MOORHEAD — For 55 years, the National Guard Armory building stood in the 200 block of Moorhead's Fifth Street South. Then, in 1990, the building was torn down and an assisted living center for seniors was built.

For the most part, that is likely all that history would have noted about the armory, save for one thing — the Moorhead armory was the location for a gig that brought the final curtain down for American pop music stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richards.

The group was headed for a concert at the Moorhead armory in February 1959 when the plane they were in crashed outside of Clear Lake, Iowa.

The trio died, but the show went on, thanks to Bobby Vee, whose long and successful career in pop music was born after he took the stage at the Moorhead armory as a fill-in act.

The performance became a tribute to Holly, Valens and Richardson, also known as "The Big Bopper."

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Vee, a beloved entertainer with ties to the region, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2011. He died in 2016 at the age of 73.

This is an image of a poster that was used by Buddy Holly's Winter Dance Party tour, that was scheduled to play at the National Guard Armory in Moorhead in February 1959. Forum file image.
This is an image of a poster that was used by Buddy Holly's Winter Dance Party tour, that was scheduled to play at the National Guard Armory in Moorhead in February 1959. Forum file image.

Moorhead has actually had a number of National Guard armories.

The one at the corner of Fifth Street and Third Avenue South was built as a federal Depression-era project and dedicated in 1934.

It replaced an armory building that still stands in the 900 block of Center Avenue in downtown Moorhead.

That structure, which has been called Moorhead's original armory, was built in the early 1920s, according to an online source, and it is better known these days as the former Francis Peterson automobile showroom, which it became after its days as an armory.

The city of Moorhead recently granted a tax break to a developer who has plans to turn the building into an event center.

The current Moorhead armory at 1002 15th Ave. N. opened around 1988, when the armory in the 200 block of Fifth Street South closed.

The Fifth Street building was erected after a rainstorm in 1932 flooded the basement of the armory on Center Avenue, prompting the need for a different building.

Thought it stood for half a century, the Fifth Street armory gets little mention in stories from The Forum's archives.

This undated photo from the mid-1920s shows a Ku Klux Klan initiation ceremony in the Moorhead National Guard Armory.

Clay County Historical & Cultural Society
This undated photo from the mid-1920s shows a Ku Klux Klan initiation ceremony in the Moorhead National Guard Armory. Clay County Historical & Cultural Society

Historical references can be found regarding a Klu Klux Klan initiation ceremony being held in the Moorhead armory in the mid-1920s.

That event may most likely involved the building on Center Avenue and not the Fifth Street armory, given that Klan activity in the region had largely dissipated by the mid-1930s, when the Fifth Street armory opened.

The Fifth Street armory did make the news in 1990, when the building was torn down and a time capsule was discovered in a cornerstone.

The capsule was opened during the annual Old Fashioned Fourth of July celebration that was held on July 4, 1990.

The event ceremoniously took place in the lobby of the Livingston Lord Library on the campus of what is now Minnesota State University Moorhead and which in 1990 was called Moorhead State University.

The contents of the time capsule included a thick, letter-sized manilla envelope, a pin emblazoned with the crest of Company F of the Minnesota National Guard and a shiny new 1934 Liberty Head dime.

Among the documents found in the envelope were copies of petitions requesting the establishment of the Moorhead National Guard unit, the unit's first quarterly payroll roster from 1919 and handwritten orders for guardsmen to patrol Fergus Falls, Minn., following a disastrous tornado that struck the city in 1919.

According to a Clay County Historical Society newsletter from 1990, after the time capsule and its contents were brought back to the society's museum in Moorhead a closer inspection of the materials revealed a 1934 penny hidden in the folds of the envelope.

Mark Peihl, archivist with the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, was there for the opening of the time capsule.

"It was a kick to see materials that hadn’t seen the light of day for nearly 60 years. Kinda like Christmas," Peihl recalled.

"We had some trepidation," he added. "We’d opened other time capsules which had failed to keep out water. The results were not good. But the armory box was dry as a bone and the contents were in a great state of preservation, though a bit brittle."

Peihl said aside from the Moorhead armory's connection to the careers of Holly and Vee, he wasn't sure how influential it was in the history of the city.

"Other great bands may very well have played there, but I don’t know of any," Peihl said.