News: Willard: Polka Fest Dances (44th Year – 2018)

Contact: Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon

Surnames: Kirn, Podboy, Lesar, Briski, Petke, Yurkovich

----Source: Clark County Press (Neillsville, Clark Co., WI) 6/13/2018

Willard Polka Fest is a Hoot (44th Year – 2018)

Willard Polka Fest Dances into 44th Year

Willard musician Richie Yurkovich, left, joined Willard Polka Festival organizers Donna Kirn and Don Kirn in front of the Willard Community Center. The 44th annual festival will be June 15-17 at the community center. (Scott Schultz/The Clark County Press)

By Scott Schultz

Willard, by most accounts, is a quiet little place near a couple of mounds and a couple of lakes in Clark County. But things start hopping there each summer, as people from across the nation dance into the community for the
Willard Polka Festival.

The 44th edition of the annual festival will be June 15-17 at the Willard Community Center.

“It’s a lot of work to put it on, but it’s rewarding,” said Donna Kirn, who with her husband Don have been among the event’s organizers since it started in 1975.

The reward, she said, comes with the satisfaction of people dancing or otherwise generally enjoying themselves to polka music that fits nicely with the area that’s rich in Slovenian heritage.

Playing polka music and dancing to it ran deeply in those families when they immigrated to their Willard homes.

“We’ve always said that every family that came here had at least one button-box to play,” Donna Kirn said.

The Willard Athletic Club started the Willard Polka Festival primarily as a fundraiser for the community’s softball facility. The Ray Podboy Button Box Band, and Donna Kirn and Mary Ann Lesar provided music for the first festival, held at St. Mary’s Catholic Church shelter.

Two other bands – the Mike Briski Band and the Art Petke Harmony Aires – joined the two original bands in its second year.

Don Kirn said the festival was a hit from those first years and took off from there.

The festival moved to the streets, with music played from a rented bandstand during 1977 and then played under tents and at the church shelter through 1982.

And then, the event reached a new level in 1983 when it was moved into the athletic club’s new community center pavilion. There, dancers found a 30-by-60-foot elevated wooden dance floor that helped the festival grow even more.

The other day, I was told by a person who gets here every year, ‘It’s the best dance floor we ever danced on,’” said Richie Yurkovich, a regional polka legend from Willard whose band has played at the festival since 1978.

The first year’s festival was limited to a Sunday afternoon event. It was held on a Saturday and Sunday for a few years, and then went to Friday through Sunday.

Donna Kirn said preparation for the festival starts as soon as the current festival is completed. Over its years, volunteers who make the festival happen take up their roles of everything from taking tickets to working with food.

“The volunteers help has been one of the festival’s biggest successes over the years,” Yurkovich said.

Likewise, festival attendees – who travel from all over the United States – have learned to book area hotels and motels well in advance.

The excitement grows in the days approaching the festival.

“People start rolling in with their motor homes on Wednesday before the festival,” Donna Kirn said.

Many of the attendees have gotten to know each other well throughout the years, she said, and plan events accordingly. One group of 30 plans this year to tour the 1897 Clark County Jail Museum and have dinner at a local restaurant.

Appreciation for volunteers’ work is shown by attendees when, at the end of each year’s show, motorhome travelers hold a cookout for the volunteers.

Yurkovich said all the work and appreciation makes the Willard Polka Festival among the longest-running polka festivals in the nation.

How many years it will continue depends on whether the community’s younger people start taking it over, however.

“We need more young people to get involved with it,” Don Kirn said.

The organizers said whether that happens depends, in part, on whether younger people take interest in polka music. Yurkovich said some young musicians are playing the music, but that more young people could listen to it and dance to it.

The festival’s organizers and volunteers will be doing what they can again during this year’s event to make polka fun for people of all ages.



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