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Published: December 4th 2016
Surf Ballroom is a concert hall and dance palace in Clear Lake. In the 1950-ies there were many similar dance halls all over the US. But in the 60-ies and 70-ies fewer and fewer people visited these party palaces and many of them were closed down.
Corn, the Day the Music Died, Star Trek and more Corn
Last summer we had to make a large renovation in our home. This made our lives a bit unpredictable for a few months. This chaotic living condition made it difficult for us to plan our vacation as far ahead as we normally do. This is part of the reason why we decided to split our vacation into two parts. First half we went where we found tickets namely Chicago in the US. However 14 days for Chicago seemed a bit too much so we went on a road trip in Iowa instead.
We knew very little about Iowa before we set off. They grow corn and they have tornadoes, that was pretty much all we knew. We could not even get our hands on any guidebook for that state. To the best of our knowledge there doesn't exist one. But lucky for us there is Internet and Travel Iowa's homepage lists a great many places you can visit and one of our favourite websites, Roadside America, also had many more or less interesting sites listed on their homepage. We planned our trip from those
Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper
Surf Ballroom was saved for us to see much thanks to a concert held there in February 1959. It was in Surf Ballroom Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens played their last concert
sites and we turned out having a great time.
In case someone familiar with Iowa's geography read this and start to wonder why we travelled so strangely we can point out that the following places are not mentioned in the chronological order we visited them. The Day the Music Died
"A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they'd be happy for a while
But February made me shiver
With every paper I'd deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn't take one more step
I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died"
/Don McLean "American Pie"
One of the highlights of our trip in Iowa was Surf Ballroom, a concert hall and dance palace in Clear Lake. In the 1950-ies there were many similar dance halls all over the US. But in the 60-ies
Surf Ballroom is today a concert hall cum well preserved 1950-ies era dance hall cum memorial over Richie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper
and 70-ies fewer and fewer people visited these party palaces and many of them were closed down. Surf Ballroom was saved for us to see much thanks to a concert held there in February 1959. It was in Surf Ballroom Buddy Holly, J P Richardson, better known as the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens played their last concert. After the show they boarded a plane which was going to take them to the town where the next show of their tour was to take place. The plane barely more than took off from Mason City Airport before the pilot lost control over the plane and crashed in a corn field less than 6 miles away. All passengers and the pilot were killed in the crash. Because Surf Ballroom was the place where this legendary last concert took place many local volunteers in the years after spent thousands of hours and countless dollars to keep Surf Ballroom from closing down even in years when guests were too few to make it profitable to have it open.
This plane crash is also known as The Day the Music Died, named so after a line in Don McLean's song "American
After the show they boarded a plane which was going to take them to the town where the next show of their tour was to take place. The plane barely more than took off from Mason City Airport before the pilot lost control over the plane and crashed in a corn field less than 6 miles away.
Pie" where he sings about the death of the three singers.
Surf Ballroom is today a concert hall cum well preserved 1950-ies era dance hall cum memorial over Richie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. Around Surf Ballroom there are several memorials over the three singers. Also in the corn field where the plane crashed there is a memorial. Brandon, Iowa
"And I wanna take you out of the frying pan
And into the fire
Out of the frying pan and into the fire"
/Meat Loaf "Out of the Frying Pan"
Maybe Brandon, Iowa can represent the quintessence of what a road trip in the US really is about. It is a small town, only about three hundred people live there, and it has only one claim to fame - in Brandon you can see the biggest frying pan in Iowa. They wanted to have something special to make the town to stick out. Something to be proud of, to boost the morale. So they decided to make the biggest frying pan in Iowa. Wonder how their frying pan ranks in the entire US? Maybe it
Memorial at the crash site
All passengers and the pilot were killed in the crash.
is only the 22nd largest in the US, narrowly beaten by the one in Swathill, Tennessee?
We are not going to make fun of this. Thanks the citizens of Brandon, Iowa for having the largest frying pan in Iowa. Trust us, we enjoyed driving through your town and it made our day seeing the frying pan. We still smile when we think about it. Anything that can make us smile it good! A tour in Amish country
"As I walk through the valley where I harvest my grain
I take a look at my wife and realize she's very plain
But that's just perfect for an Amish like me
You know, I shun fancy things like electricity"
/Weird Al Yankovic "Amish Paradise"
Twice in Iowa we drove through Amish communities, first in the southeast corner when we were driving along Historic Hills Scenic Byway
and then in Kalona. We don't have any photos of Amish people, insulting people by snapping photos of them only because we find them peculiar is not something we do. We did take some of a horse and a buggy and one of an Amish
In Kalona we decided to join a guided tour to learn a bit more about Amish life. The guide had very much knowledge about Amish people because he used to be Amish himself but had decided to leave the community and lead a more conventional life instead. We learned a few interesting things about Amish life:
• The Amish communities are growing in size thanks to large nativity. Also surprisingly few give up the Amish lifestyle.
• Amish people don't use electricity and avoid many modern inventions. However, they do use telephones sometimes. They have a kind of phone booth where they can make outgoing phone calls. Each family also has their own answering machine so even incoming calls are handled. The phone booth is communal and is located away from any private home.
• Amish don't use cars. They have horses and buggies for transport. For long range transport they have non-Amish people driving them. Riverside and Star Trek
"Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise
. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilisations; to
Streets named after Valens and Big Bopper
These streets were named after Richie Valens and the Big Bopper
boldly go where no man has gone before."
/Captain James T. Kirk
In an old episode of Star Trek Captain Kirk mentions that he was born in a small town in Iowa. He never says which town in Iowa, only that it is a small town. A Star Trek fan in the small town Riverside in Iowa thought why not make that small town my town. He erected a memorial over a the Future Birthplace of Captain Kirk (he will be born in the year 2225). Later he contacted the people behind Star Trek and managed to convince them to make it official that Riverside, Iowa is the birthplace of Captain Kirk.
Apart from the Future Birthplace of Captain Kirk there is also a Star Trek memorabilia collection housed in the Riverside History Center in the town. If you visit the history center we can recommend that you not only visit the Star Trek section, which is well worth visiting, but also have a look in the inner room at the Riverside History section.
Even if we are not Star Trek fans it was still good fun to visit Riverside.
Around Surf Ballroom there are several memorials over the three singers
For information we might add that the Star Trek memorabilia collection isn't open every day. If it is important for you to see it call in advance. Iowa 80 - the largest truck stop in the world
"I like trucking, I like trucking,
I like trucking and I like to truck.
I like trucking, I like trucking,
If you don't like trucking, tough luck."
/ Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones "I like trucking"
Maybe it's time to give up these quotes? They are getting increasingly silly...
Iowa 80 is a truck stop located outside Walcott in Iowa. Supposedly it is the largest truck stop in the world and that made it worth to make a stop there. It is quite a spectacular place so we are not joking. It is worth to make a stop there. Maquoketa Caves State Park
We read about this park and realised that it could be a nice place for a hike. On a road trip you naturally spend many hours in a car. So to hike for a few hours was very welcome.
Another memorial over the three musicians
a nice place, most of the park was in a canyon so it there was some minor climbing involved when we walked between the caves. Most of the caves were small, some of them we could not even crawl into, and most of them were not spectacular. But it was well worth the visit because the hike was good enough to compensate for the less than average interesting caves. Galva, Bishop Hill and Swedesburg
These three towns have in common that they were founded by Swedish immigrants and that the current population recognise and cherish their Swedish heritage.
Before anyone starts complaining that we got the geography wrong, we are well aware of that both Bishop Hill and Galva are in Illinois, not Iowa.
The name Galva
comes from the town Gävle in Sweden. We didn't plan to make a stop in Galva, we were only driving through on our way to Bishop Hill nearby. But Emma spotted a mock Gävle Christmas Goat near the road so we had to stop and take a photo. Each year a few weeks before Christmas the town counsil in Gävle erects a goat made from wood and hay
The biggest frying pan in Iowa
The biggest frying pan in Iowa you can see in the town Brandon
as a Christmas decoration in the main square. The goat rarely makes it to Christmas though because most years someone sets fire to it. This year the goat actually stood less than 24 hours before an arsonist attacked it, which might be a record of being the shortest time it survived. You might argue against the "tradition" of setting fire to the goat in Gävle but there is no doubt that the Christmas Goat gives the town Gävle a lot of press coverage. It's like it is Gävle's version of "The Largest Frying Pan in Iowa". Bishop Hill
was for a while a prosperous community. The people there formed a tight community and they worked hard. But the initial success was later followed by a decline and today Bishop Hill looks like many other small towns in this part of the US. There is some heritage left such as the original church and an early hotel.
Bishop Hill has turned their Swedish heritage into a tourist attraction. There are two museums and several shops catering for tourists. In Swedesburg
we couldn't find anything like that. Their Swedish heritage can be seen in many places, they
Amish buggy and horse
Amish people don't use cars, they prefer horse and buggies
have a Dala Horse (we have mentioned them in a previous blog entry
), a goat made from hay and a sign saying "Välkommen till Swedesburg" ("Welcome to Swedesburg" written in Swedish) for instance, but we couldn't find any tourist related business or any museum. But we did find a cemetery where most graves had Swedish sounding names written on them. Snake Alley Snake Alley
is a short street in Burlington, Iowa which resembles Lombard Street
and Vermont Street
, both in San Francisco, in that they in a short distance have built several switchbacks in the roads to enable transport in a street that, if it was straight, would otherwise have been too steep to negotiate. Lombard Street is also known as the "the most crooked street in the world" but Snake Alley is a strong contender for that title. De Moines Art Centre
We read on Internet about De Moines Art Centre
and their outdoor exhibitions. One of the problems when you find things on Internet is that the information on how to reach the places can be incomplete or even misguiding. That's what happened when we were in De Moines. What made it even more complicated was that art was
Amish people don't use electricity and avoid many modern inventions. However, they do use telephones sometimes. The phone booth is communal and is located away from any private home.
displayed in two different locales in De Moines and we didn't know that at first. It took us a while but in the end we found them both. East Peru - Home of the Delicious Apple
One day we were driving around in western Iowa looking for other things when we came to the town East Peru. There was a sign there saying that it was in East Peru that the first Delicious Apple was grown. Since we were there it was worth to stop for a minute and take a photo but hardly more than that. You know the Home of the Delicious Apple doesn't stand a chance against fabulous sites such as the Largest truck stop in the World or the Largest frying pan in Iowa... Corn, corn, corn
The landscape in Iowa is easily described. It is corn field after corn field after corn field. More corn is grown in Iowa than we thought was consumed in the entire world. Did Stephen King visit Iowa before he wrote Children of the Corn? A week in Tornado Alley
Iowa is right in the so called Tornado
Horse and buggies on the road can be a traffic hazard
Alley, the area in the US where tornadoes are most frequent. We drove around for almost 10 days and still didn't see a single tornado. We guess that is good, tornadoes can kill people, but a part of us is still disappointed. It would have been cool to have a photo of one...
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