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.
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!
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.
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…….
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 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.
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.
Thanks for reading! -Team Goodvin
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