For 34 years Don Koke has been bringing music to El Dorado. The latest phase of that journey, the Iron Horse Concert Hall, will be closing after this season.
“This May when I have the final show it will be awfully hard to say goodbye,” Koke said. “I will not say goodbye, I will say see you again and hopefully I will be doing it again.”
The closing of the Iron Horse was prompted by the closing of Circle Gallery last year and the building being put up for sale. The Iron Horse is located in the back of that building.
But Don’s musical past in El Dorado goes back further than this building. Don and his wife, Mary Ann, moved to El Dorado in 1977 from Michigan. They opened a music store, the Music Emporium on Main. They were there about a year then moved their store to the old beauty shop, which was located between Angleton Garage and State Farm.
“That’s when we put on our first concert,” Koke said.
In 1979 they brought Bob Bovee to town for their first official concert.
“We thought big and took the concert out to the college and asked if we could use the theatre,” he said.
He recalled that only 12 to 13 people showed up, so they decided to do something a little smaller for the next concert.
The next year they added more concerts and in 1981 was their first really big season.
“We kept building after that,” Koke said.
They bought The Spot, a pool hall, when it went out. That led to some adventures for the couple, including a number of people coming in still thinking it was a pool hall that first year.
“I remember a drunk came up, opened the door and looked inside and shook his head,” Koke said. “He went across the street, looked at the sign and came back and opened the door again.”
They remained at that location until 1988.
“I had bought the building, closed the music store and opened the Iron Horse in the back,” Koke said of their time there.
They came up with the name Iron Horse because a friend of theirs gave them a huge train set.
“We would have jam sessions and put on shows,” he said.
Koke recalled the old wood burning stove, which everyone would gather around on cold evenings. They also served food.
Once they moved to the back of the Main Spot building, they put in a new stage which was more formal. They also put on an extension so they could increase the area for the audience. They even took the music outside during the summer, holding concerts on the side of the building.
Page 2 of 4 - After Mary Ann died, Koke closed the building and thought about quitting.
“I decided I was not going to do that and it was not what Mary Ann would have wanted,” Koke said.
This was the same time Peter Johnson was thinking about buying the building from Cliff Stone that would become Circle Gallery.
Koke said Johnson told him there was a garage in the back of the building and asked him if he would be interested.
Koke had been looking in Wichita and Towanda but couldn’t find a location he liked to reopen.
After looking at Johnson’s building, he knew that was the place and opened the Iron Horse back up in 1998.
“It was just a garage and it was a mess, but it was perfect,” Koke said.
Being behind the gallery also helped him not be as isolated.
Eventually Johnson sold the building to Don and Jeannie Parscal, who continued the relationship with the Iron Horse until Don passed away last year from cancer and Jeannie closed the business.
“They put this floor in and bought the jury chairs,” Koke said.
They also put in heat and air.
The Iron Horse features a cozy atmosphere and unique decorations with the walls being covered with decorated guitars and frogs.
The frog decorations got their start from one frog that came with the Kokes from their music store in Michigan. Then people began bringing in more frogs.
Koke said when they advertised on the radio Orin Friessen would do the commercials and tell them to ask for Boss Frog. That brought in even more frogs. There also is a giant painting of Napoleon Bonaparte, and Koke explained the relevance of that was that the French are nicknamed frogs.
The guitars range from real guitars that are no longer in use to guitar shaped art.
“A lot of those were guitars people brought in to repair,” Koke said.
When he would tell them they could purchase three new guitars for what it would cost to repair theirs, they would choose that route.
“I would tell them the best thing they could do would be put a clock in it and hang it on the wall,” he said.
Instead many of them left their guitars for Koke to hang on the wall. He challenged the audience to take any of the guitars and give it a second life as a piece of art, then bring it back and he would hang it up.
Page 3 of 4 - That collection of art just added to the experience of attending a concert at the Iron Horse.
“This has been a great location,” Koke said. “What really makes it the best is the intimacy.”
He has musicians wanting to come perform there.
Some of his performers over the years included Dave VanRonk, Bill Staines, Utah Phillips, Mary McCaslin, John McEuen, Norman Blake, Rosalie Sorrels, John Fahey, Tommy Sands, Nick Charles, Sarah McQuaid, Claude Bourbon and Robin and Linda Williams, among many others
There also have been some surprises over the years.
Josh White, Jr. came to an open mic night one time.
“His presence was so overpowering on that little stage,” Koke said.
Then another performer to come in was Peter Ostrousko who plays on Prairie Home Companion.
“Bryan Bowers one night took an audience out to a parking lot and they made a ring around his 1940s truck,” Koke recalled.
They sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and baptized the truck before he drove it home.
Of course, there also was the occasional tornado warning.
Once they got going in the 1980s, they put on 24 to 30 concerts a year or more.
“What I enjoyed most was getting people excited about the music I love,” Koke said. “That was the best thing. They wanted more. People would say they could come anytime and know they would hear a good concert.”
His concerts ranged from Bluegrass to Blues and Celtic to old time music.
“We really tried to vary our seasons,” he said. “People discovered a new kind of music they liked.
“What we enjoyed, both Mary Ann and I, was getting to know these performers, as well and picking their brains adds to the enjoyment.”
The performers also would interact with their audience.
“That probably is what makes the music so special,” Koke said.
The audience also was special to them.
Koke said they had some loyal audience members.
“Several generations from the same families came here,” he said. “It’s always a joy to see them and how they are doing. We get to feel like they are family.”
Koke’s kids also grew up there and now his grandkids attend concerts.
Koke has had a lot of help over the years.
One main source of help was Bill Jenkins, who has been with Koke for years, working behind the counter in the concert hall.
Page 4 of 4 - Brent Nearhood also did sound for him for a number of years after taking guitar lessons from Koke at the college.
“Others stepped in too,” he said. “No one feels reluctant if something needs done.”
Despite the performances coming to an end, they won’t be forgotten.
Koke has recordings of all of those concerts and now is hoping to put them into a more permanent media.
On the 25th anniversary of the Iron Horse, he had started writing a book about all of the musicians and stories, as well as commentaries.
“Now that it is up to 34 I think it is time to finish that,” Koke said.
That is one of the things he plans to do after the Iron Horse’s last show.
“My big aim is to take more time to do more writing, and song writing as well,” he said.
Koke does still have plans to do house concerts in private homes on a monthly basis. He has already talked to some performers about this.
While Koke considered just moving the Iron Horse to another location and had an offer of one location, he decided it was time to end the concerts.
“I truly want to go out with something people remember,” Koke said. “As much as I want to keep going, I think this is the time I need to get out.”
The season will close in May. The final show will be the usual Mary Ann memorial concert, which will be combined with an “end of the run” celebration.