Aug 23 2014
People who make this fence-line trek tend to leave a little something behind: loose change, notes, scarves, ribbons, flags, beads, needlepoint, necklaces, flowers.
The setting is Iowa-modest: tidy, discreet, respectful, straightforward. The location is no secret, but neither is it announced with billboards or banners. Little besides the grassy pathway seems to interfere with the farmland landscape.
To get here, find Gull Avenue at 315th Street, six miles north of Clear Lake. Then look for two posts that hold an oversized cutout of black, horn-rimmed eyeglasses.
No signage or parking lot announces that this is where, as the Don McLean song goes, the music died on Feb. 3, 1959. One of the silenced voices – Charles Hardin “Buddy” Holly – would have turned 78 years old on Sept. 7.
Fans find their way to rural Clear Water almost every day, despite the season or weather, to keep the prolific rocker’s memory alive. He was more than a good singer: Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney are among the superstars influenced by his recordings.
If you’re a fan, you know how the story ended: When the Winter Dance Party Tour of 1959 stopped at Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom, the heater in the performers’ bus wasn’t working. That caused Buddy Holly, Ricardo “Ritchie Valens” Reyes and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson to each pay $36 for a ride on a chartered plane afterwards.
A wing of the Beechcraft Bonanza hit the ground at 170 mph, less than six miles from the airport. Pilot Roger Peterson had taken off during a snowstorm and never reached his customers’ destination, Fargo, N.D.
Iowa used to have the most ballrooms per capita in the nation. It still has the Surf Ballroom, whose story is one part tailspin, one part survival, one part triumph.
What was built in 1933 burned in 1947 and was replaced one year later. Ownership changed several times after that, especially after 1959. The Surf almost became a grocery store, then almost died of disrepair, until historic rehabilitation got serious 20 years ago.
Much of what remains is original: the maple dance floor and booths that circle it, stencils of pineapples on the wallpaper, clouds on the ceiling and murals of beachside waves.
“They wanted Iowa farmers to feel like they were dancing on the lakeshore at night,” says Nicki Barragy, the ballroom’s education coordinator, to explain the interior design.
Today, guided tours happen more often than live music shows, but the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame designated the Surf Ballroom as a landmark in 2009.
Filling walls are photos of the many musicians who performed here, and big names still get booked. Playing Aug. 29 are The Temptations, the Beach Boys show up Sept. 21 and Z.Z. Top on Oct. 11. Big Band dates and a Ricky Nelson tribute happen before the year ends.
The annual Winter Dance Party continues, too, drawing Buddy Holly fans from as far away as England. The next is Jan. 28-31, 2015.
Surf staffers say you can kind of split the fans into two groups: ages 18-35 and those 60 or older. Some show up for a sock hop on the Wednesday before the Winter Dance Party, wearing 1950s attire. Some of the Brits get together for lunch as the Buddy Holly Society. Some take dance lessons, another excuse to get onto the ballroom floor.
The Surf Ballroom Museum is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays all year, but not on major holidays. Weekend visits are possible until Labor Day. surfballroom.com, 641-357-6822
The Department of Natural Resources lists 22 bodies of water as “Clear Lake” in Wisconsin, but the name is used much less often in Iowa. The Hawkeyes have one Clear Lake and one Little Clear Lake – period.
The community Clear Lake, population 7,700, is the largest on the shoreline of Clear Lake, the third largest body of water in Iowa. About 70 percent of lakeside homes are summer residences. People fish for walleye and yellow bass.
Main Avenue and its boutiques end at the downtown lakefront, near the 150-passenger Lady on the Lake, a two-level sternwheeler with 90-minute public cruises until the end of September. cruiseclearlake.com, 641-357-2243
Also on the shoreline are a public beach, one hotel (South Shore Inn – all rooms have water views) and its lakeside restaurant (The Landing). stayclearlake.com, 641-357-5123
Clear Lake throws a morning-to-night, end-of-summer party called BeachFest at City Beach on Aug. 30. On the docket: races in cardboard boats, a contest to build sandcastles and tournaments for volleyball and beanbag teams.
For more about what else to do in the area: clearlakeiowa.com, 641-357-2159.