Major E. C. Moderwell, an investor in the Missouri Pacific Railroad from Salina, Kansas, was the founder. By this time, it had been determined by the railroad that as it headed westward, it would barrel right through what was to become Otis. The town was named for Moderwell’s son, Otis.
As the streets were laid out, some were named for children of the founders. A new train depot and section house were built by the Missouri-Pacific Railroad and a post office opened on August 12, 1887. Moderwell donated a plot of ground where the first elementary school was built at the site where the present school stands. The railroad built a train depot and section house, and new settlers soon opened new business places.
The Methodists first held their services in the schoolhouse until they built a new church in 1895. The Trinity Lutheran Church was founded by settlers who had immigrated from Russia in 1876.
By 1910, Otis had several businesses, including a bank, telegraph, and express office, and boasted a population of about 400. The town was incorporated the following year.
In 1911, a cigar factory was built that was in production for several years. When natural gas was discovered in 1928, Otis soon had 50 producing oil and gas wells that brought prosperity and more people. The town’s population peaked in 1920 at 505.
In 1943 the Otis Helium Plant was constructed to extract helium from natural gas. One of the largest of its kind, the helium plant, was initially constructed by the United States government, and an entire community was developed south of town to house the plant workers. Ultimately it would be dismantled, and the houses sold and moved off the site.
In 1962, the privately-owned Kansas Refined Helium plant began operation, built by George Angle. He hired Messer-Grieshiem of Germany and Sultzer, a Swiss company that developed the world’s first helium liquefier for the Otis operation, making it the first liquid helium plant in the world. Angle sold the plant in 1981, and it is still in operation today. Run by Linde Cryogenics, the plant’s size has doubled from its original construction.
The Linde Group, based in Munich, Germany, operates the world’s second-largest helium production facility in Otis, producing nearly one-sixth of the global gas supply.
A wind turbine company has also recently been located in Otis, placing the small town at the forefront of alternative energy production in western Kansas.
Today, the population of Otis is about 295. Otis is located about 15 miles east of La Crosse, Kansas.