October 3, 2013

History Walk spurs history talk

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — However their side of the family pronounces it, the Celanias have been in town since at least 1890.

One side of the family, which typically lives on the south side of Ottumwa, leaves off the sound of the final letter, “A” sound. The Celanias on the north side of town keep the final “A” sound.

“My name has been [Sel LAY Nee] all my life,” said Mike Celania of Ottumwa.

Some other Celanias in town are cousins. All that he knows, however, are descended from an enterprising Italian immigrant: Columbia Celania, who, with her husband, came to the United States in 1870. When her husband died, she packed up her children and moved to the growing town of Ottumwa.

“That was in 1890,” said Mike. “My great grandmother ran a fruit [store] which my grandfather (one of her sons) expanded when he came [to Ottumwa] from Italy.”

Main Street Ottumwa's Third Annual History Walk, celebrating the 1920s, will present interactive tours starting at 2 p.m., Oct. 13 in the 300 block of of East Main. Eight locations will be featured. Actors representing business owners of the 1920s will give presentations on what happened in that location decades ago.

The Celania shop was located on East Main Street, next to where the Market on Main is being built; there’s a green space between buildings. With the expansions, it needed several other locations in the 300 block of East Main Street.

“Candy, then ice cream, then they added a delicatessen, then a café,” said Diana Celania, Mike’s wife and a dedicated researcher of history.

They offered home delivery of some items, and had what Main Street Ottumwa board member Fred Zesiger called one of the first drive-up windows around.

Eventually, Mike said, Celania Brothers ice cream and candy was being shipped to various retailers in the state — and beyond.

“Dad said when [he was a teenager] they used to take things to Chicago, and that it was dirt road the whole way,” he said.

By the late 1920s, or perhaps very early 30s, the associated businesses begun 40 years earlier were closed. Mike and Diana now search out Celania Brothers items, and learn more and more about family history.

Nearby, another, perhaps more familiar business name hit Ottumwa for the first time: Bookin Jewelry Company.

“Oscar Bookin came to the United States from Lithuania in 1907,” said Sheri Bookin.

Her late husband, who ran the store for years, was a direct descendent of Oscar’s.

Oscar moved in with family in Des Moines upon his arrival in the States. He already had a vocation, Sheri explained.

“He himself was a watch repairmen. He went to watchmaker school in Lithuania,” she said. “Family in Des Moines recommended he set up shop in Ottumwa, where a lot was happening at the time.”

So in 1914, he and his wife Hannah came to town, starting Bookin Jewelry Company on East Main Street. It’s where most recently, a bar called “The Salty Frog” served patrons. In case you’re uncertain, added Zesiger, just look down: Nearly 100 years later, the name Bookin can still be seen, engraved in the sidewalk.

Two of Oscar’s sons followed him in the business, Sheri said. Mike Bookin’s father Nathan, as well as Uncle Robert, eventually sold the business to Mike Bookin around 1962. Another of Oscar’s sons became an attorney, and two more became optometrists, with one having his shop in the back of the jewelry store. That wasn’t an unusual location in the early part of the 1900s, she said.

“The watchmaker could help, he could fix your glasses,” she said. And Oscar Bookin wasn’t afraid of extra work, she added, explaining that he often worked 15 hours a day. He worked hard, and taught his children to work hard.

“There were a lot of family [members], even cousins, who worked in the store. [As for Oscar and Hannah’s sons], they started them working right away, at 12, maybe younger,” Sheri said. “They weren’t very tall. They stood on boxes to serve customers.”

To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark

Purchase tickets at either the Hotel Ottumwa, Main Street Ottumwa or North Hy-Vee for $5. After your purchase, call 641-799-3464 to reserve a tour time. Tours run every 15 minutes from 2- 4:45 p.m Oct. 13 and begin at KMGO Radio, 334 E. Main St.