For fifteen years from the mid 1920s to the early 1940s crowds flocked to the little town of Lester, Iowa every Saturday night. Young and old came to enjoy the music of the “big bands” and danced in the largest ballroom in Northwest Iowa.

By the mid 1920s the era of the automobile had “arrived” and every town needed a garage. In Lester, a large building was erected for this purpose and the owners decided that the second story should be finished off with a maple floor to provide a recreation area. Ballroom dancing was popular and the town had outgrown the small floor of the old “Opera House”. The story is told that the second story of the garage was condemned as structurally unsound the day it was finished. If that is true, nothing was ever done to prohibit its use as a public dance hall.

John Bruzer leased the ballroom, hired good bands and before long his Saturday night dances were attracting couples from a wide area. They danced to the music of Lawrence Welk, Al Menke, Tiny Little, Eddie Skeets. and Happy Jack from WNAX. Eli Rich brought his all black band from Mississippi and one time an all girl orchestra was engaged. Herman Haack from Rock Rapids, Luetchells from Milford and the Blue Nuggets from Sioux Falls were bands from the immediate area. John provided good music and dance fans responded. There were dances before every holiday with attendance prizes. There were special dances billed as “The Battle of the Bands” at which two bands performed, one at each end of the hall. Al Menke and Tiny Little were very popular “contestants”. As many as five hundred couples attended when they were performing.

Lawrence Welk is quoted as saying that John drove a hard bargain. In the lean years of the Depression, John agreed to hire the Welk band a specified number of times per year provided they accepted no other engagements within a 50 mile area. This included Sioux Falls, SD. These terms were agreed upon and although Lawrence Welk’ s band gained national fame, it never played in Sioux Falls while the Lester ballroom was in operation. In those days, Myron Floren would bring his accordian and sit in with the bands just for the fun of it.

Everybody knew John’s ‘wife, Helen, by her nickname “Billy”. She took the Rock Island passenger train from Rock Rapids or caught a ride early in the day. In winter she made sure that the two coal stoves had been fired up and in summer she started the window fans. While John was still taking care of the Saturday customers in his barber shop, she helped the band set up and manned the ticket booth.

In the early years, couples paid fifty cents for admission which included the state amusement tax. This was eventually raised to $1.00. The highest price ever charged was $1.50 for special bands or events. The dancers of high school age usually came as singles. It was more fun to dance with lots of good dancers than to be tied down to a single partner. And there were lots of good dancers. Girls danced with each other, parents danced with their children and children danced with each other. There were always several older ladies of the community in attendance. They were admitted without charge to sit on the side benches as unofficial chaperones.

The happy times in the Lester Ballroom ended with the sad years of World War II. Bands couldn’t travel with gas rationing, the young men were off to army training camps and John padlocked the door at the foot of the stairs for the last time.

Nadene (Campbell) Pettengill

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