Sax appeal: Bandleader Ina Ray Hutton was at her peak when she brought her band to Spring Lake in 1938 during the swing era, a time when some of the biggest names in music played the resort.

Spring Lake to get plaque on Square

By ANDREW MCGINN

a.mcginn@beeherald.com

There’s never a bad night to be a mosquito, in Iowa, in late June.

But of all the tens of billions of mosquitoes, each with a life span as brief as two weeks, imagine the incredible fortune of being a mosquito at Spring Lake in Greene County, Iowa, on the evening of June 28, 1938.

You’re buzzing around, looking for something juicy to sink your proboscis into, when you happen upon the mosquito equivalent of Golden Corral — the dance hall, right at the edge of the water, is teeming with life on this summer night.

You flitter in through any one of the open windows, zip past some newly evolved breed of fellow insect known as a jitterbug, and head straight for the person with the most exposed flesh.

Ina Ray Hutton, who just happens to be the star of tonight’s show, is that person — and, have mercy, the back of her dress is completely open.

This, my friend, is about to be the greatest night of your two-week life.

The golden age of Spring Lake has been highlighted and memorialized through the years in these pages about as many times as the Glenn Miller Orchestra has played “Moonlight Serenade.”

And just like “Moonlight Serenade,” it never really gets old, does it?

No history of Spring Lake has ever failed to mention that the likes of Count Basie, Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo and Ina Ray Hutton once played there.

The fact that Spring Lake was a haven for some of the biggest of the big bands during the swing era never ceases to amaze, even the further we get from that era.

The park turns 95 this year.

I recently went traipsing through the newspaper’s archives with the sounds of the Basie orchestra dancing through my headphones — sorry, I just can’t do Lawrence Welk — to see if there was anything else to possibly learn about the golden age of Spring Lake.

For starters, I learned that Ina Ray Hutton was eaten alive by mosquitoes the night of June 28, 1938.

Any day now, Spring Lake will get its own bronze plaque on the Square, joining the ranks of noteworthy people and places from Greene County’s rich history.

The plaques are a project of Jefferson Matters: Main Street to honor our heritage. The Spring Lake plaque will be installed at the corner of Chestnut and State streets, on the courthouse-side pillar in recognition that the county has owned the park for the past 50 years.

The 240-acre park northeast of Jefferson — or northwest of Grand Junction, depending on your point of view — has gone through three distinct phases: a summer resort/amusement park (1924 to 1949), a state park (1949 to 1969) and a county park (1969 to the present).

A group of men from Boone converted the Northwestern Railroad’s former gravel pit — which in turn filled up by underground springs — into the park we know today. Two of the men also owned Nic-O-Let, a resort near Boone billed as “the playground of central Iowa.”

Within a year of opening, Spring Lake was already being billed as “the dance palace of Iowa,” which may have been a slight exaggeration considering that the park is pretty much in the middle of nowhere (and at that time, the roads to and from the park weren’t even paved).

But there’s an old Iowa adage that says, “If you build it, they will come.”

Some of the era’s biggest stars seemingly just appeared from the surrounding cornfields like a jazz version of “Field of Dreams.”

At just 22 in the summer of ’38, Ina Ray Hutton arrived at Spring Lake at the peak of her powers as “the blonde bombshell of rhythm” — a bandleader with the body of Jean Harlow and the soul of Cab Calloway.

An alumna of the “Ziegfeld Follies,” Ina Ray wanted to be taken seriously for music, but once said, “... if curves attract an audience, so much the better.”

She was a product of legendary producer-manager Irving Mills, who was on a tear in 1934 when he organized an all-girl, 21-piece orchestra called the Melodears and installed Ina Ray as its leader. (He also added Hutton to the end of Ina Ray, which itself was a stage name.)

Mills had previously discovered both Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. With Cab, he co-wrote the 1931 smash “Minnie the Moocher.” With the Duke, he wrote the lyrics for “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing),” a hit in 1932.

The first female bandleader to make records and appear on film, Ina Ray wasn’t just a mere novelty — but her strappy gowns offered little protection against blood-thirsty mosquitoes.

Fred Morain (Rick’s dad) was in his first year as publisher of the Jefferson Herald when he filed a report about her show for the paper’s June 30, 1938, edition.

“A sense of curiosity and natural masculine interest was sufficient to attract us to the Spring Lake dance pavilion Tuesday night,” he wrote, “where Ina Ray Hutton, famed girl orchestra leader, and her all-girl orchestra were engaged in ‘swinging it.’ ”

Morain found her dress to be pretty, but it left her back “entirely at the mercy of the mosquitoes without any covering of any sort.”

In short, Morain was about to witness a feeding frenzy.

Ina Ray wouldn’t — or maybe couldn’t — stop scratching her back.

It got to the point, Morain observed, where she became so occupied with scratching her back that she “appeared to have no interest whatsoever in her work.”

Just days after Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears played Spring Lake, they were back in Greene County — appearing on the big screen at the Iowa Theatre in the Paramount Pictures short “Swing Hutton Swing” on a program that included “Gold Diggers in Paris” and a Popeye cartoon, “Let’s Celebrake.”

Gracing the silver screen may have once made Ina Ray Hutton seem larger than life, but folks in Greene County suddenly knew better — that famous people itch just like everyone else.

One huge name that has eluded prior histories of Spring Lake is Jimmy Dorsey (brother of Tommy), who played the park’s Crystal Ballroom on Aug. 29, 1949.

By then, swing was on its way out.

In fact, Dorsey played one of the last shows at Spring Lake. A few weeks before, news broke that the state was buying Spring Lake to operate as a recreational area open to the public.

Under private ownership, admission to the park had been 10 cents.

The state sold the Crystal Ballroom at auction in 1950 for $2,350, and the building disappeared. It was, if nothing else, a sign of the times — elsewhere in 1950, Count Basie disbanded his original orchestra because of financial restraints.

The big band era was at a close.

All that remains today of Spring Lake’s golden age is the roller skating rink, which has been in continuous operation since 1929.

Looking back, Spring Lake seems like the unlikeliest hot spot for jazz — but probably only because we now view jazz as something almost distinctly urban.

That final season (1949), the Crystal Ballroom was under the management of a man named George Crow, who had previously been Louis Armstrong’s road manager.

It’s doubtful we’ll ever know every famous musician who passed through Spring Lake.

We can only imagine.

One bandleader, Nat Towles, never became famous himself, but led a highly respected territory band that was said to have been the best in the Midwest (better even than Basie’s band, by some accounts).

Towles was a frequent attraction at Spring Lake throughout the ’40s.

Towles, along with the likes of bassist Basie Givens (another Spring Lake alum), was based out of North Omaha, whose jazz scene was centered around a venue called the Dreamland Ballroom.

The first date I could find for Towles at Spring Lake is the summer of 1940 — meaning he would have just lost tenor player Buddy Tate to Count Basie. With Basie, Tate became a legend.

With regular attractions like that, the music alone was undoubtedly the biggest draw at Spring Lake.

Finding anyone today who actually witnessed the shows is another question.

Even at 91, Marilynn Hoskinson was too young to attend any of the dances, but her family lived in the northeast corner of the Spring Lake mile (and she attended country school, Hardin No. 6, in the northwest corner).

In the ’60s, Hoskinson played the Hammond organ for skaters at the Spring Lake rink (the skaters went around the organ in the center of the wooden rink).

A 1944 graduate of Grand Junction High School, she nevertheless has vivid — and cherished — memories of the days when the park was really swinging.

For her, remembering Spring Lake is a full-body experience.

She still remembers the sight of cars traveling to and from the park on dance nights. There were so many, and the weather in the 1930s was so dry, that dust from the roads just hung in the air.

She still remembers the sound of the skating rink’s calliope, which she could hear from her bedroom, making her 8 o’clock bedtime that much harder.

And she still remembers the smell of Spring Lake’s outhouses. They reeked so much worse than the outhouses at school, a sign that the owners couldn’t keep up with the sheer amount of people.

Today, Spring Lake has modern restrooms and the main road has long been paved, but in one way, nothing has changed.

It’s still a great place to be a mosquito.

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