Thursday, December 31, 2015

THE PLANTATION BALLROOM

Growing up in the 1950s with older sisters and brothers, I heard a lot about the Plantation Ballroom but don’t remember ever being there.  A few years ago my mother-in-law shared some photos of the ballroom with me.  I came across them again recently and my curiosity got the better of me—I needed to find out more.  While technically located in Palo Alto County (albeit right on the west side of the road that runs along the dividing line), I wanted to include the story of the ballroom on my blog because it was enjoyed by so many Kossuth County residents.


How It Began


H. R. “Hitchy” Pettit and his wife, the former Elvira Wehrspann, loved to dance.  They attended dances at many different ballrooms while dating and in the early days of their marriage.  They had been married on June 29, 1934, in St. Luke’s Church at Fairville and settled on the Wehrspann family farm where they began to raise their family. 

Three miles down the road from their home was a quiet, wooded area which the Pettits drove by frequently.  They often commented that it would be a good location for a ballroom.  In the mid-1940s, the property, which belonged to the estate of Jim Higgins, came on the market.  Despite having five young children and no experience managing a ballroom or restaurant, the young couple took a leap of faith and purchased the ten acre tract which included this site and made plans to build.

The cost to build the 234 x 50 foot structure housing the ballroom was estimated at $30,000, but by the time it was completed and fully equipped, the cost had more than tripled to $100,000.  No architect for this project – the Pettits traveled to every ballroom for miles around and listed the best features of each.  Elvira then took a simple tablet and drew the plans that later became the Plantation Ballroom.

The Plantation Ballroom - kossuthhistorybuff.blogspot.com

The building contained the ballroom, dining room, kitchen, a caretaker’s apartment, and a basement used for storage.  Glass brick lined the entrance doors.  The dance floor itself was made of white maple and was 60 x 140 feet.  It was lined on the north and south with booths on raised platforms. Modern fluorescent three-color alternating indirect lighting was installed above the booths in the ballroom.  Just beyond the entrance were additional booths on two different levels.  The grounds included a large parking area and the Pettits added a trap shooting range and a park for picnickers.

The name of the facility came about as a joke by the family.  Whenever anyone came to see Hitchy during the construction, he was usually down at the site.  The caller would be told that he was down “on the plantation” and the name stuck.

Due to the isolated location, many persons scoffed at the couple and nicknamed the site “Pettit’s Folly.”  The last laugh was on them, however, as the facility became a phenomenal success.


Grand Opening


The Plantation Ballroom - kossuthhistorybuff.blogspot.com
West Bend Journal, September 16, 1948

The grand opening took place on September 19, 1948 with more than 1,300 people in attendance.  Elvira, who had only cooked for her family in the past, became adept at feeding hundreds at a time.  Their reputation for serving great food spread, leading to many large groups scheduling events.  It became a family affair with all five children working there at one time or another as well as Elvira’s mother, Clara Fisher, who operated the dishwasher for many years.  William Kollasch, a young man who grew up on a neighboring farm, began working for them at the age of 20 and helped with management and operation.  Over the years, many community members found work there including high school students who served as waitresses.

No liquor was sold at The Plantation but that did not mean it was not present.  Patrons were allowed to bring their own supply and the booths had cubbyholes built into the underside of the tables in which to store your bottle.  They sold 7-Up in what they called “set ups” for 10 cents.  The staff monitored ages though and didn’t condone or allow underage drinking.


The Plantation Ballroom - kossuthhistorybuff.blogspot.com
My husband's grandmother, Susie Kramer, second from
right, and her sisters at the Plantation

The musical talent which played at the Plantation was well known.  Frequent performers were Elmer Scheid, Spike Haskell, and the Jolly Lumberjacks.  Dick Dale sang there many times with the Six Fat Dutchman.  Lawrence Welk played his last date there before leaving for California where he filmed his very popular television program.

From Big Band to polka to swing to 50’s rock and roll – The Plantation Ballroom hosted it all.  The dances drew large crowds.  Various techniques were used to get the crowd on the floor and included change-your-partner numbers, dance contests and the tried-and-true “Hokey Pokey.” 

In addition to weekly dances, numerous other events were held at the Plantation.  Senators Hubert Humphrey and William Proxmire were among politicians who spoke at political rallies there; style shows, proms, school and club banquets and large organization meetings also were held at the facility.  Of course, it was a popular spot for wedding receptions and dinners as well. 


Fire!!!


Following a Christmas party for 150 for Weidenhoff Corporation of Algona held on December 16, 1961, the Pettits had cleaned up and left for home at 1:15 a.m.  Three hours later, a trucker passing by on Highway 18 discovered the fire and drove to the light plant in Whittemore, reporting the blaze to the night watchman there.  The Whittemore fire department rushed to the scene, but the entire structure was engulfed in flames and nothing could be done.  It appeared that the fire had burned inside for some time before exploding through the ceiling.  Highway traffic was lower that night due to a heavy snowfall which reduced the chances of an earlier discovery.

Everything was destroyed including an electric organ and grand piano which had just been purchased.  The Pettits were devastated.  Although they were insured by Lloyds of London, Hitchy did not believe it would completely cover the loss. Ultimately, they decided not to rebuild and so the Plantation Ballroom became a memory.  The property is now designated as a wildlife refuge by the Palo Alto County DNR.



The Plantation Ballroom - kossuthhistorybuff.blogspot.com
The Plantation site in 2015


The Plantation Ballroom - kossuthhistorybuff.blogspot.com


Only Memories Remain

As the years passed by, the Pettits continued their farming operation and their bulldozing and trucking service.  They were very active in their church.  In 1987 Elvira passed away after an illness with cancer and Hitchy followed her two years later.


The Plantation Ballroom - kossuthhistorybuff.blogspot.com


The Plantation Ballroom still holds a special place in many people’s hearts.  It was there that many young couples met and danced for the first time, including my husband’s parents, Marvin and Irene (Eischeid) Kramer.  If the Plantation had never existed, would they have ever met?  It makes me consider how different my life might have been.

This post is dedicated to my father-in-law, Marvin Kramer, who passed away December 21, 2015.  May he rest in peace.

Until next time,

Kossuth County History Buff


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37 comments:

  1. Excellent historical reporting, Jean. Thank you and keep up the good work.

    - D. Waller

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  2. I spent many a times dancing at the Plantation in the '60s

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    1. It was a very popular place. Thanks for taking the time to share.

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  3. Thank you Jean! Very informative & fun to read! Elvira was my father's first cousin. I was too young to remember the ballroom but have heard many stories about it. My parents danced to Lawrence Welk there. Great memory!

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  4. Oh, how fun to read this. Remember that my parents went dancing once a week there along with all of their friends. Great family to work for which I did for a year. Lots of people shedding tears at the news of the fire.

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    1. It must have been a popular place to work. I have heard from several who enjoyed their time working at the ballroom. Thanks for your comment.

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  5. Thanks for documenting the historical account.

    I've also heard stories from my parents, Milo and Anita (Elbert) Kollasch of Whittemore about the Plantation Ballroom. Guys would sell tickets to collect money for their liquor runs to town (or perhaps Minnesota?). Anita wondered why Milo's pals were giving him their tickets one day so he smilingly told her it was for his birthday to hide the secret. She was so embarrassed she had overlooked his special day that she baked a cake for him to make up for it. But when presented with the cake, he sheepishly admitted the truth - it was not his birthday. You should have seen the look on her astonished/betrayed face. She forgave his silly trick. They loved each other and had a long life together.

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  6. These old dance halls created many great memories! Great story, Jean! and you too, Larry!

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  7. Awesome article!! I remember my mom and dad talking about going there!!

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  8. I remember my parents talking about the Plantation. I recall being there once as a child, probably to a wedding reception.
    Great article!!!

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  9. This is where I met my husband. The 2 Pettit daughters were my best friends. I worked many weddings & dances from 1957-1960. The Plantation had the best dance floor in the area. The Best of Times.

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    1. Thanks for sharing--so many couples met and fell in love there. I love it!

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  10. My Dad played for many dances there with the Silvertones from Dakota City. Thanks for sharing! Many memories!!

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  11. My grandpa was part of the Lee Williams Band and even directed it during the war years when Lee Williams was in service. When I started reading this article, I wondered in the back of my mind whether they ever played at this place; it was such a pleasant surprise to see that they had - for the grand opening, no less! Great article!

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  12. Very interesting article. It was sad to hear about the fire and loss of the "Plantation". Went to dances there when in high school.

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  13. Always wondered about that! Hunted quite a few times there. What another piece of history! Thank you for sharing...

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  14. My, my, what a delight. I worked for the Pettits from 1947 until 1950. Many hours at the Plantation at dances and cleaning. They were the finest people you would meet Many many memories and I thank GOD for them all.

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  15. The 4 Megatones were the last performers at the Plantation

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  16. Jean, thank you for another well-researched and well-written article. You help me maintain my tenuous connection to Kossuth County.

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  17. Remember having our Junior & Senior proms there 1958 & 1959. Also going there to have there famous California hamburgers & fries. And the bands. Worked with HR and my dad WJ(woody) Russell for years.All good times

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  18. The last comment was from Richard Russell

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  19. Is there any way to get a printed copy of this on the Plantation

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    1. If you will email me at kossuthhistoryblog@gmail.com, I will see what I can do. Jean

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  20. I was there one time forthe wedding dance for my brother Bernard Kacmarynski ans Anna Mae Laubenthal

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  21. I was there one time forthe wedding dance for my brother Bernard Kacmarynski ans Anna Mae Laubenthal

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  22. Jean this is a beautiful story that is bringing many memories to life. It just happens that the quarter section of land the Plantation Ballroom sat on was first leased/sold to fund Iowa State University. It is one of the land grant parcels the federal government gave to the state to fund the land grant college. You can see the map of parcels at https://www.landgrant.iastate.edu/

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  23. Thank you Jean. It was a delight for me to see Elizabeth, Susie, Kate and Margaret playing cards. Elizabeth is my Grandma. She is the first one on the left sitting next to Kate. Your article on the Plantation was wonderful. I have many stories, but appreciated the history of the building itself.

    Pamela Kramer

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