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October 8, 2010 Click here to mail this page to a friend.
Ignoring Clint Eastwood's advice in "Dirty Harry" that opinions, like certain body parts, are best kept to yourself.
What happened to Polka Days?

Polka Days was held annually in New Ulm, Minnesota from 1955 until 1972, attracting thousands of polka fans. Click here to see photos of the parade on the last one held. Recently, my wife and I traveled to New Ulm, Minnesota to attend the annual "Oktoberfest" celebration, looking forward to the German music, food, and beer. Growing up in Southern Minnesota, I'd heard of it for years, as well as other events in the area, all centered around the strong German culture. According to the U.S. Census, New Ulm is the most German town in America, with nearly 70% of the population reporting German ancestry. New Ulm bills itself as the ”Polka Capital of the Nation”, and for years the city's famous Polka Days was held every July, bands played on the main street downtown, and people danced and drank beer until well past midnight. In October, many returned to celebrate "Oktoberfest".

I'd always heard the crowds at these events were in the thousands, so I anticipated trouble getting accomodations and made reservations as soon as I could. As it turns out, I didn't need to worry about that, crowds were in the hundreds, not thousands.

New Ulm is a beautiful and historic city, and we really enjoyed the State Park, climbing up to see the statue of "Hermann the German", touring the August Schell Brewery, and walking the interesting downtown area. But, when the 11 AM parade started by the Glockenspiel, disappointment started to set in. The crowd was sparce, the parade had just a few floats and marchers, and in 10 or 15 minutes it was over.

A polka band began to play down at the corner, a crowd of perhaps 300 gathered to start buying beer and brats, so Hazel and I joined them. Later, someone mentioned they were serving "Maid-Rites" down at the American Legion Club, so we wandered down the street and found out they are a tasty steamed hamburger "sloppy joe" without the tomato sauce, and the club was doing a brisk business.

Several polka bands played at the Holiday Inn during Oktoberfest. Click to learn more.At the edge of town, the Holiday Inn had several polka bands booked to play until closing, and the parking lot was full.

But, where were the fabled downtown crowds I'd heard so much about?

I got on the internet, googled, and learned a few things. The big event in town was "Polka Days" a popular July event every year from 1955 until 1972 when it suddenly stopped. The crowd was said to be over 50,000, and everyone was spending money. So, why would the town kill a golden goose like that? I kept looking but couldn't find anything about why the event ended. So, I sent an email to my friend Dave who lived in New Ulm about that time. Here is what Dave wrote back:

I remember Polka Days well. It became a flamboyant, no holds barred, drunken, licentious display of debauchery and flagrantly outrageous behavior. It all started back in the 50's when they had main street resurfaced and somebody said they should celebrate. There was a band at every corner and New Ulm has a LOT of bars and the beer ran like a flood from both breweries. People came from miles around to drink and drink and dance and drink and act up and drink.

It got worse and worse as the years wore on but finally came to its demise when a comely couple were filmed naked, consummating their alcohol driven love on the hood of a '62 Buick with hundreds of beer hounds cheering them on.

Needless to say the churches threw an awful fit and finally got the whole thing cancelled. It became a dramatic illustration of how people behave in a mob situation. But it was grand while it lasted. We lived back in New Ulm during the last frantic years of the big annual bacchanalian extravaganza. Oktoberfest is a faint shadow of what once was, but you can still have a good time in New Ulm.

Polka Days moved to Gibbon, Minnesota for 30 years, and then returned to George's Ballroom in New Ulm for a couple of years, but it wasn't the same out on the street.



Global Air Aviation Referral Service


I welcome responses, and will be glad to post them here. Email your remarks to ron@global-air.com
Back in my playing days in ballrooms across the Midwest in 1959 -1964, we would continually see the posters for a lot of the bands. Of course being 17 years old or so, we would mock these L-7 bands. Liederhosen? Silly hats? It was good fodder for us "hip" young men.

Actually, these guys were only a decade or so older than we were, and were drawing crowds as large as we did. What happened to Polka Days? As I said the other day, those things are just going out of fashion, but there is more of a factor.

Ballrooms used to pepper the Midwest. There were many many ballrooms across Minnesota to which people would flock every weekend. Usually one night during the week was an extra "Old Time" night where a polka band would play. Musically, most people enjoyed a wide variety of music. With limited radio stations, every station played a variety of music. At a polka dance you could see a wide variety of ages in the crowd.

Marketing music got "smarter" each year, and with more stations, audiences got more targeted as stationd determined their format. Today you can have your choice of hundreds of stations with satellite radio. Therefore, you can listen to only songs you like and nothing you don't like. The ballrooms died. The town celebrations died. The small town "variety" radio died.

In 1961 on my Birthday what were the top 5 songs in the USA that week? According to Billboard magazine:

1. The Lion Sleeps Tonight. The Tokens were a preppy group wearing cardigan sweaters singing this traditional folk song.
2. Please Mr. Postman - The Marvelettes sang this motown offering.
3. Run to Him - Bobby Vee from Fargo sang this ballad.
4. The Twist - Chubby Checker did this "dance" song.
5. Walk on By - Leroy Van Dyke did this country song.

We also had #1 hits in that decade by Nelson Riddle, Lawrence Welk, and Elvis. What variety!

So what happened to Polka Days? Today, the parade would take 90 seconds because the bands are down to 3 or 4 in an area that used to have 25 bands. The live music all day in the park would have to be replaced by recordings. Wow, this is already just not as fun. The polka dancers that covered the floor for hours on end have all died. There are no dancers left out there except those that are performing at 4:00 from the polka dancing club that meets every Tuesday night.

Changing times..... I miss some of the old days too, but Polka and Old Time Music is going the same way as Barbershop Quartets and Glenn Miller.

Dave "Dontsteponmy" Johnson

I was in college at the last of the classic Mifflin Street Block Parties in Madison, WI back in the 90's. It was a pharmaceutical carnival, with almost anything available and police too busy with underage drunks to do anything about it. Looking for halluginogens, but having no luck, I was in line for a nitrous balloon about 5 feet from a cop, and asked a bleary-eyed guy if he had any, "Nah, dude, but I got some pot" at which point he took out a brick of pot the size of a thick sandwich, and broke it in half, selling it to me for $20 (well, well below the market at the time).

When you can go back to a party and drop a bag of weed with an audible *THUD* that is officially a good party. By the time we could stand again, some revellers had started a bonfire in the street. Not so bad, you say, but then they threw some old couches on it from the porches on the street. Then they tipped a car onto it. By the time the fire trucks showed up and morons started throwing bottles at them, the two-story porches had been pried off of 5-7 buildings and added to the blaze, igniting the overhanging limbs of trees 40 ft. above. Riot police, tear gas, glass everywhere, chaos.

Good times, man, good times. That's a reason to stop a tradition. Two people humping on a Buick should have been the poster for next year.

Bondo

I was in marching band in High School and it was decided we would travel to New Ulm to march in the parade. This was late 60's. Beer was a nickel a cup and as far as I could tell if you were tall enough to push a nickle across the 2 x12 'bar' you were old enough to drink. The band director quickly realized this was a bad situation for a bunch of teens to be in and restricted us to the dorm rooms we had reserved. But they did not have nearly enough chaperons for us so many of us escaped and spent the night in cheap-beer inducted debauchery. This is still one of my fondest memories of High School.

We marched the next day. Badly hung over my memory is of wading through discarded cups knee deep in the street and the sight of grown men urinating off the curb in full view of everyone. These stories of course made their way home so we were all blamed for the bad behaviour of those few that drank (KIDS DRANK? I DIDN'T SEE THAT MOM!).

The band did not go out of town for parades for a couple of years and I had heard Octoberfest was calmed down a lot after that.

Anonymous

Something similar happened to Albany, Minnesota's G'Suffa Days, which developed into the boozing frenzy that the name implies in German. Saufen means to booze. Albany didn't have public copulation--at least I didn't hear of any--but it had lots of throwing up on people's yards and general mayhem.

So, G'Suffa Days were discontinued.

Jeanette
Wadda ya know, this editorial was picked-up by Fark.com

Caution: Some fark blogger comments might not be "office safe".



One of the major reasons for its demise was the fact that it became a huge crowd, with shoulder-to-shoulder people for four blocks and plenty of spill-over to other locations near downtown. Since it was on the streets, it was effectively uncontrolled access. The facilities, such as they were, were overwhelmed, not just with access, but with toilets. Recessed entryways became toilets by the end of the night, to the reasonable consternation of business owners.

After one year of no fest and a year of an unusual event spread in venues all over town called "Musikanten Fest," the wonderful "Heritagefest" began in 1975 to 2005 (31 years) and it was held at the more controllable venue of the Brown County Fairgrounds, which is located right in town.

Heritagefest received an award from the Minnesota Office of Tourism in approximately 2001, whereby they were effectively said to be "the example of how to run a great city festival." Sadly, with the change in ethnic and heritage-driven festivals declining with young people, it had to close for economic reasons. They wisely chose to announce the decision to fold right after the end of the 2005 event, which allowed a new festival organization to have time to form. The Heritagefest Board Chair wisely said something like, "All events have a life-span. We knew this wouldn't last forever. When a Broadway play closes after many years, people don't consider it a failure. In fact, they applaud the long run it did have. Think of our time together with Heritagefest in the same manner!"

When "H'Fest" closed its doors, "Bavarian Blast" began in 2006, with the first two years in German Park downtown and then back to the comfortable location at the the Fairgrounds, where it continues to entertain crowds from across the U.S.A.

All of these festivals were put on by independent, citizen-driven organizations who put in an awful lot of effort, stress and hard work into the festivals and deserve great praise!

Terry Sveine - New Ulm Guy

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