I admit it. I have a little Clark W. Griswold in me. So when the family was taking a trip down Interstate 35 to Omaha, NE for a wedding, I informed my wife and toddler that we would be making a stop in Clear Lake, Iowa for a little Americana road side experience. This particular road side experience, however, is a little macabre as well as a two parter: 1) The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, where Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. Richardson, a/k/a The Big Bopper, played there final show; and 2) the cornfield just north of town where their plane went down killing each of them as well as the pilot Roger Peterson. That’s right, we were exploring “The Day the Music Died”.
First, a little background for those who might be unfamiliar, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, the Big Bopper, and Dion DiMucci were on tour in early 1959 for Holly’s “Winter Dance Party Tour”. The tour started in Milwaukee, but just a day into the 24 day tour the tour bus’ heater broke. This caused substantial health issues for the group (Holly’s drummer even got frost bite on his feet), and led to the group trading the tour bus for a school bus. Following a date in Green Bay, WI on February 1, 1958, the next scheduled show was in Moorhead, MN with an open date on February 2. Instead of having a date with no money coming in, the tour set up a last minute show at The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA. With the next show being on the Minnesota/North Dakota border, necessitating a full day on the school bus, Holly decided to charter a 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza 35 to fly 3 members of the party from nearby Mason City, IA to Fargo, ND. There are some fascinating stories about who ended up on the plane, with a flu ridden Big Bopper taking Waylon Jennings’ seat causing Jennings to jokingly tell Holly “I hope your old plane crashes” and Valens winning his seat in a coin toss with Tommy Allsup in a room off the Surf’s stage, but in the end it was Holly, Valens, and Richardson on the flight that crashed against a wire fence only 5 miles from the Mason City airport, killing everyone on-board instantly.
We started our trip at the Surf Ballroom. Situated about a block from the lake that gives the town its name, the Surf is still in use, and simply asks for donations to have a look around. I was briefly intrigued by the fact Cheap Trick will be playing the Ballroom on July 5, 2013, but will likely not make the 2+ hour drive for the show. Less intriguing was Ratt’s performance later in the summer.
The Surf Ballroom itself is a true throwback, with a high arching ceiling, massive stage and dance floor, and banks of booths complete with speakers for making orders (pictures below). Perhaps most interesting, though, were the huge bathrooms with lobbies for concert goers to check themselves in mirrors that ran the length of the walls (no pictures, obviously).
Attached to the Surf is a small museum featuring displays for each of the late performers, Don McLean’s gold record and a handwritten lyric sheet for “American Pie”, and other memorabilia related to the Surf (including a guitar signed by Kevin Costner…). Unfortunately, due to thick glass coverings, photos of these items didn’t come out well, but some are below:
On our way out of the Ballroom, we picked up directions for our drive to the crash site. As the site is in the middle of an active farm, the directions include such fantastic lines as “when the road veers to the left take the gravel road to the right” and instructs visitors to park on the road next to the large Buddy Holly glasses and “walk the fence line” for a little less than a half mile. Despite these less than specific directions, finding the site was a breeze.
Upon arrival we set off on our little walk, which was made all the more interesting with a toddler who just wanted to play in the mud. Eventually, we made it to the crash site, however, and were able to take in…the trash. Yeah, the crash site is more trash than anything else, with people apparently finding it fun to leave their business cards, coins, and used gift cards as offerings. There were some interesting items, however, from Buddy Holly style glasses and microphones, to three cigarettes laid side-by-side.
Some panoramic views from the crash site (yeah, it’s flat, but beautiful too):
In the end, I’m thrilled with our little side trip. We got to see some music history, and made a great memory. If you find yourself on Interstate 35 in northern Iowa, I strongly recommend making a stop.
Next up, Darwin, Minnesota and the World’s Largest Ball of Twine.
An author and editor at MiG, Craig lives in Minnesota with his wife and son and is an attorney in his real life. Once upon a time Craig played the trumpet and spent four years in the Hawkeye Marching Band and pep band. These days Craig finds himself most often listening to experimental rock, hip hop, and post punk, but you can see everything he's listening to at: www.last.fm/user/cafreema Craig is not ashamed to admit the first concert he ever attended was New Kids on the Block.
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