Seaforth celebrates 40 years of Polka Fest

SEAFORTH – Four decades ago, C-4th bar owners Duane and Donna Kasten invited accordion and concertina players in the region to come display their talents in the small town of Seaforth.

“It was kind of an impulse, but we figured our community should have something to go back to its heritage,” Duane Kasten said. “We ended up getting 13 groups. We set two tents up and built floors under the tents because the streets were gravel back then.”

This past weekend, the Kastens enjoyed the festivities at the 40th annual Polka Fest celebration in Seaforth.

“I never dreamt it would go 40 years,” Donna Kasten said. “But we have never missed it. People have a lot of fun.”

The Kastens credit their 52-year marriage to polka dancing.

“It’s how we met,” Duane Kasten said. “We met at Lake Marion Ballroom in Brownton. I grew up in Echo and drove down there. Mileage doesn’t mean anything when it comes to dancing and good music.”

Kasten noted that there were six bands from five different states that played in the mid-’70s.

“There were times when the cars were parked out past the Catholic church on the highway,” he said. “I don’t know how many people there were, but it was a lot.”

The popularity caused the New Ulm radio station to dub Seaforth as the “smallest polka town in the nation.”

“The first year, we called it ‘the smallest polka town in Minnesota,'” Kasten said. “Then after New Ulm’s reference, we put that on the town, and it hasn’t been disputed in 40 years.”

The Kastens sold the bar after sponsoring the event for five or six years. The Seaforth Booster Club willingly took responsibility for the town festival after that.

“The Booster Club has done a lot of good things in the community,” Duane Kasten said. “The people running it now are doing a very fine job.”

Although the popularity of polka has seemingly diminished throughout the generations, people are still willing to drive to take part in the activity.

“There aren’t very many polka festivals west of the Mississippi,” Kasten said. “You’ll find a few out east, but not too many this way. Polka, sometimes you can figure, is ethnic by the people. They grew up on the farm, with barn dances and parties. It goes on like that, from our grandparents and parents and then on to us, like it does for rock ‘n’ roll and people growing up in that era.”

Keeping young people interested in polka is sometimes difficult, but Seaforth’s Polka Fest give them the opportunity to try it out.

“The young people (Friday night) were really working to try it,” Kasten said. “They were doing a nice job. There will be more young people trying it (Saturday evening), too.”

One Atwater couple, Darlene Morton-Gratz and Gerald Gratz, can’t get enough of polka dancing.

“We go all the time,” Morton-Gratz said. “We love it.”

The couple travels two to three times a week to dance, especially in the summer months.

“We go south, to Arizona, in the winter, and we dance some more,” Gratz said. “Our children think we’re nuts, but we’re probably in better shape than they are. We used to dance every dance, but some places have dances that last for 12 straight hours. We can’t dance that much anymore.”

Like at other locations, the couple parked their camper and then walked around, enjoying the music, the dancing and the people in Seaforth.

“She’s a die-hard,” Gratz said. “But it gets to be like family, seeing the same people who travel around.”

Every other year, the dancing duo attends the annual Bavarian Blast in New Ulm. But Seaforth’s Polka Fest is extra special to them.

“He brought me here for our first date,” Morton-Gratz said. “The Top Notchmen were playing, and they were our favorite band. That was 10 years ago.”

Nette Anderson of Elkton and David Fruechte of Lake Benton paired up to enjoy dancing Saturday as well, though a friend, 94-year-old Leroy Schmidt, was somewhat sidelined with a sore foot this year.

“I didn’t dance for 40 years,” Anderson said. “My husband didn’t dance. I started again in 2002.”

Anderson’s older sister used to dance with her.

“She’d swing me around,” Anderson said. “Dancing now makes me feel young again.”

Schmidt, who is noted for his polka dancing, has taught countless people to dance. He picked it up when he was about 18 years old.

“I taught some young girls to waltz last year,” he said. “Three years ago, I danced with a girl who was going to college in Marshall. She called her mom and told her she danced with a 90-year-old man. I only dance the polkas now.”

Canby residents Darlene and Chuck Oellien, who just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in June, were at Polka Fest for the first time.

“We’re having fun,” Darlene Oellien said. “We’ll be back again.”

There were plenty of other activities to keep people entertained throughout the weekend, including a seven-team co-ed softball tournament, an eight-team horseshoe competition and a kiddie tractor pull, which was supervised by Minnesota Pedal Pull Association member Bruce Quackenbush.

“I’m one of a dozen pullers in Minnesota,” he said. “It’s really big in the southern part of the state. We do hundreds of pulls. They have a nice spot here. The kids really cheer each other on.”

Braden Peterson was the first to receive a trophy for winning the 5-year-old category. Jayden Remiger took second place, while Macy Rohlik was third.

“It was good,” Peterson said of winning. “It was hard to pull.”

The top three finishers in each age group, from 4-11, earned a spot at the state competition, which is in September in Hutchinson.

In addition to a random “wiener dog” reunion between Remington and her 10-month-old offspring Lucy and Romeo, which all belong to different owners, people seemed to just enjoy the beautiful weather and visiting with each other.

“The best part for me is that a lot of my family gets together,” said Maria Turbes of rural Seaforth.