Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Day 64/365 February 3, 1959....Darkness and Light Snow

If your parents live in Ames Iowa, and you go to college in St. Paul, Minnesota, you spend a great deal of time driving up and down I-35. From Mason City Iowa going north all the way to Albert Lea Minnesota, it is properly regarded as No-Man's Land - just four empty lanes of interstate traffic. Those four lanes in the middle of winter can be horrendous and scary.

Back in 1959, at 1 am on February 3rd, in a light snow, and total darkness, long before I-35 was built, there was a spot along a fenceline, just visible from the interstate now. That vacant bit of Iowa farmland became famous as the final resting place for a small light-weight plane, carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.

The three had played a concert at the Surf Ballroom earlier that night (actually the night of February 2nd), and then tossed a coin to see who got to ride in the plane versus taking the unheated bus to the next stop in North Dakota. Ritchie Valens won the coin toss, leaving Kris Kristofferson to take the bus.

Twenty years later, in 1979, the Surf Ballroom held a memorial concert, with Wolfman Jack to mc. I drove down with college friends, in a light snow, on dark roads, and fortunately arrived without sliding off into the drifts. About a year later, I received a set of photos from a man who was the newspaper photographer at the crash site (all copies, from his negs, most published here or there through the years). The top photo is one of his prints - now available everywhere on the net. But at the time, prior to the internet, I treasured those photos - it was a direct connection to someone who had been at that last place -and I still have them.

This is the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake Iowa. Doesn't look like much, but it's an amazing place. I really can't do it justice so go here: If you love rock n roll, go. It's America's version of the Cavern, and, no offense to Elvis, much more worthy of a pilgrimage than Graceland.

If you're looking for the crash site, sometime this sign is up, and sometimes it isn't. There's also a relatively recent memorial placed by fans -metal guitars and metal 45's, it's stolen from time to time as well. Wear your walking shoes, it's still just a spot in a fenceline, but there's always some flowers laid. The Surf will give you directions.

The original Cedar Rapids Gazette article from 2-3-1959 follows. Note the comment by DARLOW OLSON, Danceland manager (location of their upcoming concert) who said "replacement stars will be obtained".

Not very likely, Mr. Olson.


Airplane Crashes In Iowa
Iowa Pilot Also Killed; Trio Had Performed At Clear Lake

MASON CITY (AP) Three of the nation's top rock 'n' roll stars were killed during a light snow when their chartered plane crashed shortly after taking off from the airport here early Tuesday.
The trio, BUDDY HOLLY, 22, of Lubbock, Texas; RITCHIE VALENS, 17, of Los Angeles, and J. P. RICHARDSON, 24, of New Orleans, known professionally as the Big Bopper, had completed an engagement at the Surf ballroom in nearby Clear Lake a short time before. They were on their way to Fargo, N. D., for an appearance Tuesday night.

The 4-place plane was chartered from the Dwyer Flying Service of Mason City.

The pilot was ROGER PETERSON of Clear Lake, who was also killed.Cause of the crash was not immediately determined, although authorities tentatively blamed weather conditions at the time of takeoff.

The 3 rock 'n' roll singers killed in an Iowa plane crash Tuesday were to have appeared at Danceland in Cedar Rapids Friday night. DARLOW OLSON, Danceland manager, said replacement stars will be obtained. The trio was to have appeared in Sioux City Wednesday night and Des Moines Thursday night.

HOLLY, who sang with the Crickets, sailed to Rock 'n' Roll fame with his recording of PeggySue.
The BIG BOPPER gained fame through his recording of Chantilly Lace and the more recent Bopper Wedding.

VALENS was identified as having one of the current top hits, a recording called Donna.
A strong southerly wind and light blowing snow filled the air when the plane took off about 1 a.m.

The Beechcraft Bonanza burned when it crashed into a field on the ALBERT JUHL farm 15 miles northwest of Mason City.

Other members of the troupe which appeared at Clear Lake had left after the show by chartered bus for Fargo. They are DION and the Belmonts, FRANKIE SARDO and the Crickets, of which HOLLY was the singing star. HOLLY, VALENS and the BIG BOPPER decided to fly in order to arrive ahead of the troupe and make advance preparations.
The 4 bodies were badly burned. JERRY DWYER, owner of the flying service, set out to look for the party when no word came back from his pilot. He was delayed several hours in searching for the plane because of early morning fog.

Later observers of the wreckage said the plane apparently hit the ground first at the left wingtip, and plowed a furrow about 20 to 25 feet across a stubble field. Then the body of the craft evidently struck the ground, peeled off the surface of the field, and bounced as the left wing came off and remained there.

The plane then struck the ground again about 100 feet farther northwest, and skidded the length of about 2 city blocks before the wreckage piled up against a fence. Three of the bodies were lying on the ground near the wreckage, and one still was inside of what was left of the plane.

The plane was just a jumble of wreckage, with pieces here and there. Along the path of the plane also were scattered a suitcase, a shoe, and other articles.
Two deputy sheriffs and some state highway patrolmen would not permit anyone into the field where the plane wreckage lay for about an hour and a half after word of the crash spread.
It took that long to find the county coroner, notify him of the accident, and get him to the scene.
The trip to Fargo was expected to take about 3 and one half hours.

Both RICHARDSON and VALENS had written some of the tunes they recorded.

VALENS started singing while still in high school and composed Come On, Let's Go which first established him as a jukebox favorite. He was scheduled to appear on the March 7 Perry Como television program.

RICHARDSON started out as a radio station disc jockey.

HOLLY began his musical career studying the violin at age 4. He won an amateur contest a year later, but by his high school days had switched to the guitar. His interest in western music won him appearances on several broadcast shows and in 1955 he came to the attention of recording officials.

His first click disc was That'll Be The Day, followed by Early In The Morning and Peggy Sue.

Just released was his recording of It Doesn't Matter Anymore. HOLLY was married 7 months ago. The other two were single. (Not correct - The Big Bopper was married, had a 4 yr old daughter, and a son born 2 months after he died).
In Hollywood, trade sources said the combined record sales of the 3 popular singers was in the millions.

(Courtesy of The Cedar Rapids Gazette Iowa 1959-02-03)

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