Strasburg’s Old Blue Room Still Drawing Crowds
Whalen, Kevin. “Strasburg’s Old Blue Room Still Drawing Crowds.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 11F.
STRASBURG - It started as a poolroom just after the turn of the century in the small, south central North Dakota community of Strasburg.
But as time passed, that poolroom evolved into the Blue Room and Lounge - a famous wedding and dance spot, attracting bands of national renown and drawing folks from many parts of the Peace Garden State.
Even today, the lounge and dance hall play host to wedding dances just about every weekend between May and September, as well as a few now and then during the colder months.
The name has been altered a bit - it now is known as Horner’s Lounge and Blue Room - but little else has changed during the past 35 years or so in the Blue Room, located in this bustling town of 660 residents.
Virgil Horner has owned the place for about seven years now. He says the hall, with its walls covered by murals that could have been backdrops from the movie, “Casablanca,” still draws the wedding dance crowds.
But it didn’t start out that way.
Pius Kraft, a Strasburg resident since 1907, says what is now the Blue Room was built as a pool hall in 1908 and 1909. Only the front part of the current building existed then, says Kraft.
According to a book celebrating the golden jubilee of Saints Peter and Paul Catholic parish in Strasburg, the pool hall was built by Gregory Bichler, who ran the establishment for many years.
Sometime later, the building was remodeled and served as a liquor store.
Kraft, now 86, remembers when the building was used for a time as a bowling alley, but that was many, many years ago.
“We’d set a game,” recalls Pius, who was 12 or 13 back then. “For that we used to get a bottle of pop.”
Then, there were the regular public dances, which attracted young and old alike from Strasburg and neighboring towns.
Current owner Horner said he can recall attending the dances as a kid growing up in Strasburg.
His most vivid memory of the hall while he was a youth was one month when about 25 weddings were held - “and I didn’t miss one, that’s why I remember.”
A former owner, Leo Mattern, now of Bismarck, also remembers the dances.
He said the crowds generally were well-behaved, although minors were served liquor.
But the facility did not realize its fame as a wedding dance hall until Mattern, his father, Fred, and his brother, Elmer, bought the bar, then known as the Matt-Ray, in 1946 and dubbed it Mattern’s Lounge and Blue Room.
They decided to purchase the building after Leo returned to the area following World War II, and Fred was unable to buy any more farmland.
The Matterns are just a few in a long line of owners of the building, so many that even Pius could not recall them.
Elmer bailed out of the partnership in 1947 - “He didn’t like the bar business,” Leo said - and the two remaining Matterns operated the Blue Room until 1968, when Fred sold out to his son. Leo continued with it until upcoming surgery forced him to sell in 1970, he said.
Because they owned the place for, such a long time, they made many of the hall’s major changes and operated it during its heyday.
The Matterns started using the hall, which then was about half its current size, for wedding dances a year after they purchased it, although at the time the Blue Room was without running water and sewage facilities.
Water had to be hauled in, cooking was done on kerosene stoves and people had to make use of outhouses.
In those days, Mattern said, weddings were all-day affairs, and the Blue Room attracted wedding parties not only from Strasburg but from many surrounding communities.
The wedding ceremony was held in the morning, followed by a soup dinner in the Blue Room, he said. Of course, the spirits flowed all afternoon and the dancing continued the whole time.
“Those days, everybody danced,” Mattern said. “It was a little different than today - completely different.”
After an evening dinner, everyone retired to the lounge, where more refreshments were served.
That style of wedding celebration, Mattern said, went out in the ‘50s when rock ‘n’ roll became popular, but the Blue Room continued.
What was it that drew people there to celebrate?
“I don’t know why it was so popular,” Mattern said. “Maybe it was convenient.” Convenient, he said, because its down own location meant the town’s four other bars were within a minute’s shuffle.
That was not the situation in Linton, for example, where people wanting to try another watering hole had to hop into their vehicles and drive.
While the weddings were the biggest attraction for the Blue Room, they were by no means the only activities held there.
Public dances were held Fridays, and they drew large crowds, Mattern said.
“Oh, they went over big,” he said. “It’s hard to believe.”
Those public dances featured such famous bands as the Six Fat Dutchmen, Whoopee John and Don Shaw, as well as a number of Bismarck-area bands.
“It was pretty well-known all over the United States,” Mattern said.
The hall also played host to basketball, community gatherings, movies and, from 1946 to 1949, Saturday roller-skating.
Mattern said roller-skating wasn’t very popular, but it was “something for the kids to do.”
The bar and dance hall took on a different look under the Matterns, and their changes and remodeling included adding 40 feet to the dance area, putting in a kitchen and installing plumbing in 1949.
The roller-skating wore out the Blue Room’s wooden floor and a plastic mat - a relatively new idea at the time - was laid in 1949.
“A guy came in and said he’s got plastic and said he’d guarantee it,” Mattern recalled. “So we put her in and by God she did the job.
“It’s still there.”
The front of the building also was remodeled.
The murals that still decorate the walls of both the lounge and Blue Room also were done under Mattern ownership.
Mattern said the mural work was done by a family friend from South Dakota.
“He looked at the place and said, ‘Gawd, that’s a big job.’” But he completed it all for about $700, Mattern recalled.
The mural in the lounge is a wilderness scene that could have come from northern Minnesota, with lakes surrounded by trees and rolling hills, complete with wildlife.
The Blue Room conveys an atmosphere that would be welcome to Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, what with the palm tree murals and gently-rotating ceiling fans and all.
“He figured it would be the nicest scenery,” Mattern said.
But not everything has changed. Much of the woodwork around the bar, for example, is original equipment.
There is one thing the place did not experience, however, and that is the sound of Lawrence Welk, Strasburg’s hometown hero.
According to Mattern, Welk and his band never played the Blue Room, neither before nor during the Mattern reign.
“He came back but never played there,” Mattern said, adding that when Welk did play, it was at the local school gymnasium.
So put that old rumor out of mind. Lawrence Welk did not play in the Blue Room.
Maybe it was his loss.
The Strasburg Blue Room in earlier days as Mattern’s Bar
Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.