Okoboji Area Real Estate News Dec. 10, 2006 - History of The Central Emporium

Central Emporium remodeling preserves history as new records emerge

By Tracy Tucker, Okobojian Staff

What would the Great Lakes be without the Central Emporium? For over 100 years, the building has over looked West Okoboji. People have danced and dined, loved and laughed, thrived and thieved there. Thanks to Dick Brown, the Central Emporium will be around for years to come. In the 1900s, there were seven ballrooms in the Iowa Great Lakes. On West Okoboji there were five: Manhattan Beach, Roof Gardens, The Inn, The Casino and The Central Emporium, then known as the Central Pavilion. Big Spirit Lake was home to the Orleans Hotel and on East Okoboji the Wigwam was outdoors at Brook’s Beach. The Central Emporium is the only one that remains a part of today’s Iowa Great Lakes. The Walker family from Charles City built the Central Emporium in 1901, calling it the Central Pavilion. It was built on the bank of West Okoboji, behind the Okoboji Hotel, owned by the Milwaukee Railroad.

In 1910, Adolf Becker bought the Central Pavilion from the Walker family. On Aug. 5, 1911, the Okoboji Hotel burned to the ground. Becker traded Canadian wheat land to purchase the land where the Okoboji Hotel once stood. In its place, he built an ice cream parlor. In order to pursue his vision of expanding the Central Pavilion to its current size, Becker moved the ice cream parlor in 1926. With the new expansion complete, Becker renamed it the Central Ballroom Nite Club. The ballroom was a grand place. It gave people the opportunity to get dressed up and dance until dawn. During the 1920s, some of the biggest names in the country were featured at the ballroom. Count Basie, the Dorseys, Woody Herman, Louie Armstrong, and Glenn Miller were entertainers at the Central Ballroom during the “dime-a-dance era.” Lawrence Welk even pitched his tent in the backyard of Becker’s home just down the street from the ballroom. Becker owned the Central Ballroom until the late 1960s. His children were not interested in taking over the business so the building sat empty.

In 1967, Okoboji native Wayne Eves bought the building and used it as boat storage for his marina. During this time, there were renovations of old buildings all across the area. Wayne Eves’ son, Bob Eves decided he wanted to preserve the history of the Central Ballroom. In 1971, Bob bought the building from his father and started the remodeling project. Bob Eves renamed the building the Central Emporium and began leasing out space for stores. He started with only 3-5 businesses including The Diver’s Den, the Outrigger and a jewelry store.

Lee Hesse of Newton purchased one of the first leases at the Central Emporium from Bob Eves in 1971. You can still find him today behind the cash register or stocking shelves at his store Expressions in the Central Emporium. Lee’s wife Kay has opened three other stores at the Central Emporium including Kay’s Beach Boutique, Resort Footwear and a coffee shop called Java Boji. Bob Eves finally had the main floor of the Central Emporium completed but finances were tight. He and owned and operated The Central Emporium until 1973 when the Boyle Company of Sioux City purchased it and finished the project.

A New Era

In 1994, Dick Brown was facing retirement after his company in Sioux City had been bought out. An avid golfer, he spent a great deal of time on the green. “I love golf,” Brown said. “But it’s just like anything else, you get sick of it after a while.” He needed something to occupy his time. He and his wife were toying with the idea of moving to Lake Tahoe or maybe Arizona. Their children are grown now, but they used to take family vacations to the Great Lakes area. The Browns love the area and the decision was made to move to Okoboji. In order to keep himself busy, Brown bought Ruben’s on Broadway in Arnolds Park. After turning it into the most successful night club in the area, Brown’s entrepreneurial hunger returned. He leased the Bavarian Gardens on the lower floor of the Central Emporium. “That wasn’t enough,” Brown said. “I decided I wanted to own everything on that block of Broadway Avenue.”

In 1996, his vision changed a little. After being a liaison between the Boyle Company and the Central Emporium shop owners, the Boyle company approached him with a proposition. The Central Emporium didn’t fit the Boyle Company image and they were looking to sell, to Dick Brown. “Their asking price was so ridiculous. When I made my first offer they practically threw me out of their office,” Brown said.

He had been working in the building with the Bavarian Gardens for a year. Brown knew the shop owners and he knew how the building was run. Besides, Brown is an entrepreneur and this was a challenge. In the end, Brown decided to buy the Central Emporium rather than take over a block of Broadway Avenue. Brown wanted to expand the Bavarian Gardens that he had leased since 1995. In September 2003, construction began. What they found was horrifying. While excavating under the building, they discovered the wooden pillars holding up the 1.5 million pound building were solid above ground, but underneath the surface they had deteriorated to nearly nothing. Brown was faced with a decision. Tear the historic building down, or spend the time and money to salvage it. Brown chose to save this piece of Great Lakes history. One by one, skid loaders moved 800 tons of dirt to push back 90 feet so the building could be saved.