WAUPACA — The Indian Crossing Casino is not, and was not, a gambling hall.
But the historic wood structure, built in 1927 on the 22-lake “Waupaca Chain O’ Lakes,” brings nothing but winning memories for Bill Belke.
This is where, in the 1960s, he let it rip across the 3,500-square-foot dance floor as bands from around the country made pit stops on their way from Chicago to Minneapolis.
Teens and 20-somethings from around the region exchanged phone numbers here, and barbed wire lined the top of a fence along the outside deck. Built along the channel
that connects Columbia Lake to Lime Kiln Lake, the harsh fencing wasn’t to keep people out of the historic structure. Rather, it was used to prevent impromptu late-night swims.
“It was great. It was unbelievable,” said Belke, 65, whose grandparents had a cabin on the lake beginning in the 1930s. “I was here every weekend. It would be packed from wall to wall.”
Belke’s role with the casino isn’t limited to recalling 45-year-old memories. For the past 30 years, he’s been charged with keeping the place alive. It’s a tricky endeavor in an age of ever-expanding entertainment options, rising costs, over-scheduled youth, changing habits and stiffer drunken driving laws.
Big Band and rock’n’roll touring acts no longer dominate the stage, and the barbed wire is gone since the outdoor deck is now enclosed. The drink rails that line three sides of the dance floor, however, remain along with the 30-foot-high arched ceiling.
The casino is now primarily used for anniversary and wedding
celebrations, teen dances on Wednesday nights that draw more than 300 people and, in the fall, a blues festival.
To keep the casino open, Belke added other revenue sources to his compound, known as Ding’s Dock.
Belke rents canoes, pontoon and speed boats, offers group paddles down the Crystal River and even rents out a few cabins. The property hosts Peterson Marine, a full-service marina, and there are a couple of 30-foot concrete skiffs with six-cylinder engines that make pretty good conversation pieces.
“You have to change with the times. If you don’t, you’ll die,” Belke said. Diversification “is the only way the casino is going to stay alive and we’ll be able to afford the taxes and everything else.”
There was a day when dance halls like Indian Crossing Casino were common across the Wisconsin landscape. Some are still around, while others have disappeared.
The Eagles Club in Milwaukee was built in 1926 and is now home to a collection of live music venues, including The Rave, which draws regional and national touring acts.
The Schwartz Ballroom in Hartford opened in 1928 and began by hosting acts like Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. It later was owned by Marty Zivko who brought in boxing, wrestling, roller skating and musical acts like the Four Seasons, Dion, Bobby Vinton, the Everly Brothers and Chubby Checker, according to its website.
After Zivko sold the business in 1981, it retained Zivko’s name and became a destination for rockers on the way back down the charts like Blue Oyster Cult, .38 Special, the Guess Who, Meatloaf and Rick Springfield.
Now, the octogan-shaped building, called the Chandelier Ballroom, hosts weddings and other special events.
Buddy Holly made several ballrooms in the state infamous.
Wisconsin native and author Michael Bie, on his website www.classicwisconsin.com, has a detailed account of Holly’s 1959 Winter Dance Party tour that made stops at several Wisconsin halls and ballrooms.
The tour included George Devine’s Ballroom on Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee, Kenosha’s Eagles Ballroom and Fournier’s Ballroom in Eau Claire. A performance at the Cinderella Ballroom in Appleton was canceled, but the show on Feb. 1 at the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay turned into Holly’s second-to-last performance, according to Bie.
Holly died in the early morning hours of Feb. 3, 1959, after his plane crashed shortly after takeoff following a show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Other ballrooms around the state include the Riviera, built in 1932 and now owned by the city of Lake Geneva, and the Riverview in Muscoda that has been gone for decades. As for the ballroom at Muskego Beach south of Milwaukee? That’s where my parents met in 1962.
“The fire department actually used it for practice” in 1983, said Laura Mishefske, a historian for the Muskego Historical Society. “I think a lot of people met there. I hear that all the time.”
Indian Crossing Casino came pretty close to its own death. The hall was shuttered from 1975 to 1983. That’s when Belke, who was working in manufacturing in Texas, got a call from his father asking him if he’d like to buy the building. It had been converted to an arcade and even had bumper cars scurrying across the dance floor.
Belke, who now runs the hall and Ding’s Dock with his wife, Maria, said he and his father spent months restoring the hall, and it now reflects what he remembers from his youth. That includes the “No Smoking” signs and another sign warning customers not to walk across the dance floor.
In the former green room, off stage right and up a flight of wooden stairs, writings from early artists who played the Casino grace wood beams. They include Eli Rice and His Dixie Cotton Pickers in 1927 and Deacon Thomas in 1933.
“We try to keep the nostalgia here,” said Joel Kempfert, a middle school science teacher in his 15th summer working at Ding’s Dock and the Casino. “The acoustics in here are just unbelievable. It was originally designed for un-amplified music like (from) the Big Band Era. (The stage) directs the sound right out to the audience.”
Bands more recently to play the stage include Dickey Betts, Chris Hillman, Molly Hatchet, Johnny Winter and Paul Cebar.
And Casino? It simply refers to a gathering place.
“We always have to give a nice clear explanation,” Jeff Anderson, tourism director of the Waupaca Area Chamber of Commerce said when asked about the name. “We have to clarify that for people, but it’s always a popular destination.”