Old Depot Museum unveils new exhibit detailing the automobile's rise in Franklin Co.

Marissa Ventrelli
The Ottawa Herald

The Old Depot Museum's newest exhibit, Horse Power, seeks to tell the story of the automobile's arrival and subsequent impact on life in Franklin County. The exhibit's collection includes artifacts like one of Kansas's first license plates, a carriage from 1910, and a speaker from Ottawa's now non-defunct drive-in theater. 

Automobiles first arrived in Franklin County at the start of the 20th century, Staresinic-Deane said. The first car owner in Ottawa, H. H. House, purchased his vehicle for $1,200 in 1903 - roughly the cost of a home at that time. Because cars were such big investments, only the wealthiest members of society could afford them until about the mid-1920s. As more people began purchasing cars, livery yards and stables became obsolete and gas stations and tire shops popped up all over the country- and Franklin County was no exception. "This whole industry that literally didn't exist 20, 30, 40 years earlier was suddenly here," Staresinic-Deane remarked. Auto racing soon became a popular pastime, and a racetrack was even constructed in Forest Park over to provide speedsters with a safe(r) way to push the limits of their new machines. Car culture has been an integral part of Franklin County culture ever since the first automobiles rolled into the train station in the early years of the 20th century, and it continues with events like the Ol' Marais River Run Car Show, which incidentally was the very inspiration for this exhibit. "We thought it would be fun to do something that would be up for car show weekend," said museum Director Diana Staresinic-Deane. "As we started researching we realized we had so many photographs and ephemera related to the transition from horse and horses and buggies to cars, and that was the story we decided to tell."

The WJ Nincehelser Livery, Feed and Transfer Barn, Ottawa, date unknown

Staresinic-Deane said museum staff began poring through artifacts and researching for the exhibit in early 2021. The museum has thousands of artifacts stored at the Franklin County Records and Research Center, among them several hundred photos pertaining to cars. After three or four months of sifting through artifacts, museum staff members were able to narrow down their selection to about 40 items. "We were trying to pick ones that were representative of what was happening and show lots of different communities in the county,"  Staresinic-Deane said. "What's interesting to us about our photos is that the cars are being driven by all kinds of people," Staresinic-Deane said. "We're seeing people of color, we're seeing women driving... it's pretty cool because we don't always have photos that show everybody,"  

Included in the exhibit are photos showcasing the automobile's role in Franklin County history, such as an image of a 1936 fatal gasoline truck fire in Ottawa and snapshots from the Ol Marais River Run. There is also a replicated version of Ottawa's iconic street markers, which were first erected in 1948 as a solution to traditional street signs, which were often destroyed by cars or weather. Each marker was made of 150 pounds of concrete poured into custom molds and cost seven dollars to make. By 1966, there were over 500 markers throughout the city. Many of them have since been destroyed, but Staresinic-Deane says community members do their part to keep the ones still in existence in good shape. 

A replica of one of Ottawa's iconic street markers at the Old Depot Museum's Horse Power Exhibit - each marker weighs about 150 pounds.

The Horse Power exhibit will be on display at the Old Depot Museum through September 2022. The museum recently made the decision to display three exhibits at a time for a year each - the other two currently on display went up in the spring and late summer. "We used to do three exhibits a year and they were only up for a few weeks really, and people didn't have a chance to see them" explained Staresinic-Deane. Museum staff are hoping the extended timeline allows more people to come and see the exhibit, especially now that the museum is back to its regular hours after being closed several days a week due to COVID. The Old Depot Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm and noon to 4 pm on Sundays.