It was a warm, overcast Thursday afternoon in August as we walked around downtown Clear Lake, Iowa, enjoying cold drinks at the neighborhood pubs. One tavern proved to be a little bit of a challenge for us to find, as we didn't expect it to underground -- in the basement of what appears very much to be a private residence!
Indeed, the front of Elly's Lake Front Tap looks like a visit to one's grandmother's house. However a set of steps leads down to an entrance below sidewalk level to a hidden basement bar.
The bar was U-shaped and had a few people sitting around it, most of them considerably older than us. Drinks were cheap and in cans. We sat down beside a gentleman and he asked where we were from. We told him "Kansas City" and explained what we were up to. When we told him we'd be going to Mason City next, he gave us warning after warning about construction between Clear Lake and Mason City, rambling about lane closures and flooded out shoulders. (We'd later find the highway completely open, clear, and fine.)
Clear Lake is best known for being the location of The Day The Music Died -- the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper. The Surf Ballroom, where the three performed their last concert the night before the crash, is located just a few blocks from Elly's, while the crash site is just a few miles to the northeast.
Consequently, Elly's has become an unofficial and lesser-known shrine of sorts for memorabilia and artifacts surrounding the event (as well as Clear Lake history in general). The walls of the bar are covered in photos, posters, and newspaper clippings, while display cases house other items such as bricks from the first Surf Ballroom (which was destroyed in a fire and rebuilt years before the crash).
Tourists coming to Clear Lake for its place in music history typically make visits to the Surf Ballroom and to the crash site, but a stop at Elly's should be added to the itinerary to get the full experience.
Because the interior of Elly's is very dark and the flash on the camera I had with me was malfunctioning, I was unable to get any decent interior shots. However I have selected a few photos from the nearby Surf Ballroom, as well as from the crash site, to illustrate some of the history in Clear Lake.
Elly's is located at the corner of Main and South Shore Drive, immediately southwest of downtown Clear Lake. It is next to a park, 1 block from the lake, and across the street from the water tower. There is plentiful street parking nearby. Take exit 193 (4th Ave/BR-35) from I-35 and go west. When you reach 8th Street/107, continue ahead 2 blocks to South Shore Drive. Turn right and go two more blocks, Elly's will be on the right just before Main Street.
12 South Shore Drive, Clear Lake, IA 50428