The Highway Gardens



The Highway Gardens was a dance hall built for the social lives of the Walnut area people in 1925 and could accommodate 400 couples.  As far as we have discovered, the first dance was held July 2nd of that year.  Joe Bauer of Denison was the manager.  An ad in The Walnut Bureau dated July 2, 1925 reads as follows:  ANNOUNCING THE BIG OPENING DANCE at the New Highway Gardens Pavilion on Thursday, July 2.  This pavilion opens on this date and caters to respectable trade only and will be efficiently policed, and will be a credit to the community.  The admission price was 50 cents single.  Pete’s Peerless Orchestra of Manning opened the pavilion with ten pieces. 

The next ad found was for Monday, September 28th with the same orchestra.  It was billed as “The Married Folks Dance.”  In the next year, there were a couple of firemen’s dances and an opportunity for advertising signs in the hall.  On July 1, 1926, the first anniversary dance was held.     

In the late 20’s, a local group formed and played for many dances at the Highway Gardens.  The group called themselves” The Triple S Orchestra.”  Each member’s last name began with the letter S.  They were Elton and Leroy Schuttloffel, Raymond Schwartz (later replaced by his brother Robert) and Clarence Schlicht.  The members dressed alike in blue jackets with collars trimmed in orange.  Elton was on banjo, Leroy on clarinet or sax, Ray on piano and Clarence on drums.  Later, when Robert Schwartz replaced his brother on piano, the group changed its name to “The Moonlight Serenaders.”  This group was together for about 20 years.  A short list of a few other groups that played in the hall is Jimmy Dorsey, Tiny Hill, Six Fat Dutchmen and Lawrence Welk.

Walnut had a Fall Festival each year that included nightly dances during the event.  There was a first dance each season and last dance in the fall. The Highway Gardens was a warm-weather establishment as it was not a modern facility.  Besides the firemen’s dances, the Walnut Community Club also hosted dances.  Air conditioning consisted of large top-hinged doors, in the sidewalls, which could be propped open.  This also allowed the music to be shared with everyone in the vicinity.

The county road was graded in 1936, which routed traffic around the back side of the hall.  The entrance was then changed in 1937 from the south side to the north.  The opening dance that year was on April 29, under the new management of James Varlamos of Denison, Iowa.  James sent a postcard to Art Lebeck announcing that event.  It reads: “Dear Friend: This is a special announcement of the opening of Highway Gardens, Thursday, April 29, with music furnished by Lawrence Welk and his famous orchestra.  Signed: Yours truly, James Varlamos.”  Lawrence played there a number of times and brought in people from many miles around.

A story that has lingered around Walnut is that during one of the Welk dances, Lawrence received a call that his wife had just given birth.  The local telephone operator took the call, rang the Bill Fischer home south across the street and asked for Mr. Welk.

In the spring of 1939, the hall went through another “cleaning” and remodeling and was now under local management.  The Highway Gardens was about to close for the duration of WWII.          

The reopening came April 23, 1946.  The managers were Leonard Varlamos and Max Godden.  There were many ads in the Bureau over the next year, but fewer ads in 1947.  The last ad found was May 17, 1951.  Ads were also found in the Atlantic and Avoca newspapers.

The final dances were held June 9, 16 and 23.  A storm demolished the building on June 25, 1951.  The storm, called the $2,000,000 tornado, caused widespread damage all across the state of Iowa. Mrs. James Varlamos of Denison owned the building and had recently dropped the insurance.  Frank Doll and Henry Koenig of Avoca had leased the hall for the summer.  The dance floor was saved and moved to the Acova Ballroom in Avoca, where it served for many years.         

I have spoken to Jim Varlamos, son of Leonard Varlamos and grandson of The Highway Gardens owners, Mr. and Mrs. James Varlamos.  He remembers helping his father with cleanup duties on mornings after dances.  He was quite young and was assigned cleaning up around the outside of the building.  There was a long trough used for ice and pop in which he, on occasion, found a few coins while cleaning it.  He also remembers that outhouses served the facility.  Two things came to his mind during our conversion about the interior.  The first was that the building was quite large, and second was the beautiful sparkling mirror ball in the center of the ballroom ceiling.  Jim told me the family had no pictures of the building.

Memories of Walnut’s Highway Gardens

By Don Fischer

My first introduction to the Highway Gardens was sometime prior to 1928.  I can be sure of that, because our family car was one of those big, Dodge touring cars of that age, equipped with side curtains in winter and open in summer.  We did not have a roll-up window vehicle until the 1928 models. 

It was customary for many who were unable to attend the dance to park on the road on the east side of the building and listen to the music. That was the place of my first visit, seated between my parents in the front seat.                                                                                                                     

I began attending dances myself about 1936.  The hall, those years, was managed by a fellow by the name of “Jimmy the Greek” from Denison.  He booked his bands out of Yankton, S.D.  Dances were held only in the summer months on Thursday nights.  Four bands were called upon to provide the music, each coming once a month in the summer months.  Those bands were Lawrence Welk, Leo Terry, Little Joe Hart and the fourth escapes me.   In Manning, Iowa, there were a number of Fischers, brothers of my granddad.  One of my dad’s first cousins played trumpet for Lawrence Welk.                                                                                                                

My Uncle Bill Fischer lived in a little house at 710 Walnut Ridge Road on the southwest corner of the intersection near the dance hall.  The hall had no modern facilities, not even a telephone.  As a result Lawrence Welk had gotten in touch with my uncle to be alert for a telephone call for him.  The call arrived during the evening and Lawrence was called to the phone.  He was given notice that his first son had been born.

Memories of Walnut’s Highway Gardens

By Harley Ploen

My memories of the Highway Gardens takes me back to 1934, ’35 and ’36 when we would be having a noon-time meal and Yankton, South Dakota radio station WNAX would broadcast a half hour of dance music during weekdays right from their studio.  Bands included Lawrence Welk, Jimmy Barnett, Little Joe Hart and some of the other bands around the Dakota area.  They would tell when they would be playing at the Highway Gardens in Walnut, Iowa, and at other dance halls in the area.                                                                                                                           

In those drought-stricken years, it was tough going for everyone.  We lived on a farm on the highway 2 ½ miles east of Minden, Iowa and sometimes just to cool off in the evening, my dad would drive us around and maybe head toward Walnut where the grass and crops always looked a little greener and better in some of that Wisconsin Ridge great farmland.  We always had good thoughts of Walnut and when we heard about the Highway Gardens, my folks would take me, my 17-18-year-old sister and her high school girlfriend to the Walnut dances.                                    

My dad would park the car facing the dance hall and on summer nights the wooden top-hinged sidewall doors would be propped up and open to bring in fresh air.  It was great for my folks and me to sit in the car and watch the couples dance the night away to those beautiful songs of the 1930’s.                                                                                                                                              

The road leading to the Highway Gardens was dusty or muddy.  What a letdown it must have been to Lawrence Welk and many of the dance crowd who came to Walnut for the first time expecting a highway leading right up to the dance hall.                                                          

I’m fortunate that I can still recall some of those great times of enjoyment and that we lived on a farm with a garden, chickens, eggs, milk cows, butcher hogs and horse power to plant and harvest what little there was in some years.