The state of Iowa has produced some real swell folks, from Lee DeForest, the little known 20th-century inventor born in Council Bluffs, with more than 180 patents to his name, to Burlington native William Frawley, famed for playing Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. Yes, Iowa has given birth to quite a few worthies who have then pressed forward to leave their indelible mark in the world.
Perhaps after John Wayne, Glenn Miller (1904-1944) is its most famous native son. The noted Big Band leader became a symbol of American patriotism and loyalty when he died in an airplane crash on his way to entertain U.S. troops on December 15, 1944.
Alton Glenn Miller was born on a farm in Clarinda, Iowa, on March 1, 1904. For more than three decades, the small town has honored his legend and musical aptitude at the annual Glenn Miller Festival, held the second weekend in June.
Clarinda, which is the seat of Page County, doesn’t look much different than it did in the vintage, 1930’s photographs and postcards that line the windows of its downtown businesses.
Miller’s life and legacy started in Clarinda, but he and his family lived there for only a few years. Following grade school in rural Nebraska, the family relocated to Grant City, Missouri. Before he was even a teenager, Miller had collected enough money from milking cows and farm errands to buy his first trombone. He uncannily took to the magical instrument, playing it as part of a town ensemble.
In Miller’s senior year of high school, he formed his own troupe, a slick coterie which duplicated the innovative sounds of contemporary dance bands. Once graduating, he was all but certain to become a professional entertainer. His passion eventually sowed dividends as Miller, along with several others bandleaders, helped develop the contagiously energetic Big Band sound of the 1930s and 1940s. Miller cultivated a singular sound with a high-pitched clarinet and he constructed a series of hits.
Prior to World War II, the Glenn Miller Orchestra was one of America’s most listened to dance bands. During the period of 1939-1942, he dominated popular music with melodies that are now treated as honored standards of American music and culture, such as Tuxedo Junction, In the Mood and Moonlight Serenade.
Glenn Miller Birthplace Society
The Glenn Miller Birthplace Society began in 1976 and today has around 1,500 members in 24 countries, including Japan, which started a branch in 1993. In 1989, Miller’s daughter, Jonnie Dee, purchased the modest, cozy, two-story birthplace of her famous father; the home is adjacent to a plot of land that will one day become the Glenn Miller Birthplace Museum. The museum, scheduled for completion in late 2015, will feature exhibits, music archives, a library and a theater. Groundbreaking took place last year thanks to many local, national, and international grants and donations.