The Day the Music Died: Remembering A Tragic Accident in Clear Lake, Iowa

the historic Fox House in Clear Lake iowa

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No one could imagine what would happen on that snowy Iowa night. On the evening of February 3rd, 1959, a tragic accident took the lives of three of the biggest names in rock and roll – Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper.

bool things to see in clear lake iowa

They had just finished their concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake and were on their way to their next gig in Moorhead, Minnesota. The next day, their mangled plane was discovered, crashed into a cornfield outside of town. The tragedy shocked the nation and left an indelible mark on the history of music…

The Day the Music Died: A Tragic Accident in Clear Lake, Iowa


Growing up in Madison Wisconsin, I am familiar with famous musicians dying in tragic plane crashes. After all, Otis Redding, the king of soul, perished in a 1967 plane crash in our own Lake Monona along with 6 of the other 7 passengers. It was December and they didn’t stand much of a chance in the frigid Wisconsin water.

I knew Buddy Holly had died in a plane crash but didn’t really know the history of it. Back then, musicians were mainly owned by studios, had a bajillion live concerts to get out in front of the fans, and then sold records. There were no overnight YouTube sensations to build start like Justin Bieber. Heck, there was no internet. (gasp!)

Field of Flowers North Farm
Click on the picture to check it out

I did NOT know about the legendary Surf Ballroom or the role it would play in it. About the young pilot who was chartered to fly three rock and rolls stars in the horrible weather. How the finances were tight for these brilliant and creative souls who were trying to build themselves up and away from the studio systems. Their innovations helped make music what it is today.

This is where my visit to Clear Lake, Iowa comes in. I learned so much about the day the music died and checked out five amazing sites that helped honor the legends and honor history.

1 – Surf Ballroom

How do you build a dance hall that stands out in a literal sea of dance halls? That was the challenge that faced Carl J. Fox when he decided on his ocean beach club vision. Mr. Fox spared no expense, building the first version in 1933 (which burned down) and then the current version in 1948.

legendary surf ballroom

The Surf quickly became the place to be for the best big bands in the country. Everyone from Tommy Dorsey to Benny Goodman played there. It was also a popular spot for the up-and-coming stars of the day like Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper.

I think everyone played there but Elvis.

On the night of February 3rd, 1959, the Surf Ballroom was the last stop on what would become known as the Winter Dance Party Tour. 24 cities over a three-week tour with a route that makes anyone who looked at it dizzy. You could tell they added more stops as they went along.

Who were the original members of the Winter Dance Party?

The show featured Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper, Dion and the Belmonts, and Frankie Sardo. It was a great lineup and the place was packed with over 1,000 fans who were eager to see their favorite stars. The show went off without a hitch and everyone had a great time.

Who were the original members of the Winter Dance Party?

They booked a flight

Then the problems started. People were sick. The tour bus heater didn’t work. The weather was typical upper Midwest winter weather: frigid. And the tour was behind schedule.

What airport did Buddy Holly use for his fatal crash?

To save time, stay warmer, and give themselves a little break, a plane was chartered with the 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson.

Dwyer Flying Service at Mason City Municipal Airport offered them a flight in a 1947 V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza – and it would cost them just $36 per person.

There were just three open seats, and people fought over them. The Big Bopper was under the weather and Waylen Jennings offered up the seat. They joked between themselves about freezing on the bus and “I hope your plane crashes” – simple trash talk between buddies that would come to haunt Jennings for years to come.

What airport did Buddy Holly use for his fatal crash?

A coin was literally flipped for Ritchie Valens to earn his spot over Jessie Allsup. The winner of that coin flip actually lost. Less than a minute after taking off, the plane crashed into a cornfield, killing everyone on board.

The news of the crash quickly spread and the nation was in mourning. Three of the biggest stars in the music world were gone, and the nation was left to wonder what could have been.

Policy changed

Just imagine being a family member of one of those four. You learn of their demise over national news – to the point that a pregnant wife loses her baby. That is why the media no longer releases names until the immediate family of a tragedy has been notified first.

No answers

It could have been the weather. The fact that Roger wasn’t familiar with that particular kind of plane. Did they even have de-icer back then? It didn’t matter, nothing would bring those 4 souls back.

You learn all of this and more at the Surf as they tell you about the day the music died, and so much more.

Official Lyric Video for American Pie by Don McLean

This one horrible event has left an incredible mark on music history – inspiring generations of future talent as well. This is probably one of the most popular tributes.

Surf Ballroom Tours

There are two different kinds: self-guided or guided. Self-guided tours are free, but they suggest a $5 donation. The guided tours are $8 and are around 75 minutes long.

The Surf is a non-profit and 100% of the proceeds go to maintaining the building and to the Clear Lake Music Education Foundation. This foundation provides musical instruments and instruction to area students. (I LOVE that)!!

You will enter to a historic piano that Duke Ellington actually played along with a quick introduction to other historical significance of the Surf.

Surf Ballroom Tours

Step into the bar area, have a seat and watch an informative video that will have you wanting to sing along. This gives you the history of the Surf Ballroom as well as how it became Nationally known in one night.

Walk around and look at all the incredible items collected over the years: signed photos, set lists, newspaper articles, and classic music memorabilia.

Enter the ballroom and spin around. Sit at one of the vintage booths and get a feel for how they danced the night away while hanging with their friends. Ask about why the drawers under them that were for holding the ladies’ purses are all missing.

booths at the surf ballroom

Walk across the stage and feel the magic for yourself.

view from the state at the surf ballroom

Step up into the “Green Room” where the musicians relaxed and waited to go on stage. So many legends passed through the doors and graced the walls with their signatures or thoughts. Be prepared to spend a little time in there to see if you can recognize any names.

green room walls from the surf ballroom

Stop by the Museum Store on your way out and pick up a t-shirt or mug to remember your visit. If you are looking for something special, they offer vintage Surf Ballroom items as well… I picked up a fun shirt for my husband – reminiscent of the little inserts that were put in the center of 45 records so play them on the older stereos.

The music venue is still open year-round and has a 2,100-person seating capacity with a 6,300-square-foot dancing area. They keep the legend alive with the annual winter dance party and have many other events there over the course of the year.

The Surf is a must-see for any music fan, especially if you love the classics. It’s a place full of history and the perfect way to spend an afternoon.

The Surf Ballroom can be found at 460 North Shore Drive in Clear Lake, Iowa 50428. (641) 357-6151 info@surfballroom.com

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FYI: The Surf is a non-profit and 100% of the proceeds go to maintaining the building and to the Clear Lake Music Education Foundation. This foundation provides musical instruments and instruction to area students.

2 – The Fox House

Built in 1948, the house across the street from the Surf Ballroom was the perfect location to not only keep an eye on the venue but entertain big stars in style. It is like stepping back in time when you enter and see all the original gems that were top of the line at the time.

The Fox House across from the surf ballroom

Mid Century Modern at its best, the place is still beyond inviting and every detail seems to have been considered from the ashtrays down to the monkey wallpaper in the bathroom.

What I thought was the most impressive? The view straight through the house to the lake. I could sit in that breakfast nook all day and happily do my writing there.

The breakfast nook at the Fox House in Clear Lake Iowa

It can be found at 449 N Shore Dr, Clear Lake, IA 50428.

A deluxe tour of the Fox House and Surf Ballroom is $20, you can have 10 minimum for that package. (Larger groups will split up to go through the Fox House; 25 per group)

3 – Three Stars Plaza

It is no secret that I have become a fan of sculptures since I discovered them during our Covid lock-down stint. 3 Stars Plaza is a short walk from the Surf Ballroom and worth more than a few minutes of your time.

Three Stars Plaza monument

I know we are in the age of digital music and downloads, but there used to be these little round black discs called records. (OK, that was sarcasm for readers under 25). We had special tools on our old stereo sets that would let us stack those records on top of each other so they would drop, one at a time, and play. The next one would drop as soon as the first was done playing, giving us a seamless way to listen for hours.

Three Stars Plaza monument buttoms

The interactive monument here is designed to replicate that – and each of the three “records” is by a different one of the fated flight musicians. Pick which one of the 3 stars you want to learn about first and sit back along the stone wall to listen.

It was a hot day on our visit and we enjoyed the mist provided a brief cooling as we were entertained and educated.

It can be found at 474 N Shore Drive, Clear Lake, Iowa 50428.

FYI: Check it out as darkness falls, you will see the blue-tinted light show!

4 – The “Ray-Ban” Glasses

Buddy Holly was legally blind with a vision of 20/800. He hated wearing his thick black-framed glasses at the beginning of his career because he thought it made him appear less “rockstar” like.

The "Ray-Ban" Glasses that mark the entrance to the Buddy Holly Crash Site

Little would he know that they were an iconic statement that has more than lasted the test of time.

The super-sized version of his glasses marks the entry into the private field that holds the crash site. It is easy to see from the road and makes for a fun Instagramable moment.

It can be found at 22728 Gull Ave, Clear Lake, IA 50428

5 – Buddy Holly Crash Site

If you are up to it after you find the big pair of glasses, you can take a 1/4-mile to 1/2 mile trek down the edge of a cornfield to the actual crash site. You will see a pole that marks the official site and then the memorials.

Buddy Holly Crash Site

You will see three separate memorials: A steel guitar, a set of 3 records, and a set of wings.

The guitar has all three names on it with the date of the crash. The three records each list a top hit from each of the stars. Rodger got his own memorial – a set of wings with his name on it and the date of the accident.

Buddy Holly Crash Site Pilot memorial

The flowers, letters, and other tributes placed there are a sobering reminder of the fragility of life and the power of music. It is a peaceful spot overlooking the cornfields and I was able to spend some time just reflecting on the loss.

I am not sure what I expected to find here, but it was more than the physical site. There is a feeling here – maybe it is the music or the history or the sense of loss. It was something I am glad I took the time to experience.

That, and it helped me get my daily 10,000 steps in!

See it For Yourself

If you are ever in the area, I hope you will take the time to visit these sites and remember the day the music died. It is a part of our music history and the story of these four young men should never be forgotten.

The Day the Music Died: Remembering A Tragic Accident in Clear Lake, Iowa

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