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(Article below was written by Jennifer Matter, the daughter of John & Suzanne Matter.)

It Takes a Ballroom to Raise a Child

Most people would question my reasoning if I stated that a building (but not just an ordinary building) raised and nurtured me. In fact, I'm sure it sounds odd to suggest that a cinder-block and wooden structure molded my values and interests since a very young age. However, those of us who grew up with the ballroom in our vocabulary know that it does not signify a structure or space, but rather the collective experiences of a group of people. The ballroom brought the community and my family together to celebrate some of their most precious moments like weddings, anniversaries, proms, and graduations. Over the years, legions of people flocked to the ballroom to partake in the appreciation of music, dance, and each other's company. I was lucky to have grown up in such a thriving environment.

For me, the ballroom was more than just an assembly space for joyous occasions; it was also the creation of my family's generations of sweat and toil. Four generations of my family committed themselves to the vision of the ballroom. And, in truth, it needed a whole family to make a place like that run. In my lifetime I worked alongside my grandparents, great aunts, great uncles, aunt, uncles, parents, and sister.

My experiences at the ballroom shaped the person I have become. I learned from my family's example how to be giving of yourself to others, how to enjoy work, and how to care for the things that matter to you. Being with family instilled a sense of security- a kind of confidence in myself. At the ballroom, I was always surrounded by family and community members who loved and cared for me. It doesn't surprise me to realize that I pursued a profession that puts me in a place where I both enjoy and serve the community I live in. I am a public school teacher in an inner city, Oakland middle school.

There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child. For me, it was the ballroom. I have always felt proud and sometimes isolated having had such a unique childhood. Upon learning of the loss of the ballroom, I felt great grief and sadness. But my tears and heartache were not directed at the building and artifacts inside. My heart pours out to the community of people who will never be served by this establishment again. It is more than my personal loss; it is a collective loss. For this reason, I truly am fortunate to be able to say I grew up with the ballroom.

   

From web site of Cedar Valley Dance Club, Chapter of USABDA

"Matter's" of the Heart" by Lorri Hager (this was written shortly after the Matter's fire of 2000)

A few weeks before Christmas, I was on my morning break, having my usual mid-morning caffeine fix and reading the Gazette, when a rather distressing headline caught my eye: "Ballroom blaze means cancellation of holiday parties".

Now a ballroom fire of any kind is a tragedy in my book, but my heart froze when I saw lead line "DECORAH (AP)" and I realized with horror that Matter's had burned. My ballroom had burned. As I read on, I was relieved to find that, in fact, the ballroom had not burned down; there was extensive smoke and water damage that would take a while to clean up, but there was not very much structural damage.

However, I was heartsick when I read that there were now two huge holes burned in the ballroom floor, one 12 x 12 feet and one 2 x 2 feet. The fire had been caused by a heat lamp placed in the basement to keep the pipes from freezing in the subzero temperatures. Thank God it didn't burn down, I thought, thinking of what a huge loss that would have been not just for myself, but for a great many people. Even so, I didn't want to think about what it must look like inside, remembering what it looked like before. Did all the memorabilia survive? What about the zodiac room?

To understand the emotional turmoil this event caused me, as it probably did a lot of other people, you have to understand the place. Matter's Ballroom is an institution in Northeast Iowa. It seems to have existed forever. It has inhabited the lives and memories of many people for a very long time.

Matter's had its beginnings in 1914 as, of all things, a fruit cellar, built by John Matter to store the abundance of fruit from his 18-acre apple orchard. Then he constructed a building on top of the fruit cellar, where the fruit was packed and crated for shipment. The first dance was held in the building in September 1916, and the ballroom has been a major social gathering place ever since.

People have flocked to Matter's for countless events over the years--wedding receptions and dances, benefits and banquets, and just to hang out, meet their friends, visit with their neighbors, check out the prospects for new romance, and, of course, to dance. Of all of these, the most stellar event to take place there, at least in my book, happened one night in 1954, when a young farmer from Ludlow Township named Donald Hager asked a young lady from Harmony, Minnesota named Deloris Knudslien to dance. They were married the following year and had their wedding dance--where else?--at Matter's. So Matter's holds a particularly special place in my heart because it is, at least in part, responsible for my existence.

The performers who have played there over the years reads like a history of 20th century music, and their pictures and posters inhabited the walls of the ballroom. Behind the front bar, just inside the front entrance, past the coat check and the pool tables, were posters advertising the Summer Dance Parties of the '50s and '60s with acts such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Tony Orlando, The Four Seasons, and, of course, Buddy Holly. Dozens of 8 x 10 photos of famous or soon to be famous performers like Roy Acuff, Kitty Wells, Barbara Mandrell, Johnny Cash and Lawrence Welk lined a couple of the walls. I hope all the memorabilia survived the fire--what a loss that would be.

The back bar area told an entirely different story. I always think of it as the "Zodiac Room" because as soon as I entered it, the astrologically inspired light fixtures and funky murals immediately transported me back to about 1970. This area was only open when there was a particularly large crowd, such as at the annual Firemen's Dance, when the place was so packed that trying to find one particular person in that huge sea of faces was an overwhelming and nearly impossible task.

I have apparently inherited my parents' dancing genes, and their love of Matter's. My first adventures there date back to when I was about 16 and I went to spend the night with my older sister, who lived and worked in Decorah. I went to Matter's with her and her friend and ended up driving them home in her big old '69 Impala, down the steep, winding hill into town, after they had had too much to drink. Some boys from my high school--good old Postville High--had a rock band called Driftwood, and I remember going to see them perform at Matter's--not in the main ballroom, but in the small room in the basement.

Later, after I graduated from college and moved to Decorah myself, I went there quite regularly to boogie to oldies bands like the Whitesidewalls, two-step to Cheyenne and Rio Grande, and waltz and schottische to the local Scandinavian folk dance band, the Foot Notes. It was the place to be if you were single. It has been the scene of numerous romantic encounters, including some of my own. The longest romantic relationship in my life--3 1/2 years--was with a dairy farmer I met there.

I remember another night fighting the urge to flee home when I saw that someone else I had dated, and still held a torch for, was there with a new girlfriend. However, the evening improved considerably when I ran into yet another good-looking dairy farmer who I hadn't seen in some time, and I was pleased (shame on me ) to find out he was in the process of getting a divorce. We indulged in a brief flirtation on and off for a couple of months (I was his first date after 18 years of marriage) and did a lot of two-stepping before he discovered there were other single women in the world, and I discovered that not only were there other men, but there were other places to live besides Decorah. But Cedar Rapids, ten times the size of Decorah, doesn't have a Matter's. It doesn't have a ballroom at all any more.

Over the years, countless small-town ballrooms have come and gone, locked up and torn down because the people stopped coming. But Matter's has amazingly survived for 85 years, the first 83 under the loving care of the Matter family, the last two with the current owner, Dan Telsrow. Hopefully, under Mr. Telsrow's guidance and with the support of its extended community, it will beat the odds and continue to survive--and thrive--for many more years to come.

   



This 14 X 22 poster was made by Jennifer Matter when she was 12 years old.
She was helping at the ballroom during the annual Memorial Weekend Polka Fest.
Her job was in the kichen to wash glasses. Apparently she also had a litle free time.