By Stephanie Chase
Guest Columnist
New York, NY, USA

This Conversation is about an historic ballroom located in a rather unlikely setting; not far from Des Moines, Iowa, and a couple of miles off a main highway, but surrounded by corn and soybean fields that seemingly extend for miles in every direction. It is also part of the story of my maternal grandparents and their descendants: my grandfather was Pius Peschel, who left Hohenerlitz in Bohemia in 1906 and journeyed to Iowa, where his sister and others from his small village had previously settled. (Due, in part, to the Homestead Act of 1862, immigrants from Bohemia, Germany and Switzerland came to Iowa, where they farmed and opened small businesses.)

Lake Robbins Ballroom

Pius was a violinist whose motto was “The Richest Child is Poor Without a Musical Education,” and he soon settled in Cherokee, where he gave music lessons. He also worked as a kind of musical therapist at the Cherokee Insane Asylum, which had opened in 1902. Still in operation as the Cherokee Mental Health Institute, in the early days it also evidently operated as a self-supporting farm, worked on by patients whose mental health disorders were not overly severe. Pius directed an orchestra comprised of patients, and it was at the Asylum that he met Mette Marie Bjorkum-Hansen, an immigrant from Leikanger, Norway, who arrived in the United States in 1904 and found work as an Asylum seamstress. (Family history also has her working as a cook.) Within about a year of his arrival, Pius changed the spelling of his surname to Paschell and married Mette, who became known as Mattie.

The last of their children – my mother, Fannie – was born in Cherokee. The family remained there until 1939, when Pius and Mattie moved to Des Moines and opened a family-run restaurant. Eighty years later, many of their descendants remain in the area, including my cousin Lyn Paschell Wilkinson, who is the owner of the Lake Robbins Ballroom in Woodward, Iowa. The daughter of Walter Claude (“Barney”) Paschell and Lucille Bartlett, Lyn moved with her young children to Connecticut in 1982, where she lived a few miles from my mother’s house, but returned to Iowa about ten years later and shortly thereafter bought the Ballroom.

In late September – after having only heard about it for many years – I visited the Ballroom to celebrate Lyn’s birthday and fell in love with its setting, history, music, and strong family connections.

STEPHANIE CHASE: What are the origins of the Ballroom?

LYN PASCHELL WILKINSON: It’s named for a manmade lake that was created by 1920. There was a natural pond on the farm of Mr. Riley Robbins and he drugged it out with a team of horses. Beaver Creek runs a mile south of the Ballroom and it supplied the water to the lake.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Who was Mr. Robbins?

LYN PASCHELL WILKINSON: He was a successful cattle buyer who owned a rendering company – they would pick up dead farm animals and dispose of them. Soon after making the lake they built an eight-sided cabin and placed it in the middle of the lake, with a boardwalk to the edge. In 1929, they started building the Ballroom, which opened on Armistice Day, November 11, 1931. The opening band was Herbie Kay, out of Chicago, with Dorothy Lamour as his female vocalist. She later went to Hollywood and made movies with Bob Hope and Bing Cosby.

Lake Robbins Ballroom (circa 1932)

STEPHANIE CHASE: She was a major movie star, and so beautiful! I had no idea that she got her start as a singer with a band.

There’s no lake now, what happened to it?

LYN PASCHELL WILKINSON: In 1936, Iowa had a drought – it was affected by the Dust Bowl – which dried up Beaver Creek and broke the seal on the manmade lake, causing it to also dry up. Now there are about 10 acres that are still marshy.

STEPHANIE CHASE: So the lake lasted only a few years, but it must have been lovely.

I find it remarkable that in such a rural setting – the Ballroom is still surrounded by corn and soybean fields – you’ve had some very famous bands come through. Who are some of the bands and singers that have performed there over the years?

LYN PASCHELL WILKINSON: Most of all the Big Bands came here as they toured through the area. The Tommy Dorsey band performed at the Ballroom and I have a local guy who thinks his mom got Frank Sinatra’s autograph out here – he was their male singer at the time. I’m checking this out. Ted Weems and Perry Como came and a lady did give me their autographs, which she had gotten out here. Another lady told me of dancing with Dutch (Ronald) Reagan out here when he was a radio announcer for WHO in Des Moines, Iowa. She wrote me a letter, so I have it documented.

Dancing at Lake Robbins Ballroom (historical photo)

STEPHANIE CHASE: That’s already remarkable, and I understand you have more?

LYN PASCHELL WILKINSON: Yes, many more – other performers would be Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Five Fat Dutchmen, Jan Garber, Tiny Hill, Kay Kaiser, The Vikings, Wayne King, Eddie Howard, Duke Ellington, and Russ Morgan.

Cab Calloway was here in 1935, Louie Armstrong in December 1954, and Les Brown in 2000. We’ve also had Pat Boone, Asleep at the Wheel, Hank Thompson, Mel Tillis, LeRoy Van Dyke, Johnny Rivers, Bobby Vee, Little River Band, Kitty Wells, Wanda Jackson, Marvin Rainwater, Myron Floyd, Lawrence Welk – before he was on TV – Dick Dale, Jeff Brandt, and many others.

STEPHANIE CHASE: These are major bands and performers from the 1930’s on! And in addition to the Big Bands, you’ve had some really famous country western, popular and jazz musicians come through.

How did you first learn about the ballroom, and what prompted you to buy and run it?

LYN PASCHELL WILKINSON: I grew up about four miles away from the ballroom and babysat for couples who went dancing at the ballroom. As a kid, I was only there once for just a second, to speak to someone, but I started working out there as waitress and bartender in 1976. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the music and magic. I’ve always loved old movies from the 30’s and 40’s, and I remember my Dad used to let us dance on his feet to Lawrence Welk.

STEPHANIE CHASE: The Lawrence Welk show was a weekly fixture in my house when I was growing up – that really was another era, and my parents enjoyed the music. I still remember the Lennon Sisters!

LYN PASCHELL WILKINSON: Yes, and I’ve always loved to dance. After a year or so another gal I worked with as waitresses, we tried to buy the Ballroom, but the owner Pete wasn’t ready to sell. I ended up moving to Connecticut in late 1982, but by 1993, I was looking to move back to Iowa. Iowa had a lot of flooding that year and the jobs I thought I’d lined up weren’t hiring at that time. My nephew had his wedding reception at the ballroom and my big brother said, “Remember when you wanted to buy this … why don’t you do that?” I thought, why not, and we started talking to Wilma, who was Pete’s wife – Pete had died by then. I had remained friends with them and would always come back and visit whenever I came back every summer, and Mom was still working for Wilma. 

I guess it was meant to be because I bought it October 1993. It was in pretty poor shape when we took over. But I never saw that. I just saw the magic of the Ballroom. My brothers figured it would not have lasted another two years if we hadn’t taken over. There were side rooms falling in and it needed a lot of physical help.

I’ve been so blessed with such a wonderful family. It’s always been a family-friendly place, and everyone pitched in and helped – I could not have ever made it by myself. They are the best! 

Wilma had been with the Ballroom for fifty years. It was hard for her to sell but I think she knew I would keep it as a ballroom and she was so pleased in seeing us fix it up. It had been going down for a long time, and she would have been better off shutting the doors, but she loved it so much she couldn’t. She would still come out for the dances. She was wonderful in helping me learn the business.

STEPHANIE CHASE: There are labors of love – and a career in classical music can feel like that – but when you love what you do, it is wonderful, even if the financial end can be a struggle.

What kinds of music do you feature now, and do you always have live performers?

LYN PASCHELL WILKINSON: We have Big Band Music every Sunday night – always live bands – and we are the only place that has big band every week. Saturday nights we have Country Western or Oldies/Rock ’n Roll bands. Once or twice a year we have a DJ.  Occasionally we dance on Friday nights, but most of the time that’s for a special event. And sometimes we open during the week; for instance, when a band is coming though we might dance in the middle of the week, and the Valentine Dance is always on Valentine’s Day. We also do wedding receptions, banquets, and benefits, so some Saturdays are closed for private events.

Recent Wedding at Lake Robbins Ballroom

Sometimes we do some shows for entertainment instead of just public dancing. We have a Branson Show that comes once a year, and The Glenn Miller Orchestra once a year, if we can manage. Our Christmas Formal is always a big event with Bobby Layne Orchestra from Lincoln, Nebraska. Live bands seem to work better out here. Live music is always more exciting.

Al Welsh Orchestra - "Hey Good Lookin'"

STEPHANIE CHASE: That’s a nice variety of music – I’m so happy you always have live music – and Lake Robbins has a great dance floor! Tell me about your clientele – are most of them there for dancing, for eating a meal, listening to music, or all three?

LYN PASCHELL WILKINSON: The dance floor is still the original wood floor from 1931. The patrons gave us the motto, “Lake Robbins is known for the finest dance floor in Iowa.” So, I would say it’s the dancing. We have food and a bar but that’s mainly to be accommodating – the sell is dancing. People do like to be able to get something to eat and drink, and it helps to get them here instead of eating somewhere else and then deciding they’re too tired to come dance. Since we have a cover charge, we don’t see too many coming in just to eat, though we have had a few.

Lake Robbins Ballroom - Original Dance Floor

STEPHANIE CHASE: I really enjoyed the food there, but I think you don’t charge enough for it! You also serve very reasonably priced drinks.

What age range are your customers?

LYN PASCHELL WILKINSON: Sunday nights the age range is mostly retired; 60’s to 99. A few have made it to 100! We do have some in their 50’s. We do see, off and on, young people but their schedules are busier and working Mondays doesn’t help, although our Sunday hours are early, 5-8:30. 

Saturdays, the age range is mostly 40’s to 75, but then some bands bring out the college kids. They like the Oldies/Swing. We also have some high school kids and church groups – we are about the only place they can get in to dance except school dances. Some of our dancers bring their kids or grandkids whom we hope will like dancing and one day be our older crowd. As I said, we are very family friendly. 

STEPHANIE CHASE: When I visited, the first night there were a lot of college students [from Iowa State University] who were having the time of their lives dancing to the rock and roll oldies. The next night was an older crowd, some of them definitely in their eighties, dancing to more of a Lawrence Welk-style music, so in addition to the pleasure they have from dancing to live music, they’re also getting good exercise.

What’s your greatest challenge with running the Ballroom?

LYN PASCHELL WILKINSON: The biggest challenge, I think, it’s getting help. Since it’s part-time work, it’s hard to get help. The ones I have are great and have been here a long time. But extra help is harder to find. Younger people just work when they need money and have poor work ethics, and it’s hard to build up the business if you can’t get good help to help you pull it off. Thank God, I have a big family! I have lots of new ideas but can’t pull it off without help. It’s a big place and I find myself not being able to be everywhere. It would help to have a couple more key people that could cover different areas.

STEPHANIE CHASE: I was touched to see the support that your family gives to the Ballroom; clearly, it’s beloved by everyone.

I understand that you had a ticket taker for many years, who was something of a legend? Tell me about her.

LYN PASCHELL WILKINSON: Yes, her name was Coloma Shannon – but she was known as Kip – and she worked at the Ballroom for nearly 82 year and lived to be 104! Kip tied the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest serving employee. She loved the music and watching the dancing, and she was featured in a lot of interviews, including one with Bill Geist [for CBS News Sunday Morning].

Kip Shannon - Celebration Button

STEPHANIE CHASE: You grew up in a nearby town, Bouton, that is positively tiny – the most recent statistic has the population at 129. When and why did your family move there? What are some of the benefits and disadvantages of living in rural Iowa?

LYN PASCHELL WILKINSON: My folks moved to this area when I was a baby, about 1949-1950. Mom was from Pleasanton in southern Iowa. After they sold our Grandmother’s restaurant in Des Moines, they moved back to Mom’s town. There wasn’t much work in that area, so Mom answered an ad for a telephone operator and Dad became a lineman in Bouton. We moved to the country in 1953 or ‘54 where we grew up, about four miles from the Ballroom. It was a great place to keep us out of trouble!

There were only five houses in this area – it was an old town that had burned down and they were the only ones left. Only one other kid lived there beside us six. I guess we didn’t have a lot of opportunity and I always wanted to go out and see the world. But while growing up, I think we had a lot of fun. We never had much and later I thought we needed more, like a bigger house, etc. But after I finished school, I did go to other places, which I enjoyed, and I love seeing new places and things. 

When I lived in Connecticut, the longer I was there the more I missed Iowa and its slower pace. I thought Connecticut was a better place for my kids to get better advantages, but we all ended back in Iowa. Now that I’m older, I think you are what you are to be, and that the opportunities will come to you no matter where you are or what you have. I think growing up the way I did, I learned to work and make my own way. I also thought when I bought the Ballroom, I would be busy enough that I wouldn’t miss my kids as much leaving the nest, and that it would keep me busy enough to not be too much in their lives and a nuisance!

I’ve enjoyed it a lot.  The music, the dancing, and the people. It’s also helped to keep our family close.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Well, I admire you for helping to keep this cultural landmark alive and thriving, and I encourage anyone visiting the area to come and enjoy a unique experience and important part of Iowa history.

The Lake Robbins Ballroom has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, on local KCCI television (which won a National Murrow Award), and in many Iowa periodicals. It is located at 26726 150th St in Woodward, IA, about a half hour’s drive from Des Moines.

(All photographs courtesy of the Lake Robbins Ballroom; Music courtesy of the Al Welsh Orchestra)



Stephanie Chase is internationally recognized as “one of the violin greats of our era” (Newhouse Newspapers) through solo appearances with over 170 orchestras that include the New York and Hong Kong Philharmonics and the Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and London Symphony Orchestras. Her interpretations are acclaimed for their “elegance, dexterity, rhythmic vitality and great imagination” (Boston Globe), “stunning power” (Louisville Courier-Journal), “matchless technique” (BBC Music Magazine), and “virtuosity galore” (Gramophone), and she is a top medalist of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. In the Summer of 2018 she was featured at music festivals in Newport, RI, Mt. Desert, ME, and Martha's Vineyard, MA, and made her debut in Vietnam, where she performed in Hi Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.