Family Adventures · North Central Iowa

Rock & Roll’s Hallowed Ground-Visiting Northern Iowa and One of Music’s Greatest Time Capsule’s…

The importance of this site and day in history is laid out perfectly on this plaque. At the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.
The importance of this site and day in history is laid out perfectly on this plaque. At the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.

Clear Lake, IA: Cerro Gordo County (Our 9th County!)

My in-laws annual summer trip to Iowa was nearing its conclusion. Today was finally going to be the day they make a trip that’s been on their “bucket list” ever since February 3rd, 1959. The day the music died. The day Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash near their last performance in Clear Lake, IA. Team Goodvin packed up the family grocery-getter and set our sights for northern Iowa.

Leah getting ready to order food at The Barrel Drive-In. 206 U.S. 18 Clear Lake, IA.
Leah getting ready to order food at The Barrel Drive-In. 206 U.S. 18 Clear Lake, IA.

Just a few blocks from the historic Surf Ballroom is another time capsule. The Barrel Drive-In! Opening the year before the fateful last performance of the Winter Dance Party, in 1959, The Barrel hasn’t changed much since the late 1950’s. We found a table for 7 and combed the menu. An ordering procedure that our parents were very used to doing in their youthful days of the 50’s was necessary to get service at The Barrel. We pushed the button on the intercom and waited a short while for someone to answer and take our order. Leah helped with our selections and then….Poof! Our lunch arrived. During our meal, Leah educated her siblings about “the day the music died”. Earlier in the summer, the two of us attended a lecture from an author that spoke of haunted areas in Iowa. He told the group about his experience in Clear Lake, and Leah took it all in.  GET THE BROASTED CHICKEN!

There's a big dang chicken out front. That means order the chicken. The legends says...trust the chicken statue. The Barrel Drive-In. Clear Lake, IA.
There’s a big damn chicken out front. That means order the chicken. The legends says…trust the chicken statue. The Barrel Drive-In. Clear Lake, IA.
On the register of historic places. At the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.
On the register of historic places. At the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.

Ray & Anita (my in-laws) are from Texas and that means one thing. If you can remember Buddy Holly, by law you are required to love him. It’s not a law that is forced on anybody because back in the 1950’s the whole country loved the tunes the curly haired guitarist from Lubbock, TX was pouring into America’s radio waves. Iowa naturally brings in the most tourists to the Surf, but Texas is the clear number one when it comes to out-of-state visitors. Like many Texans before Ray & Anita, they all make their musical pilgrimage to Clear Lake.

Original Buddy Holly poster greets everyone as they pass the ticket booth and walk through the front door of the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.
Original Buddy Holly poster greets everyone as they pass the ticket booth and walk through the front door of the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.

The ballroom sat near the beautiful lake that the town is named after. The arched roof, the long exterior of the building and the parking lot makes it look like a small high school. Under the arched roof is one of America’s greatest dance floors and the stage that showcased many acts before the Buddy, Ritchie and the Big Bopper and many after. Not only does the Surf lay claim to a historic music venue, it’s also a great museum where the admission is free when there isn’t a band playing. It was a very bright and sunny that day and all of our eyes needed a moment to adjust when we walked in. And when they came to complete focus…….

The original pineapple decor still lines the walls of the Surf Ballroom. Your eyes are immediately drawn to it design as you enter the foyer. At the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.
The original pineapple decor still lines the walls of the Surf Ballroom. Your eyes are immediately drawn to its design as you enter the foyer. At the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.
Nobody knew just how historic this show would be. Many people are still alive to tell the story of the last concert of the three men who would perish later that night. Some of the concert goers haven't been back since, finding it too excruciating and choosing to remember their favorite singers as they were on stage the night they witnessed their last performance. At the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.
Nobody knew just how historic this show would be. Many people are still alive to tell the story of the last concert of the three men who would perish later that night. Some of the concert goers haven’t been back since, finding it too excruciating and choosing to remember their favorite singers as they were on stage the night they witnessed their last performance. At the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.
The booths surround the Surf's dance floor. Like the Barrel Drive-In, Many of them still have the intercom ordering system attached to the tables. At the Surf Ballroom in Clear lake, IA.
The booths surround the Surf’s dance floor. Like the Barrel Drive-In, Many of them still have the intercom ordering system attached to the tables. At the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.
The historic stage that has hosted classic performances for decades! Music from the 50's era is pumped through the whole building. You can dance on the original hardwood floor and walk up on stage and stand where legends have stood. At the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.
The historic stage that has hosted classic performances for decades! Music from the 50’s era is pumped through the whole building. You can dance on the original hardwood floor and walk up on stage and stand where legends have stood. At the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.
A portrait of Ritchie Valens looks over the
A portrait of Ritchie Valens looks over the “green room” of the Surf Ballroom. The signatures of performers covers the walls and ceiling. It’s one of music’s best collections of signatures you’ll find anywhere in the world. The small room is a tour in itself. At the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.

Like many people my age and older, we remember the classic movie “La Bamba”. I drifted from the family and started to walk around the Surf by myself for a bit. I soon noticed something tucked away in the foyer just past the restrooms. I loved the movie “La Bamba” and my favorite part was when Ritchie Valens, played by Lou Diamond Phillips, calls home just before he leaves the concert venue.

The lonely payphone now sits behind glass under lock and key. Used by both Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens before making their way to the small airfield to catch their flight to Moorhead, MN. At the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.
The lonely payphone now sits behind glass under lock and key. Used by both Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens before making their way to the small airfield to catch their flight to Moorhead, MN. At the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.

The Surf Ballroom wasn’t our last stop that day, nor should it be for anybody that’s paying their respect to this day in music history. On the same table that the guestbook lies are directions to the memorial of the three singers and the pilot, Roger Peterson, at the actual crash site. About 10 miles from the Surf Ballroom, off a dirt road in between the Iowa towns of Clear lake and Fertile, is the area where the plane went down and took the lives of four young men. Be sure to drive slow and look out for the Buddy Holly glasses marking the trail to the memorial about a 1/4 mile down a path, from the road, between the dense Iowa cornfields. The small hike was a somber walk for everyone. The fields in early February were snowy and only had the ankle high stalks sticking out of the ground from the previous harvest. That night, in 1959, was bitterly cold with high winds. The August afternoon, in 2014, was humid and very hot with very little clouds in the sky and the wind was still.

The likeness of Buddy Holly's iconic glasses marks the trailhead between two cornfields that leads you to the crash site and memorial. Near Clear Lake, IA.
The likeness of Buddy Holly’s iconic glasses marks the trailhead between two cornfields that leads you to the crash site and memorial. Near Clear Lake, IA.
Ray and Anita hold hands as their grandchildren lead the way down the long path to the memorial. Near Clear Lake, IA.
Ray and Anita hold hands as their grandchildren lead the way down the long path to the memorial. Near Clear Lake, IA.
At the end of the trail. The memorial that marks the fatal crash site. Many people leave notes, guitar picks and glasses. Near Clear Lake, IA.
At the end of the trail. The memorial that marks the fatal crash site. Many people leave notes, guitar picks and glasses. Near Clear Lake, IA.
There was a fourth man who died that night. The pilot, Roger Peterson. His memorial sits just to the right of the performers. Near Clear Lake, IA.
There was a fourth man who died that night. The pilot, Roger Peterson. His memorial sits just to the right of the performers. Near Clear Lake, IA.
The walk back from the memorial. Near Clear Lake, IA.
The walk back from the memorial. Near Clear Lake, IA.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever win “worlds best dad” but I do know that my three kids know how to be respectful and appreciate history. They quietly asked questions about the memorial and stood by their grandparents side when Ray and Anita showed emotion. I also think that it’s very important that children fill the area with chatter, laughter and exuberance when appropriate. They held hands and giggled as they attempted to catch grasshoppers on the trail leading back to the car. Something I think the four men memorialized would have loved to hear. Ray and Anita never thought they would someday be standing in a cornfield, in rural northern Iowa, overlooking the site that shook up the nation back in 1959. It’s obvious that rock and roll has changed over the decades. But any musician with half a brain can point to this era as a groundbreaking time that paved the way for their careers. Other than the families and friends of the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and Roger Peterson, the community of Cerro Gordo County directly felt the blow of this tragedy and still does. Rock and Roll changed dramatically soon after the Winter Dance Party Tour of 1959. We’ll never know how these three men would have fared during the 60’s but we know just how important their contributions were to the industry and history of our country. I’m 36 and this was my first visit to the Surf Ballroom and it was way overdue. Find your way to northern Iowa and visit Clear Lake, someday. There’s a piece of Americana waiting for all.

Road sign

Thanks for reading! -Team Goodvin

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