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Finding Minnesota: Everybody Polka

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(credit: CBS) Mike Binkley
Mike Binkley has been covering Minnesota news for more than 25 year...
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By Mike Binkley, WCCO-TV

NEW PRAGUE, Minn. (WCCO) — Whoever invented the polka is responsible for a lot of happy moments. That toe-tapping music was introduced in Prague — in what used to be Czechoslovakia — nearly two centuries ago.

About an hour south of the Twin Cities, you’ll find many descendants of Czech immigrants in New Prague, and they’re keeping the music very much alive.

For example, if you stop for breakfast or lunch at the Landmark Café, the owner, Jerry Minar, has a large collection of concertinas in his display cases — and he might just play one.

“Oftentimes a waitress comes up to me and says, ‘Jerry, there’s a birthday group here,'” said Minar. “So I’ll come and play a little bit of Happy Birthday for them.”

Some of the customers might even break out into song. John Skluzacek, a farmer from nearby Lonsdale, likes to sing along — in Czech — when Minar plays the Wheelbarrow Polka.

New Prague is the home base for what’s believed to be the world’s largest concertina club.

“We have like 288 members, I believe is the exact count,” said Minar. “We grew up with this kind of music and it’s probably why a lot of us are playing it. They just pound it into our heads, you might say, when we were youngsters.”

The concertina is a lot like an accordion, except instead of a piano keyboard on the side, it has numbered buttons which sound different if you’re pulling or pushing.

“It’s just really a lot of fun,” said concertina club President Bob Pexa, who is a full-blooded Czech. “Hard to put it down once you get it in your lap.”

Marian Breeggemann of Marystown started playing at age 63 and she’s now a member of the club.

“I was at several of their functions,” she said, “and I thought, oh that just really looks like fun.”

Retired math teacher John Bushlack of Prior Lake can’t sit down when he’s playing his concertina. He dances around too much, and the instrument bangs into his knees.

“I like to watch the faces (in the crowd),” he said. “I watch their smiles. That’s the big thing, you just watch people smile all the time.”

The band makes nearly two dozen appearances each year. One of the main events comes on the third Saturday in September, when New Prague’s Main Street shuts down for Dozinky Days, the harvest festival.

“At the polka festivals that take place,” said Minar, “there’s never a fight ever because everybody’s always happy. And the music just seems to promote that feeling.”

Minar’s music company, JBM Sound, is one of the few makers of concertinas in the United States. With the help of local craftsmen, they produce nearly a dozen new concertinas each year.

The Czech Area concertina club is working to get more young people interested, by offering scholarships to help them learn how to play.

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