Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The day the music died February 1, 2019

A broad view of this massive ballroom which seats 2,100. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2015.

 

SIXTY YEARS AGO ON FEBRUARY 3, a charter plane crashed into a northern Iowa field killing all aboard. It was, they say, the day the music died.

 

Portraits of the deceased musicians. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2015.

 

Dead were rising musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.

 

All around Clear Lake, you’ll see posters from the annual Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom. I found this one at the AmericInn Hotel. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2015.

 

This weekend the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, continues its Winter Dance Party honoring those singers who performed there before that fatal flight en route to Moorhead, Minnesota.

 

The ballroom stage. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2015.

 

Several years ago I visited Clear Lake, a delightful lakeside community just across the border from Minnesota. That trip included a stop at the Surf Ballroom. My knowledge of the famed musicians and of music in general is rather limited. But I do remember Don McLean’s lengthy American Pie hit from 1971 with that repetitious the day the music died. That line references the deaths of Holly, Valens and Richardson. I never understood that as a teen. I simply liked the melody, puzzled by the words.

 

Another tribute to the Surf’s most memorable performer, rock and roll legend Buddy Holly. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2015.

 

I am of that era when rock and roll represented rebellion with young people challenging societal norms and authority, voicing their opinions via music. It was a time of turmoil in many ways. A time of change.

 

This display references American Pie. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2015.

 

The February day the trio of musicians died in 1959 in Iowa really wasn’t the day the music died. Rather, rock and roll continued to rise, flying, soaring, reaching new heights of popularity.

THOUGHTS?

 

TO READ MY ORIGINAL POST on the Surf Ballroom, complete with more photos, click here.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Part IV: Touring the legendary Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa June 4, 2015

My husband exits the historic Surf Ballroom.

My husband exits the historic Surf Ballroom.

WHEN I MENTIONED to a friend that my husband and I were going on an overnight get-away to Clear Lake, Iowa, he immediately asked if we were touring the Surf Ballroom. We were.

A broad view of this massive ballroom which seats 2,100.

A broad view of this massive ballroom which seats 2,100.

The Surf is the focus for many visitors to this north central Iowa community. It wasn’t our main reason for traveling here. But we knew we couldn’t visit Clear Lake without seeing the famous Surf, site of Buddy Holly’s final Winter Dance Party performance before he, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson died in a February 3, 1959, plane crash along with the pilot.

This display references "American Pie."

This display references “American Pie.”

It was, writes Don McLean in his song, American Pie, “the day the music died.”

Another tribute to the Surf's most memorable performed, rock n roll legend Buddy Holly.

Another tribute to the Surf’s most memorable performer, rock n roll legend Buddy Holly.

Now I’m not much of a music history person, nor a person with musical talent. I can’t read a note. I don’t have a particularly good singing voice. I typically cannot tell you who sings what and even had to ask my husband, before our arrival at the Surf, what songs Buddy Holly sang. He cited Peggy Sue and That’ll Be the Day.

The exterior ticket booth.

The exterior ticket booth.

Looking toward the interior lobby doors.

Looking toward the outside, this interior set of lobby doors are hefty and heavy. To the right is the original coat check area, not shown in this image.

This sign summarizes the importance of the Surf.

This sign summarizes the importance of the Surf.

Yet, even for someone like me who is rather musically illiterate, the Surf proved an interesting place. Built in 1948, the current ballroom (the first burned down) is on the National Register of Historic Places. And rightly so. From the exterior ticket booth to the heavy doors that lead into the dark lobby, where you can check your coat, the Surf holds that feel of yesteryear. It’s difficult to explain. But you feel that sense of entering a different world from a bygone era the minute you step inside. As if you’ve left Iowa. And today.

Just a sampling of those who have played the Surf.

Just a sampling of those who have played the Surf.

More historic memorabilia of Surf concerts.

More historic memorabilia of Surf concerts.

The lounge area features a stage, bar and lots more memorabilia.

The lounge area features a stage, bar and lots more memorabilia.

You'll spot numerous signed guitars on display.

You’ll spot numerous signed guitars on display.

Here you’ll discover a hallway museum of musicians’ photos, posters and history. And inside the lounge you’ll see stars’ guitars and more photos and other tributes to those who have performed here. If a musician’s picture is displayed, then he/she’s played/been here.

The ballroom stage.

The ballroom stage.

On the Friday afternoon we arrived at the Surf, we almost didn’t make it into the actual ballroom. Black curtains were pulled across two entrances and marked by “closed” signs. I peeked through the curtains to see musicians for Lee Ann Womack setting up inside. I failed to notice on the Surf website that the dance floor occasionally closes if a concert is scheduled. So be forewarned: Check the Surf calendar. Even better, call ahead.

But then, as luck would have it, Mark, who’s been working Surf security since 1978 and clearly loves this place and his job, parted the curtains and invited us inside with the admonition to keep our distance from the stage. He’d overheard our disappointment and said, “Since you drove a long ways…” We’d traveled only 85 miles. But another couple had driven nearly four hours from Omaha.

In the back are layers of booths, all original.

In the back are layers of booths, all original, and beach-themed murals.

Portraits

Portraits of Ritchie Valens, left, Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson hang inside the ballroom.

Signatures...

Signatures…

He led us onto the original maple floor dance floor, pointed us to the original booths (where I slid into one; it’s a tight squeeze), noted the beach themed décor (it is, afterall, the Surf), took us into a small room where musicians and others have signed the walls…

Each February, the Surf still hosts a Winter Dance Party.

Each February, the Surf still hosts a Winter Dance Party.

I wished I could have lingered longer in the ballroom, asked Mark to switch on more lights for better photos. But I didn’t press my luck. If not for his graciousness, I would have remained on the other side of those black curtains.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Shortly before our visit,

The day before our visit, the king of blues died. B.B. King’s promotional poster hangs in the lounge.

Lee Ann Womack's band was setting up on the afternoon of our visit.

Lee Ann Womack’s band was setting up on the afternoon of our visit. This was snapped just outside the front entry doors.

About a block away, this outdoor sculpture at Three Stars Plaza honors Holly, Valens and Richardson.

About a block away, this outdoor turntable/album sculpture at Three Stars Plaza honors Holly, Valens and Richardson. You can also visit the plane crash site about five miles from town. Because of rainy weather, we did not go there.

FYI: Please check back next week for the three remaining installments in this series of seven posts from Clear Lake, Iowa.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part II: Discovering the Americana charm of Clear Lake, Iowa June 2, 2015

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Clear Lake, almost Norman Rockwell like in Iowa charm.

Clear Lake, almost Norman Rockwell like in Iowa charm.

AMERICAN FLAGS, SEEMINGLY methodically planted curbside, present a patriotic flair.

Vintage lawn chairs for sale seem ideal for a local lake home or cabin.

Vintage lawn chairs for sale seem ideal for a local lake home or cabin.

Vintage weathered lawn chairs beckon.

Pink potted geraniums cluster around a lamp post.

Starboard Market, a highly-recommended local sandwich shop and deli. We, unfortunately, did not eat here because of the wait.

Starboard Market, a highly-recommended local sandwich shop and deli. We, unfortunately, did not eat here because of the wait.

An empty stroller sits outside a busy downtown deli.

Downtown Clear Lake features interesting historical architecture.

Downtown Clear Lake features interesting historical architecture.

This is Clear Lake, a northern Iowa community of nearly 8,000 along Interstate 35 that retains its small town Americana character in an historic downtown lined with quaint shops, eateries and more.

The lake draws visitors here. A park, boat launch, beach and dock are located at the end of Main Avenue.

The lake draws visitors here. A park and public boat launch, beach and dock are located at the end of Main Avenue.

Park on one end of Main Avenue and stroll your way to the lake, one of Iowa’s largest. Dip your toes into Clear Lake, which isn’t all that clear.

All of the cookies sold at Cookies, etc. are made from scratch using secret family recipes, divulged to only a few select employees. Monster cookies are the top seller.

All of the cookies sold at Cookies, etc.. are made from scratch using secret family recipes, divulged to only a few select employees. Monster cookies, left, are the top seller. The cookies my husband and I purchased were warm from the oven. Cookies, etc. ships. The shop also serves muffins, cinnamon rolls, specialty coffees, other beverages and smoothies.

And, even if it’s only 10 a.m., follow the advice and fresh-baked cookie aroma of Cookies, etc.: “Life is short. Eat cookies.”

Flowers and plants bordered two three sides of the corner Larson's Mercantile, a popular stop for shoppers.

Flowers and plants border three sides of the corner Larson’s Mercantile, a popular stop for shoppers.

Pop into the many shops, including the popular Larson’s Mercantile, like a step back in time into a five-and-dime.

Friendly owner Tom Wilson welcomes me to Collectors Wonderland, where I took pictures and purchased a vintage lamp.

Friendly owner Tom Wilson welcomed me to Collectors Wonderland, where I took pictures and purchased a vintage lamp.

Delight in shopkeeper friendliness, a seemingly signature trait of Clear Lake folks.

Lake Time Brewery is a must-stop for good beer and great conversation with the locals.

Lake Time Brewery is a must-stop for good beer and great conversation with the locals.

Hang out on the patio of Lake Time Brewery where the welcome is as comfortably enthusiastic as Cheers.

The Surf Ballroom draws musicians and music lovers from all over. It is the final venue played by Buddy Holly,

The Surf Ballroom and Museum draws musicians and music lovers from all over. It is the final venue played by Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens before they died in a plane crash in February 1959 outside of Clear Lake.

This is Clear Lake, a destination get-away for my husband and me on our recent 33rd wedding anniversary. Situated only 85 miles to the south of our Faribault, Minnesota home, it was the perfect quick retreat into a rural lakeside community that caters to visitors like us and those who are more interested in recreational water sports or the historic Surf Ballroom.

Clear Lake retains its strong rural roots.

Clear Lake retains its strong rural roots.

Along its northern exit, Clear Lake appears like any other Interstate community with chain restaurants, hotels and gas stations. But take the highway toward downtown and the distinct characteristics of this town emerge. You’ll see its rural side in grain bins and fields.

You'll see lots of boats, like this one parked in a residential driveway.

You’ll see lots of boats, like this one parked in a residential driveway.

Boats point to the lake’s importance here.

The plan was to visit the iconic Barrel Drive-in on Saturday morning. However, it wasn't open yet and rain was falling. So the only image I have is this one, which does not show the drive-in.

The plan was to visit the iconic The Barrel Drive-in on Saturday morning. However, it wasn’t open yet and rain was falling. So the only image I have is this one, which does not show the drive-in, only its landmark chicken. The drive-in is known for its broasted chikcen and homemade root beer.

And long-standing eateries like The Barrel Drive-In showcase the uniquely local flavor of this place.

This art for sale at J Avenue pretty much summarizes Clear Lake.

This art for sale at J Avenue pretty much summarizes a visit to Clear Lake.

Clear Lake is worth a day trip or an overnighter with plenty to see and do. We certainly did not see and do it all. But we got a great sampling of all this Iowa community offers.

FYI: Please check back for more posts in this seven-part series from Clear Lake, Iowa. I’ll take you to the lake, the Surf Ballroom, a quaint chapel, the arts center and more.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling