At 91 years young, Sturgeon Lake native Florian Chmielewski still plays his accordion with zip. He has been playing now for 73 years and enjoying every minute. He received his first accordion at the age of 18 from his brother Chester, who gave it to him on the condition that he would learn to play it in 90 days. Within those 90 days, he had not only learned to play the accordion, but he had actually booked his first job, a wedding dance for a neighborhood couple. His repertoire only included four songs at the time, but the couple was happy for him to play those same songs over and over throughout the night.
Forty years ago, Chmielewski had a dream of creating a unique event including polka enthusiasts from around the world. Chmielewski, not knowing if the timing was right or even if people would be interested, approached the Pine County Fair Board and local chambers to ask their opinions. The response was a resounding, “Yes!” After two years of planning, the Chmielewski International Polkafest was born.
The first Polkafest was held at the Pine County Fairgrounds in 1978 and included 50 bands from five different countries, including Norway, Denmark, Germany, Canada and the United States. The three-day event was kicked off when Len Voikofski (the Polish Pacer) carried a torch 70 miles (mimicking the Olympic torch run) from Cloquet to Pine City. The plan was to pass a “Torch of Friendship” to Governor Rudy Perpich “to represent unity of all the countries in attendance.” However, as Voikofski handed the torch to Perpich, oil dripped out onto the Governor and he caught fire...luckily he was just fine.
The weather did not cooperate that weekend, nor for the next three years Polkafest was held at the Pine County Fairgrounds, but nonetheless, the event grew more every year. The second year included even more bands, and even local skydivers parachuting to center stage playing fiddles. The next year included professional wrestlers such as Verne Gagne and Andre the Giant.
After dealing with rain for those first few years, Chmielewski experimented with different locations, including Grandma’s in Canal Park, Ironworld, Black Bear Casino and Grand Casino Hinckley, where it has been for the past four years. This year’s Polkafest will be held again at Grand Casino Hinckley on May 18-20.
Chmielewski has earned many awards in his career, such as the International Polka Award, but the one he is most proud of, he says, is the honorary doctorate he received from Fond Du Lac Tribal and Community College.
When asked if he ever thought of retiring, Chmielewski responded, “ll be 92, so I figure I still have at least eight more good years in me!”
The Chmielewski Funtime Band will be part of this year’s “Sweet Summer Sounds” at West Side Park in Hinckley. Come out and enjoy the fun on June 14 at 6:30 p.m.