This early photo shows the Central Emporium dance hall with its walkway shortly after the turn of the century. Zoom in and note the Arnolds Park train station to the right. Not long after this, a hotel was built on the grassy area in the foreground.
For over 100 years, the building has over looked West Okoboji. People have danced and dined, loved and laughed, thrived and thieved there. 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 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.
Today the Central Emporium still stands in Arnolds Park, and is a source for entertainment for visitors and residents of Okoboji. It is home to 2 restaurants and several retail stores spanning 2 levels of space overlooking West Lake Okoboji.
Click here to learn more about today’s Central Emporium.
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