony and Dee Christner, Christner Contracting, Inc.

The Sewing House 


“I had no idea that quilting was a phenomenon! I would say more than half of our customers come from out of town--we bring a lot of people to Ottumwa. We have people come in from Des Moines, Iowa City, Kirksville, Burlington--to buy fabric, with friends… Four years ago, we became the number one Janome Sewing Machines products dealer in Iowa, selling more than any other shop--and that’s right here in a little town of 25,000.

[How did you manage to achieve that?]

I buy in quantity, I pass the savings on, and we take care of our customers. We really work hard on providing support service after the sale and the help does a great job of making this a fun place to come. Sometimes the stores in bigger cities get the attitude ‘if you get upset with me, there’s a whole bunch more customers’... down here, people talk to each other. What they say to each other will build my store...or it can destroy the store--we work very hard on taking care of those customers who care to come to us.

...There’s a saying that sewing mends the soul...One wife who is taking care of her husband who is very ill said that she can’t afford to leave, but we give her a 30 minute vacation every little bit when she comes in and looks at fabric. There’s something about this hobby that is very, very good. It brings people together. Ever since the pioneer days when women would get on their horse and wagon and go to their neighbor’s house and spend the day sewing--sewing has been about conversation and community…

This is a place where people come to have fun, they come here to work on a hobby that they are passionate about, they like to bring their projects in and we take pictures of them and put them on Facebook, it’s just a big community.” - Tim Dobson, The Sewing House Ottumwa Iowa


“My dad had a motorcycle when I was young and, actually, at two to three years old I was on his motorcycle with him. It wasn’t until I was about ten or eleven when I got my first motorcycle. We got into racing; instead of going to church we went to motorcycle races--we still believed, but we “thought” we had better things to do on Sundays, so we raced a lot…

I moved to Iowa in the late 70’s...was partnered in one business and then another and in 1982 I started R/J Performance with the help of a friend because he was looking for something for his son to do. I was building race bikes and he was the rider, so we started R/J as a team...It’s still R/J Performance but it’s been my business since ‘84. This year we’ll be going on 35 years..that’s older than you right?

It really doesn’t take a study to know that this is the hub of southeast Iowa. Ottumwa was down, but not out; it’s recovering nicely - it still has plenty of room to grow but at least we have people working that same direction...so that’s refreshing to see. That’s one of the reasons I got involved with Main Street Ottumwa.

Not being originally from here, I’ve been critical of the downtown. But, when Fred and that group started doing some things down there I thought “okay, well I’ve been critical and there’s people trying to do some things so now it’s my turn to do my part and help them”... I don’t want to move [back] downtown, so this is a way for me to help out. We started the bike night thing...it’s great and people really like it. We’ve still only done it for a couple years but it’s going to get better. Without Legacy, we would be in trouble. I’m not sure that any of this would be possible without them...But everyone down there needs to be commended for what they’ve all done for our city.

I always called it work in progress because I just started out as a service and accessories shop on the east side of Ottumwa, out on East Main--the buildings are still there! I added on and built on and ran out of room there and then purchased the property out here in ‘99. We’ve been here at the airport for 16 years...addition here, addition there, kinda pay for it as it goes, don’t get too far ahead of myself...It’s easy to think you’re better--but then you’ve got to prove it...Personally, I think there’s a lot of business opportunity in Ottumwa. I think too many get into business thinking that it’s easy and it’s far from that… I could have quit for the first 10 years; it would have been really easy to just quit, you know? But I didn’t...luckily.” - Rick Canode, - R/J PERFORMANCE

Ottumwa Public Library 

In celebration of #NationalLibraryWeek, our Faces of the Chamber this week is none other than our very special Ottumwa Public Library!

“...I love that the library is there for every member of the community. Whether you are rich or poor, in good health or poor health, any race, any religion, any age...there’s something for everyone at the library. I really feel that it is the center of the community and is inviting for everyone.

My mother is also a library director so I was raised in libraries. This is the first library I have worked at in my career; prior to this I worked in Washington D.C. for a senator. I love that our library is an Andrew Carnegie library. The community has placed a high priority on maintaining the historical building--it was built in 1901….the Ottumwa building was one of the first Carnegie libraries in the state of Iowa...It’s such a beautiful building. From working in the U.S. Capitol to coming and working here, the aspects of the old building to come into work to everyday--it’s kinda the same feeling.

We have around 23,000 active library cards. Now, the population of Ottumwa is around 25,000..so those aren’t all Ottumwans, those are 23,000 people from around the state and county that have Ottumwa library cards. I want to say we have about 120,000 checkouts per year. That’s another part to why I love working in libraries--we’re always evolving our mission. It’s not just a place to just come and check out a book anymore, although we still have that, and it’s not that we abandon old priorities we just keep building the cake another layer.

I love working with the kids. If you develop a level of reading early, you’re going to carry that on throughout life. When you see a kid get excited, whether or not they are rewarded through the summer reading program with a prize, or just excited because you get the new Arthur or Dr. Seuss book, I think that’s pretty cool when you see them excited to learn.

I never want to be the shushing librarian--that’s too much of a stereotype!” - Sonja Ferrell- Ottumwa Public Library #LibrariesTransform

South Side Drug

“Well, I can tell you one thing..that week of RAGBRAI? We went through 12 gallons of Ice Cream. That was ONE. DAY.

Hey! No kidding. And we didn’t start till probably 4:30...5 o'clock...somewhere around there. But we did! We went through just about 12 gallons of ice cream. Milkshakes, malts, you name it. I worked an 11 hour day that day. By the time I got done, I didn’t want to see another malt or milkshake….

Laura and I worked that, just the two of us…we did good. We did really good. And they just kept coming in--three would get up, then three more would sit down. But they were very patient because they saw there were just two of us. It was rough, but we survived!" - Charlotte Harter, South side Drug

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