Knot Pining: Festivals hold traditions


July 28, 2023

My hometown festival takes place this weekend. And I won’t be attending. Southern Minnesota, many of us know, is simply too hot this time of year for us northerners. Instead, I’ll likely poke around that big air conditioner called Lake Superior and maybe take in some FinnFest events; its cultural-specific air might make me feel a bit like I’m at the old hometown shindig.

Montgomery is the home of Kolacky Days, a celebration of all things Czech that’s been taking place since 1929. Town festivals are a huge thing in southern Minnesota, and much of my teen summers were spent flitting town to town for things like Mosquito Days, Emergency Days, Bullhead Days, Heritage Days, Barbeque Days, and Corn on the Curb Days.

I do get back for an occasional Kolacky Days hit, if only to snag a bag of the kolackies that started it all. (No one knows why this enclave used this odd spelling for the fruit-filled bun.) If only they would change the date of it. It used to be in the fall, but when it expanded to multiple days, organizers needed to wedge the celebration between the pea pack and corn pack at the local Green Giant canning factory in order to maximize the turnout. Working at the factory used to be a Montgomery rite of passage for most of the young peope there. It isn’t these days.

Eight miles north in New Prague, another city dominated by Czech immigrant influence, there is the Dožínky Festival in mid-September. I can get behind that kind of scheduling.

Kolacky Days remains in place, in the apex of summer heat. It still draws a huge number of people. It has had its ups and downs as far as organizing and the draw of events it holds, but currently it seems to be on an upswing. Something for everyone.

Personally, just getting back to the old haunts is enough. I’m reminded of a trip down south nearly 20 years ago:

Not counting the old guy in the corner with the pennywhistle, Larry Novotny came as billed two nights in a row at the narrow bar called

the Brass Rail in Montgomery.

Larry’s been doing his polka gigs for years, and, since his son now owns the Rail, the old man was a natural for providing a few nights of the requisite music for the annual Kolacky Days.

On Friday night, it was Larry doing his infamous One Man Polka Band routine, which looks exactly as one might imagine it: footwork on the drums and cymbals, two hands on the concertina, singing and mouthing the tuba. Oh, and the old guy on the pennywhistle, a likely innocuous groupie that Larry just puts up with. The interloper actually kept up nicely, providing a subtle air of absurdity to the goings-on in the stifling hot tavern as sets of young and old took part in a burgeoning polka frenzy.

I came across this scene after running into an old high school friend. We found a table and watched all shapes and sizes bumping into each other in the small space, some spinning into walls, some tripping over the step-step-hop tangle of legs and crashing onto the beer-soaked floor.

As I sat grinning, Jeff started lamenting that the beauty of the scene was likely lost on younger generations. He mused that the days of expecting a polka band at a local wedding and actually staying for the dance were fading. “This is how we grew up,” he said. “It’s too bad it might get lost.”

I doubted him, saying as long as Kolacky Days is around, there will always be polka. I just kept grinning, no need for solemnity in this crazy scene.

Larry was late into his set and ripping into the shouted requests: “Apples Peaches Pumpkin Pie,” “Fishing Minnesota,” “Beer Barrel Polka,” “Too Fat Polka,” and “Last Call Polka.”

There was more of the same on Saturday night, though this time it was the Novotny Trio, plus the pennywhistle guy. I walked in late again, with a friend from post-Montgomery days who now lives in the area. He grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis but married a country girl, the daughter of an old-school farming couple in the next county over. Karen knew how to cut a polka rug, and when they moved down to her old stamping grounds, she’d take Mark to those town hall dances or weddings where polka ruled. Slightly amusing, he had said, for the older set.

What he saw in Montgomery on Saturday night shocked him. This was bootleg polka. Young and old spirited away by the beat. Men asking strange women to dance with no intentions but to get the feet moving.

Mark’s eyes danced. His grin was a mile wide and unending.

He squeezed between dancers to get to the bathroom. On his return, a portly woman slammed into him and they went tumbling into a wall, just missing the pennywhistle guy.

Mark said my old friend was wrong, that scenes like this only prove that at least some semblance of old-fashioned fun will remain.

Not that Jeff on Friday was all remorse. I yelled out to bandless-Larry to play the “Redbird Polka.” He got right into it and we sang along and lost all notion of lost arts and fancies. Many more generations will be touched by polka, and not just on one weekend a year.

The “Redbird Polka” is our school fight song.

Mike is a reporter and page designer for the Pine Knot News.

He can be reached at [email protected].


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