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48 Hours (not the crime show) in North Iowa: Part 1

Part I // The Day the Music Died


Tucked away in the middle of the country is a sweet little slice of the past (and some good cake!). It’s a time capsule town that I’ve been wanting to visit for some time... and then discovered so much more - because every latitude & longitude point holds a story.


So the background is… my brother and I watched LA BAMBA when we were kids. Like a lot lot a lot. As a kid, I loved sweet Ritchie - his talent and love for his family, but as I’ve grown - so has my compassion for his beloved brother, Bob, and all the folks profoundly affected by one fateful winter night in Clear Lake, Iowa.


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This summer, as I planned a trip to see dear friends in Omaha, NE, I decided to finally make that anticipated voyage. I charted a fun route on state highways through Wisconsin and Iowa (fun fact: it happened to be the day they were painting yellow stripes on the road in BOTH states; good coordination neighbors!) and had a great soundtrack (here you go!) to keep me rock’n rollin.



SURF BALLROOM


When I arrived in Clear Lake, I headed straight away to the historic Surf Ballroom. On February 2, 1959, Buddy Holly headlined night 11 of the Winter Dance Party Tour also featuring Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper (JP “Jape” Richardson), and Dion & the Belmonts. The tour coincidentally kicked off in Milwaukee, WI and cut zigzagging course between the Midwest in cold buses in a cold winter.


By the middle of the tour, a frustrated Buddy Holly chartered a private plane from Mason City, IA to Fargo, ND. Waylon Jennings gave up his seat to JP Richardson who had the flu, and Ritchie Valens won a coin toss over Tommy Allsup for that final seat. Tragically, the plane crashed right after take-off. most likely due to ice on the plane’s wings, and was discovered in a nearby snowy field the next morning.


After Don McClean immortalized this loss (of life, music, and well… a sort of national innocence), in his 8.5 minute opus, “American Pie,” the Surf Ballroom began hosting annual winter concerts to commemorate “the day the music died.”


The Surf Ballroom was registered as a National Historic Landmark in January 2021, and wow, when you walk in - it truly feels like stepping back into the 1950’s. They just don’t make dance ballrooms like this anymore with plenty of dancing space and booths that look straight out of a diner. The only tell-tale signs of a modern existence are the White Claw advertising above the bar :).


The Surf is now run by the nonprofit, the North Iowa Cultural Center & Museum, who offer tours, but you can also complete a self-guided tour with their informative museum featuring info about the ballroom’s history and the fateful February night.


The venue still hosts concerts and the Winter Dance Party reunion event - check out their website to see who’s playing!


To view slideshow, please click arrow in the middle of the right side of the image.

 

CRASH SITE


Located less than 5 miles north of town (driving directions here), the crash site feels like it's in the middle of nowhere. Once you park on a dirt road, there is still a ¼-mile walk down a well-trodden path in the middle of a cornfield. When you arrive, you reach a peaceful and quiet remembrance of 4 young men (none having even reached 25 years of age) - all with hopes and dreams like any of us.


My heart went out to each of them and to their families, and the entire culture of music lovers and piece of American pie forever altered by this day. And I am grateful that such a unique Americana monument exists in the middle of the Midwest - and in such a sweet little lake community.

To view slideshow, please click arrow in the middle of the right side of the image.


About that community? Read all about it in Part 2 of "48 Hours in North Iowa!"


 

LA BAMBA (streaming free on various sites, including linked IMDB page) - one of my favorites, all about Ritchie Valens with star turns from Lou Diamond Phillips (in my top #5 childhood crushes if you're doing JB trivia!), Esai Morales, and Elizabeth Pena.


THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY (available for rental & purchase on various streaming sites) - I haven’t seen this one, but apparently Gary Busey gives a performance so good he was nominated for an Academy Award!


CLEAR LAKE - A new movie is in the works about Buddy Holly and his music tours from 1958-1959. Read about it here!


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