By Ruth A. Ringelstetter
The Winter Dance Party Tour began on January 23, 1959 at the Million Dollar Ballroom in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Nearly 6,000 young people turned out for that first concert. The tour was set to cover 24 cities in 24 days. The artists on the tour were Buddy Holly and the Crickets, The Big Bopper (J. P. Richardson), Ritchie Valens, Dion and the Belmonts, and Frankie Sardo.
Planning for the tour was done haphazardly and had the stops zigzagging across multiple Midwest states, sometimes with as many as 360 miles between concerts. A bus had been rented for the tour, but after just a couple of days, the bus proved to be very unreliable between breakdowns and little or no heat. It was a cold and snowy winter in the Midwest.
By the time they reached The Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay, Wisconsin for the February 1 concert, Carl Bunch (Buddy Holly’s drummer) had left the tour with frostbitten feet.
The next night, the bus limped into Clear Lake, Iowa, where the artists performed at the Surf Ballroom. By that time, Buddy Holly had had enough of the freezing bus and he was tired. He decided to charter a plane to take him to Fargo, North Dakota. There he could get some rest, and join the tour the next night at Moorhead, Minnesota.
It was a four-seater plane, so there was room for the pilot and three passengers. The original plan was for Buddy Holly, Tommy Allsup (Holly’s guitarist), and Waylon Jennings (Holly’s bass player) to take the passenger seats. At the last minute, The Big Bopper, who was suffering with the flu, asked Waylon Jennings for his seat. Waylon agreed. Ritchie Valens asked Allsup for his seat, and they decided the winner of a coin toss would get the seat. Valens won the seat.
The plane took off from the Mason City Municipal Airport around 1:00 A.M. on February 3, and crashed minutes later in a field about six miles northwest of the airport. All three musicians and the pilot were killed in the crash. At the time of the crash, Buddy Holly was 22, The Big Bopper was 28, Ritchie Valens was 17, and the pilot, Roger Peterson, was 21.
In 1972, Don McLean released his single “American Pie” which referred to the crash as “The Day the Music Died”. McLean delivered newspapers when he was young, and learned of Buddy Holly’s death in the newspaper on the morning of February 4, 1959. In the song he uses the line “February made me shiver, with every paper I’d deliver.”
Several years ago, I learned that there was a memorial at the crash site. When I went to mark the spot on the map, I saw that we had been very near the site on a previous trip. This was before I marked the site, so I didn’t even realize we were that close.
On a return trip to the area in June of 2015, we decided to make the crash site memorial our dawn photography stop. It had rained some overnight and the ground was wet. The site is marked by a large pair of Buddy Holly glasses. From the glasses at the roadside, you follow a path down into the field to the actual crash site and memorial.
The memorial was erected in 1988 by Wisconsin fan Ken Paquette. Michael Connor of Clear Lake, Iowa, crafted the Buddy Holly glasses marking the site. The original monument was only to the three musicians. It wasn’t until 2009 that Paquette added the memorial to the pilot, Roger Peterson.
Visitors to the memorial site leave their own mementos. Some leave glasses, some leave coins, some leave flowers, and some leave a bottle of liquor.
After our stop at the crash site memorial, we went on to Clear Lake to photograph the Surf Ballroom, where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson performed for the last time.
The Surf Ballroom is largely unchanged since the 1950’s. A concrete memorial to the three musicians and the pilot stands outside the ballroom. Every February since 1979 the Surf Ballroom has held a “Winter Dance Party” tribute show in honor of the three stars.
If you’re ever in the area, stop and pay your respects to four young men who left this earth far too early.