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Visiting the Buddy Holly Crash Site: 7 Things to Know

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Are you looking for some places to visit near Clear Lake? The Buddy Holly crash site is one place you should definitely try out. The memorial site has been alive for over six decades, honoring the fallen music stars.

In the early morning of Tuesday, February 3rd, 1959, the lights of three young rock ‘n’ roll music pioneers were abruptly cut off. Just a few minutes after 12:55 am, the light aircraft carrying the three – Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson, “The Big Bopper,” crashed, killing all four onboard.

The crash occurred near Clear Lake, Iowa, around 6 miles after Mason City Municipal Airport takeoff. This site was named Buddy Holly crash site, after the lead artist in the “Winter Dance Party” tour, scheduled for different regions across the Midwest.

Although there are numerous theories about the events leading to the tragedy, one thing is sure – the fateful morning robbed the world of some of the most incredible musical talents.

The tragic day was later coined “The Day the Music Died” by Don McLean in his 1971 hit “American Pie.” So, what is there to know about the Buddy Holly crash site? If you are planning to visit the site, here is what you should know:

Buddy Holly Plane Crash Site Facts

1. Buddy Holly Crash Site Directions

Buddy Holly signature glasses

Where is the Buddy Holly Plane Crash Site exactly located? How easy is it to reach the site? Well, the 1959 plane crash that claimed the lives of three rock ‘n’ roll music artists and a pilot is located near Clear Lake, Iowa, just six miles northwest of the Mason City Municipal Airport.

It took place on a cornfield owned by Albert Juhl at the time. Those who died in the crash included:

  • Charles Hardin Holley aka Buddy Holly
  • Richard Valenzuela aka Ritchie Valens
  • Jiles P. Richardson aka The Big Bopper
  • Roger A. Peterson – The pilot

For music lovers, this crash site is worth visiting to pay respect to the fallen music legends. And although no formal roads are leading to the site, the current owner of this field takes good care of the gravel road. The place is peaceful, and walking up to the memorial from the Buddy Holly glasses sign is another adventure.

You’ll, however, need to use the Buddy Holly crash site Google Maps to reach the memorial, as there are no road signs – about 5 minute drive off of I-35. Once at Holly’s trademark glasses sign, you’ll see the gravel road that leads to the site.  You have to park your car here and walk the rest of the way – it’s just around a ¼ of a mile.

The memorial, 22728 Gull Ave., Clear Lake, IA, is marked by a stainless-steel guitar replica and three records with the names of those three singers.

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2. The Winter Dance Party Tour (The Tour to Hell)

Buddy Holly singing and performing
The Winter Dance Party Tour (The Tour to Hell) / Facebook

This music tour was set to take place across 24 Midwestern cities with Buddy Holly as the lead talent. He assembled a band (The Crickets), comprising Tommy Allsup (guitar), Waylon Jennings (bass), and Carl Bunch for the drums. Other artists, like Ritchie Valens, J. P. Richardson, and Dion DiMucci, of “The Belmonts band,” also joined the tour to try and promote their records.

The tour, nicknamed “the tour to hell,” kicked off in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on 23rd January 1959. It was to run across 24 Midwestern cities for around 3 ½ weeks. The planning was poor, with the amount of travel needed for the concerts becoming unbearable for the bands, hence the nickname.

Moving from one venue to the other was not considered during the planning, making the bands erratically meander up and down instead of systematically circling the region.

Some venues were more than 400 miles apart, making the entire tour quite tiring for the artists. And, as there were no off days for the bands, they had to be on the road for over 10 hours every day to make it to the next venue on time.

The show in Clear Lake at the Surf Ballroom was an eleventh-hour addition and was the last performance they did. The three singers died just minutes after takeoff, headed for their next show at Moorhead, Minnesota. When the crash occurred, Holly was 22, Ritchie Valens was 17, and Richardson was 28.

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3. Fan’s Gifts Repository

Gifts and flowers at Buddy Holly Monument
Fernkes / Wikimedia Commons

The Memorial has, over the years, become a repository for gifts by visiting fans. People visiting the Buddy Holly crash site leave behind anything, from tiny American flags, spare change, flowers, eyeglasses, etc. All these are meant to honor the three entertainers and the pilot whose lights were deemed by the fatal accident on that fateful February morning.

People from all walks of life frequently visit the place, and it’s also regularly monitored and taken care of. For those who plan to visit this site soon, carry some gifts to mark your visit. Although over 60 years since the crash, these four men’s memories still live among rock music lovers, family, and friends.

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4. Holly’s Influence, Legacy, and Celebration

Although the celebrated Buddy Holly only had a single No. 1 hit, the legend significantly influenced the next generation of rock and roll bigwigs. For instance, “The Beatles” chose their name partly because Holly’s band, “The Crickets,” also had an insect name.

Bob Dylan, among the greatest songwriters of all time, also confirmed that Holly had significantly influenced his music career. Bob attended Holly’s concert two days before the fatal plane crash.

Other singers and songwriters who Holly’s music influenced in one way or the other include Elton John, the Clash, Don McLean, Bruce Springsteen, and so many more to this day.

As for his legacy, Buddy left multiple songs and unfinished recordings that have shaped rock ‘n’ roll music. There were also numerous transcriptions of his solo compositions and informal jams with bandmates. The most current Holly recordings were made in his apartment in 1958, comprising six songs, his last work.

Since Holly had recorded prolifically, and his music’s demand was immense, his record label continued to release new singles and albums for up to 10 years after his death.

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5. Three Monuments

Buddy Holly crash monuments

Three monuments have since been erected to honor the fallen music legends. The first was constructed 1988 outside the last show site, the Surf Ballroom. It’s a 4-foot-tall granite curving, inscribed with the names of the four people who perished in the crash. The unveiling of this monument was when the four families of the deceased met for the first time.

The second monument was put up at the memorial site by Ken Paquette in 1989. He was a Wisconsin fan who erected a stainless-steel structure resembling a guitar inscribed with the names of the three rock ‘n’ roll legends.

It is located about 400 meters west of the 315th Street and Gull Avenue intersection, slightly more than 5 miles from Clear Lake. There is a structure resembling Holly’s favorite glasses at this intersection, marking the access point to the actual Buddy Holly crash site.

Ken Paquette didn’t get tired and erected still another monument. This time he did so outside “The Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay, Wisconsin.” It was the place where the band hosted its penultimate show before the crash. The monument was unveiled on 17th July 2003.

Paquette still made another memorial back in 2009 in honor of Peterson, the pilot, which was also unveiled at the Buddy Holly crash site.

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6. Memorial Concerts

winter dance party memorial

Surf Ballroom, the last performance site for Holly’s band, also started an annual “Winter Dance Party” in 1979 to commemorate the three singers. The yearly show strictly features 1950s and 1960s rock and roll sounds.

Fans of these three musicians, and the rock ‘n’ roll music at large, have gathered here yearly since 1979 for these concerts. While the first concert was only held for one Saturday, 3rd Feb 1979, and made a loss of around $4,000, it evolved quickly and started sustaining itself.

In 1980, it became a two-day event, Friday and Saturday, and by 1992, Thursday was also incorporated, officially making it a 3-day memorial concert. It is currently a fantastic annual 4-day tribute concert where fans can enjoy music from the ’50s and early ’60s.

As the fans say, “The music didn’t die in Clear Lake.” The event, which now welcomes over 60,000 people each year, features a second-generation of artists like:

  • Austin Allsup
  • Don Everly
  • Edan Everly

All these artists performed in the 2019 annual concert. And, although most of the event’s pioneers have also since passed on, the fans can’t try entertaining the thought of the concert also coming to an end. They believe the second generation will carry the mantle and keep the torch burning.

If you plan to visit the Buddy Holly crash site, you might as well do it during the annual commemoration to enjoy the ’50s rock and roll from Holly’s last stage.

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7. Buddy Holly Museum

Buddy Holly Center sign during winter
Buddy Holly Museum / Facebook

If you plan a road trip by the Buddy Holly plane crash, you should include the Buddy Holly Museum on your list of things to do in Clear Lake and even one of Iowa’s best places to visit. Finding the exhibition center won’t be hard since Clear Lake isn’t that big of a town. All you need is to find the Surf Ballroom, the museum’s home, and you are good to go.

The exhibition center is open all year round on weekdays from 8 am through 4 pm. During summer, it also opens its doors on weekends (Saturday and Sundays) from 9 am to 1 pm and 1 pm to 4 pm, respectively. This runs from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend. But, due to the current pandemic, you should check out for any changes in visiting hours through the official Buddy Holly Museum website.

As for the entry fees, they charge a mere $5 as a donation for the self-guided tour. But if you want to donate more towards preserving the rock ‘n’ roll history, you are free to do so.

Over the years, the exhibition center and the crash site have helped people appreciate the origin of this great genre of music and celebrate the lives of the trio talents.

And for the few lucky Twin Cities residents like me, the place is just a 90-minute drive away. It’s a great place to include in your next road trip destinations if you’ve not been there.

Imagine even the payphone used by Buddy Holly to call his newly wedded wife and Ritchie Valens to his manager is still there. Planning for the next concert seems like a great idea as the crash clocks over sixty years and the Memorial celebrations turn 40 years.

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