Siouxland Observer

Master of Science

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Larvick Speaker, Red Wine and
The Old Man in the Tree

Larvick Speaker, 1501 Pierce Street, Sioux City, Iowa, has closed, and the business location is for sale.  It will be missed.  The store’s iconic sign of an old style, megaphone-like horn, announcing the cryptic “Larvick Speaker," has been a landmark to musicians, and the uninitiated, since 1986.

Just south of Rose Hill, and north of the “Near North Side" (if not engulfed by it now), the area around Larvick Speaker is dotted with ethnic restaurants, Laundromats, a coffee house, art galleries, and import shops, among others.  Davenport Cleaners, one of the city’s oldest, locally owned businesses is just a few blocks up Pierce Street.  And Casa Del Ray, 1303 Douglas St, one of the best Tex-Mex restaurants in the city, is a just a few blocks north and west on a bluff overlooking Perry Creek.

The area has grown, and Larvick Speaker became a fortress in recent years.  Its windows armed with steel bars (perhaps fewer band instruments and more high-powered rock amplifiers had something to do with this, but who knows).

George Larvick, the owner, became an Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of famer, but the shop always had a college-band mystique for many in the blue-collar world of Sioux City—or at least for me.  The music shop came from an unknown universe of  "Winchester Cathedral" music, and somehow seemed to epitomize a strange man singing through a giant megaphone.

George Larvick must have come from such a world, a world of Public School Stadiums (like the one once belonging to Morningside College), and a place that housed weird people who shouted rah-rah in Larvick Speaker-like megaphones.

Once, after a late lunch at Casa Del Ray, the talk turned to the the sign. I remember drinking red wine, and on parting, took a walk in the old neighborhood. I chanced upon Larvick Speaker. I had been in before to look at amplifiers and stuff, and so I walked past the store up to Tony’s Pizza, and then back down the street.

As I approached Larvick Speaker, I noticed a giant tree across the street from the store and decided to rest under its shade.  The tree was a northern catalpa, a fast growing tree with large heart-shaped leaves.

According to State of the Ozarks, the tree initially had a small range, but became popular because it grew quickly, and the wood could readily be used for railroad ties.

“Thousands of Catalpa speciosa were planted alongside the railroads,” Joshua Heston, said. …  “And this species, with its long, tropical-looking seedpods...was spread across the eastern and middle portions of America.”

The tree, according to Heston, came to define an era — an era “giddy and drunk with its own capabilities....”  The kind of tree someone would have planted on the bluffs of the newly minted Sioux City.

The ancient tree I found grew on a hill in front of an old house, just across the street from Larvick Speaker on 15th Street.  The lowest branch of the tree had grown over the sidewalk on Pierce Street, and with some effort, I climbed up to sit on the log-of-a-branch.  It was not easy, but there I sat and watched the people walk by below me, and even saw Mr. Larvick at his front door in a conversation with his new partner, Mike Erskine (or perhaps a customer).  I wanted to shout hello, but did not.  To be honest, I thought they were talking about the old man in the tree.

I have never forgotten that day.  The day I climbed onto a branch of a giant northern catalpa to dream of city traditions, weird megaphone music and mysterious places like the Larvick Speaker Company.  I remembered as a child we took comfort in catalpa trees, playing in them for hours, often pretending the large, long seedpods were cigars.

On a recent visit I stopped at the Café Danh, 1423 Pierce Street, to ask about the sale of the Larvick Speaker location.  Café Danh serves delicious Asian food, but the perfectly manicured hostess knew little about the location or what had happened. 

As I walked out the door, I inquired about the tree.  For stopping on Pierce Street, I had found everything changed.  Not only had  the tree disappeared, but Larvick Speaker as well.  Old School Contracting had built a new retaining wall to hold the house on the hill in place.  The tree was gone.  And the business too.

Café Danh's hostess knew nothing about the tree, but in researching this article I learned George W. Larvick died.  I was saddened by the news. I did find a photo of a tree as noble as the one I rested in that day, and also took some photos of Larvick Speaker’s business sign, taken down, and laying on the roof.  I hope to get back to learn more about Mr. Larvick's musical history, and visit the iconic location of an old-city business, sadly, no longer open, or dappled by the shade of a great tree.

Our thanks to  for letting us use their photo of the very old northern catalpa tree.

Editor’s Note: Both Casa Del Ray and Café Danh are closed.  A new restaurant will be opening at Café Danhs' location, according to a notice.  Casa Del Ray is closed for good.