Time Machine: Prairie Moon Ballroom in Prairieburg, Iowa provided decades of dances

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Rosie and Jim Brislawn opened a roller skating rink in Prairieburg in the early 1950s. It was built on the site where a grocery store, garage and storeroom once stood before a fire destroyed them in the 1930s.

A couple of other popular rinks were not that far away — the Temple Roller Rink in Cedar Rapids and the Ce-Mar Roller Rink between Marion and Cedar Rapids — so the Brislawns decided to turn their business into a ballroom in 1954 and advertise it as the “New Prairiemoon,” taking reservations from their Prairieburg home.

THE BAUM ERA

The next owners would be Leo and Alma Baum, who had lived in Cedar Rapids before moving to Prairieburg. Leo worked at Quaker Oats and also opened Leo’s One Stop Farm Store at 116 A Ave. NE in 1945. The Baums had lived at 1607 E Ave. NE since 1941, where Leo also raised coon hounds and chickens. The noise and mess from the animals didn’t sit well with the neighbors, who objected to the City Council in 1956.

The couple decided to sell the feed store and their home in April 1956, move to Prairieburg and buy the dance hall.

A friend had talked them into it, Alma said later.

“When we got out here, there were no bands booked — there was no business. We had no money to buy tables and chairs, so we had to rent. We hired Andy Doll, and he walked in the back door, looked around kind of skeptically and asked, ‘Do you draw crowds here?’ ”

The Prairie Moon Ballroom, as they renamed it, was up and running by 1957. For the first dance, Doll and his Ridgeriders charged the Baums $125. The 150 people who turned out for the evening paid 90 cents admission.

Other acts that appeared that first year included the Wapsie Valley Cowboys, Leo and His Pioneers, Bud Novak and His Iowa Ramblers and Joe and His Troubadors.

Alma wanted the ballroom to be a class act. Ads placed in The Gazette reminded patrons of the ballroom’s “Dress Up Rules.”

BYOB YEARS

For the better part of a decade, the ballroom could not sell liquor, but patrons could bring in their own alcohol.

“Everybody used to bring their own (liquor) until about 1964. You couldn’t set it on top of the table. They put it under the table, and the law never bothered them,” Alma said.

In later years, the Dave Dighton Band and the Do’s and the Don’ts became regulars at the ballroom. In the 1980s, bands earned $400 to $1,200 per appearance, and admission was $3.

In 1979, Leo died at age 64, leaving Alma to run the Prairie Moon on her own. She did so for eight years before selling it, after three decades of ownership.

Her last dance was a free Appreciation Dance for her faithful patrons. A country swing band, headed by ballroom regular Dave Dighton, played.

Alma was 70 and said that running the ballroom was “a job for a younger person who has somebody to help.”

NOVAKS TAKE OVER

Jan and Pete Novak of Central City became the ballroom’s new owners in 1987. Jan Novak had operated Jan’s Koffee Haus in Central City; Pete worked at Quaker Oats.

The Novaks said the operation would be basically the same, with more dances and more music from the 1950s and ’60s.

Everything went well for eight years before a fire destroyed the ballroom on Jan. 21, 1995 — Pete Novak’s birthday.

The fire, caused by a faulty furnace, was reported around 5 p.m. by town clerk and grocer Jimmy Wolmutt. Firefighters from 10 departments — Prairieburg, Monticello, Anamosa, Central City, Coggon, Manchester, Center Point, Alburnett, Ryan and Troy Mills — fought the blaze.

Pete Novak sat in a neighboring gas station, sipping a soft drink and watching the scene in disbelief. The siding he had recently added to the building was torn off in an effort to contain the blaze.

“I was looking forward to retiring in another six years (from Quaker),” he said. “I was going to build a new house on that lot over there and sell my little place in the country. The wife and I would run the dance hall. We love music and dancing.

“It’s insured, but there’s probably just enough to pay what I owe. I’ll probably lose all my savings that I put in it.”

As he suspected, it turned out to be too expensive to rebuild the dance hall. The last band to play there had been the Memory Brothers.

POST-BALLROOM

A year later, the ballroom’s lots were bought by Lyle McNamara, a construction worker and Prairieburg City Council member who had met his wife, Berna, at the ballroom a decade before.

McNamara’s Bar and Grill opened on the spot in September 1997, though the McNamaras didn’t advertise the opening.

“We just turned the lights on, and people started coming,” Berna McNamara said. Three photos of the old ballroom were among those lining the walls of the 30-by-68-foot building.

Shelley Walker of Prairieburg is the bar’s most recent owner; she renamed it Walker’s PrairieMoon Bar & Grill.

Alma Baum said, before she died in 2008 at age 91, that she missed seeing the ballroom where she’d spent so much of her life.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmai.com

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