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Encyclopedia Dubuque

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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.




MELODY MILL

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Aerial view showing the outline of the former Nutwood Park. The white building is Melody Mill and its parking lot. Photo courtesy: John Pregler
Illustration by Norman Zepeski.
MELODY MILL. Located along Highway 3/52 about one mile north of Dubuque, Melody Mill once featured the most popular big bands in the United States. The area had been swampland until being transformed in 1895 into NUTWOOD PARK. (1) In 1928 the site became Dubuque's first airport which was moved to CITY ISLAND in July of 1934.
A crowded night at Melody Mill. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

Opened to the public on August 8, 1934, the Mill became a center of entertainment. Described prior to its opening as "one of the largest and finest dance pavilions and cabarets in the middle West," it was located almost in the center of what had been NUTWOOD PARK. In later years it was the site of Dubuque's first airport. (1) After that it became WICKE'S LUMBER AND BUILDING SUPPLY CENTER. (2)

Melody Mill's pavilion had its own unique story. Designed for UNION PARK in 1909, the Union Park Ballroom was advertised as "the largest ballroom in Iowa." (3) When the park closed, the ballroom, renamed the Woodland Ballroom, remained in operation through the fall of 1933. (4) It was then dismantled by Everett "Shorty" AKINS and moved piece-by-piece to its new location. The dancing pavilion at Melody Mill measured 100 by 162 feet of polished maple dance floor. (5) Trusses supporting the roof were 100 feet long; each weighed four tons. (6) The stage was 32 by 16 feet. Under the cabaret was a 32 by 48 foot kitchen while over the pavilion entrance was an electric sign 30 feet long with "Melody Mill" in letters three feet high. (7)

Ownership of Melody Mill was in a corporation, DUBUQUE AMUSEMENT CORPORATION (formed by attorney John KINTZINGER). Among its stockholders was Harold H. "Buck" Kunz, a well-known amateur prizefighter (boxing) who was involved in other forms of amusement such as slot machines (when legal), pin ball machines, punch boards and the like, all popular in the 1930s. When "Buck" died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1937 from a cranial aneuyrism his DAC stock went to Charles G. Kunz, who for more than forty years worked for DUBUQUE FIRE AND MARINE INSURANCE COMPANY. (8)

Transportation to Melody Mill was available by INTERSTATE POWER COMPANY buses. All Main Street buses carried passengers directly to Melody Mill every twelve minutes until 10:30 p.m. After the dances, special buses brought passengers back to 8th and Main. For those who drove, advertisements claimed parking space for hundreds of cars on the 70-acre level grounds illuminated with flood lights. (9)

Opening night featured Jean Fay, torch singer and "crooner of blues songs." She had just completed a year's engagement at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. During the intermission, Clarence ZAHINA, "master of the accordion and a local favorite, performed. It was expected that each of the one hundred tables, each seating four people, would be reserved by noon of the opening day. (10) Zahina was the most popular local band to play there; Lawrence Welk (who then had a "German band) was the most popular regional outfit. (11)

Gradually Kunz acquired all of the other stock from the other stockholders and by 1939 or so, and from then his death in 1946 -- which means during all of the war years, when "The Mill" was a beehive of social activity -- it was owned and operated by him. Friday night there was an "Old Time" dance. Sunday was "big band night". At that time East Dubuque was serviced by "The Zephyr", a fast, modern train from Chicago, so it was "easy" to book the time's most popular bands out of Chicago and get them to Dubuque for one night. Name a big band of it day: it played there. Guy Lombardo had 4,200 paid admissions -- the patrons hardly had enough room to dance. There was no hard liquor served on the premises -- if a person drank whiskey they brought their own bottle. Saturday night was the "Barn Dance", wildly popular, with a local band and local personalities. During and after the war years, it was a door-buster nearly every Saturday, with some very early "country" music being performed. The leading bands and orchestras in the United States were booked through the Music Corporation of America. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, and Wayne King were favorites. During an appearance of Eddie Howard in 1936, all the women were given little silver bracelets as souvenirs. (12) From 1936 to 1940 Melody Mill contracted with radio station WKBB (later WDBQ) to broadcast big band music from Melody Mill.

Melody Mill offered space for many occasions.
Political rallies, organization dinners, public service affairs and wrestling and boxing matches arranged by Ken FENELON drew huge crowds. In August 1950 4-H members, county Farm Bureau workers, and officials of the Tr-State Exposition prepared for the opening of the exposition and county 4-H achievement show. Officials expected attendance to reach 20,000 people. (13)

When Charles G. Kunz became seriously ill in 1946, management of The Mill devolved upon his wife, Rose Kunz (very ably assisted by loyal friends at the Fire and Marine, especially Ambrose Herkes and Elmer Nehls). American taste in music changed markedly, but before that time people thoroughly enjoyed lots of slower "close" dancing. In 1947, Rose Kunz sold Melody Mill to Vincent and Vi Schulting. (14) The Schultings continued to book the best of the big name entertainment as Andy Williams, Count Basie, Lawrence Welk and Louis Armstrong to please their hundreds of fans. Among the "might-have-been performers were Elvis Presley who was not booked because the owners feared his gyrations on stage might offend the conservative audience. Buddy Holly was scheduled to appear on February 10, 1959, but died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa a week before. (15) In 2013 a call for memorabilia including posters of the scheduled appearance in Dubuque was made. The artifacts were scheduled for a documentary entitled "Gotta Travel On: The Winter Dance Party Odyssey" by Blue Days Productions, an independent film company of Montreal, Canada and Madison, Wisconsin. (16)

Melody Mill advertisement announcing a concert that never happened (The Day the Music Died). Following a performance in Mason City, Iowa, the plane carrying Buddy Holly; Richie Valens; and J. P. Richardson, "The Big Bopper" crashed on February 3, 1959 killing the pilot and all three musicians. The appearance of the Winter Dance Party scheduled for Dubuque on February 10, 1959 featured replacement stars including Frankie Avalon and Jimmy Clanton. Photo courtesy: https://nortonsafe.search.ask.com/web?q=You+Know+You%27re+From+Dubuque&o=APN11957&l=dis&prt=NIM&chn=RETAIL&geo=US&ver=5&locale=EN&gct=kwd&qsrc=2869
With the growth of rock 'n roll music, the couple made the decision to continue the format of bringing the bands people were demanding to see. Musicians appearing at Melody Mill included the Beach Boys, Brenda Lee, Frankie Avalon, the Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Gillmer and the Fireballs, Bobbie Vee, Conway Twitty, Johnny & the Hurricanes, Freddy Cannon, Bobby Rydell, and the Ventures. They also booked country entertainers such as Johnny Cash, Wanda Jackson and Web Pearce.

Opening bands were needed for these national acts so the Melody Mill provided many Iowa ‘garage bands’ the opportunity to play. One of these, SHADES (THE) performed with Jerry Lee Lewis, Frankie Avalon, and Bobby Rydell before being inducted into the Iowa Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. (17) A favorite feature for many years was the Tuesday night wedding dances which offered couples who had met at Melody Mill a chance to celebrate. (18) Friday and Saturday nights were country or big band nights; Sunday was reserved for rock 'n' roll.

Melody Mill being torn down. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
The last public dance at Melody Mill occurred on August 7, 1964 although an appreciation dance was held the following Tuesday. (14) Vincent Schulting sold the property to INTERSTATE POWER COMPANY. The building was auctioned for $1,040 to be torn down for salvage. The structure had been deeded to the Dubuque County Fair Board by Interstate Power that planned to use the land for industrial sites. (19)
Well-known bands and orchestras made Melody Mill a popular ballroom.
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

An often repeated--but incorrect--story was that the flooring was reused in the Dubuque County Fairgrounds Ballroom. This story was discounted on July 19, 2009, when Gerald B. Hingtgen, the person who purchased the Mill, wrote an editorial in the TELEGRAPH HERALD.

Hingtgen recalled that materials were sold to many buyers from throughout eastern Iowa. The floor, however, was worn so badly-nearly down to the tongue and groove--that it was never reused at the fairgrounds. Some people purchased enough to floor a room in their homes and a Petersburg, Iowa, farmer bought a lot to line his grain bins. Wood for the fairground's ballroom came from the former PETER J. SEIPPEL LUMBER COMPANY.

In 2009 Melody Mill was inducted into the Iowa Rock'n Roll Music Association's Hall of Fame. (20)


Photo courtesy: Cathy's Treasures, 156 Main, Dubuque
Photo courtesy: Jim Massey
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Table Reservation Ticket from Melody Mill.Photo Courtesy: Bob Reding
A. Y. McDonald advertisement from 1956. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald
Melody Mill wrestling advertisement (1942). Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

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Source:


1. "Melody Mill Will be Formally Christened," Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal, August 5, 1934, p. 6

2. Hellert, Susan. "Dancin' Days," Telegraph Herald, March 15, 2005, p. 1

3. Ibid.

4. Hemmer, Paul, email, March 18, 2018

5. "Melody Mill Will be Formally Christened.."

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Kunz, Donald R. (son of an original stockholder and later owner of Melody Mill) Email-July 27, 2017

9. "Melody Mill Will be Formally Christened.."

10. Ibid.

11. Kunz

12. "Final Touches Put on Exhibits," Telegraph-Herald, August 21, 1950, p. 6

13. Nevans-Pederson, Mary. "Our Love Affair With Melody Mill," Telegraph Herald, September 6, 2009, p. 7A

14. Kunz

15. Hogstrom, Erik. "Film on Buddy Holly Nearing Completion," Telegraph Herald, January 30, 2013, p. 5

16. Nevans-Pederson

17. Hellert

18. Nevans-Pederson

19. Ibid

20. Nevans-Pederson

Kruse, Len. "Remembering Melody Mill," My Old Dubuque. Center for Dubuque History, Loras College, 2000, p. 326-327

Melody Mill Ballroom: http://www.iowarocknroll.com/inductee-details.php?id=217