When the Music Played

 

There’s a quote on the wall in the McLeod County History Museum.  It reads “No power on earth has the ability to move people like the spirit of music”.  This quote was written by Vern and Alyce Steffel, donors of the west wing of the museum, and though they were not from McLeod County, their quote speaks loudly of the county’s history.

Music is everywhere.  It plays in our cars, in our homes, in our workplaces, and for many of us it’s always playing in our hearts.  When if comes to McLeod County, however, music seems to hold a special place.

The history of music in McLeod County began in 1855 when three brothers of the famed Hutchinson singers decided to lay their roots in McLeod County.  Their first night in the county was spent in Glencoe, and as you may guess, they gave a free concert to the townspeople.  The following day they set out for what would become Hutchinson where they no doubt literally sang praise to the land around them.

The Hutchinson brothers may have been famous for their music, but they were by no means the only musicians in the county.  Music is something of a gift given to human beings, and those humble, yet sturdy, pioneers who came to this area surely brought their own styles of music with them.

Life in the early settlements could be tough and often monotonous.  The settlers had no electricity.  Idle time, of which there may not have always been much, could not be spent in front of a television, looking at an iPhone, or even listening to a radio.  For those early settlers, music was a common way to pass the time.  With no means to listen to recorded music, however, people during this time had to make it on their own.

Musical instruments on the frontier were basic.  Nearly every settler reached their prospective homes by way of ox cart and the instruments they carried had to be small enough and light enough to fit on the cart.  As a result, most instruments on the frontier consisted of items such as harmonicas, small guitars, “fiddles”, and of course the squeeze box.

The “squeeze box” is typically a small, push button concertina/accordion.  Unlike it’s larger cousins, the small concertinas on the frontier typically were/are only capable of playing in two keys.  These styles of concertinas became widely popular for sailors and settlers moving west as they were small, mobile, and easy to play.  In addition, the reason the small concertina was gaining popularity is it was a key instrument in a style of music that was gaining popularity in the mid-1800s—polka music.

Polka music is said to have originated in Europe, namely Czechoslovakia where the term “pulka” was coined.  According to legend, polka, or “pulka” is meant to “dance in half”, referring to the half tempo and half step of dancing to the music.  The style of music, and dance that goes with it, quickly spread through the continent, each country adding their own elements of folk music, dance style, and dress that defines polka music.

Back in the United States, as more and more settlers from Europe began filtering in, their brand of polka music began to gain popularity in America.  In Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas, where German, Bavarian, and Czech immigrants began arriving in droves, polka fast became a mainstream genre of music.

In Minnesota, by 1900 the land was settled and changing fast.  Over the next couple of decades, dance halls, began popping up across the state.  These dance halls, of course, would need musicians and musical groups to perform and the birth of the “modern” polka band began.

The bands ranged from three people to 12 or more.    Groups typically consisted of drums, horns such as trumpet, trombone, tuba, woodwinds such as clarinets and saxophones, and of course the mainstay of polka music, the accordion or concertina.  Music typically ranged from polkas, waltzes, and schottisches—each played with unique timing.

By the 1920s and 1930’s, with the growing popularity of home radios, locally grown Minnesota bands began to be broadcast in thousands of homes across the state.  Bands like Whoopee John and the Six Fat Dutchmen became household names, their music not only broadcast on radio, but giving live performances in the many dance halls and auditoriums across the state.

It was at this same time that McLeod County began seeing its own rise of homegrown bands.  A popular musician at the time was Jerry Dostal who formed an 8 piece band in the early 1930s.

The group did frequent radio broadcasts all over Minnesota in the 30s and even played in the Dakotas and Iowa.  Other popular groups, such as the Littfin Bros. Orchestra of Winsted, began gaining popularity at the time, playing in and around the county.

The rise of musicians in McLeod County couldn’t have been made possible without the many dance halls that catered to their music.  The Lake Marion Ballroom, the Pla-Mor ballroom, the Archway Club, Stewart’s Community Hall, and many more venues big and small were well patronized by the dance crowd.

Nationwide, polka music began to lose popularity with the younger crowd in the 1950s and 60s as rock’n’roll took over the mainstream music stations, yet in McLeod County and other parts of the state, polka or “old time” music still held its popularity as more and more bands formed and local musicians were born.  Local musicians like Jerry Kadlec did their part to entertain crowds in the original Whoopee John Band, and future stars like Wally Pikel “jumped” into the music scene.

One popular McLeod County musician of the time was Brownton native, Lester Schuft, who took his love for polka music all over Minnesota.  An original member of “Eddie’s Dance Band”, Schuft would go on to play in front of Hubert H. Humphrey, New Ulm Polka Days, the Big Joe Polka Show, and even performed in front of the Metrodome prior to a Twins game.

Another man with the same last name, Jerry Schuft, began playing in polka bands in the 1950s and carried his love of music with him for many years afterward.  A Brownton native, Jerry played in several bands and was lucky enough to tour the ballroom circuit of Minneapolis/St. Paul as well as other regions of Minnesota.

McLeod County musicians certainly did their part to entertain folks in and around Minnesota.  One musician, Wally Pikal, would go on to entertain America with his unique skill of playing two trumpets at one time while bouncing on a pogo stick.  Wally began his “Wally and the Dill Pickles Orchestra” in 1950 and entertained crowds for years afterward.  His act eventually received national attention and Pikal was booked on The Tonight Show, the Mike Douglas Show, Bozo the Clown, and the Al Harrington Show.  Pikal eventually brought the act to the international stage and performed in Czechoslovakia where he played three trumpets while jumping on a pogo stick to the tune of “Roll Out the Barrel”.

Polka music has faded some through the years, but there is no doubt that it has cemented itself into the very core of McLeod County heritage.  Today, musicians like Chuck Thiel, whose Jolly Ramblers have over a century’s worth of history, continue to entertain crowds with the style of music that is, and always will be, part of the folk culture of Minnesota and McLeod County.

*There are far too many musicians from McLeod County to name them all.  You are encouraged to stop at the MCHS to learn more about the men and women who have played great music in McLeod County.