By Samantha Johnson
Polka Fest at Harmony Hall in Redcliff was sold out for their first year back since 2019. When I arrived, two couples were in the parking lot visiting. Sylvia and John Wandler came from Ecklund, Saskatchewan for the event and told me they were the king and queen of polka. They’ve been married for 50 years and were visiting with their friends Dolly and Ron Pabb, who travelled to Redcliff from Regina. They are on their second go around in the marriage game and have currently been married for 9 years after meeting at a Polka Fest. All four were having a great time.
Inside the venue, Linda Cleveland introduced me to Martin and Shirley Voeller, one of the founding members of this Polka Fest. The Voeller’s are from Medicine Hat and were married here in 1966 and are now in their 56th year of marriage.
It all started 27 years ago, said Martin, “us and Ed Jackel went to a lot of Polka Fests in Saskatchewan, and we talked it over and thought this would be good for Medicine Hat. The next year we went ahead with it. Ticket sales are very slow.” It was Jackel’s idea for Martin to take Highway 3 to Taber and he would drive Highway 1 to Brooks, and each would stop at every place along the way to hang posters.
“The phone rang off the hook then,” continued Martin. “We made enough money that year to cover expenses. Our expenses were high, we had three bands and we were renting the Cypress Centre, which isn’t cheap either, but we came out of it with a few dollars and lots of fun.” Shirley added they used to have a Polka Church service on the Sunday with music and 1,300 people showed up one year.
“My dad asked about tickets sales,” said Martin, “and told me I’d better come out to the farm and get the big truck, take some grain to town to pay for some of the bands. It was that bad, but it got better.”
Things really took off after the third year, sometimes with 600-700 people showing up, the couple added it helped they had lots of volunteers as the setting up in the Cypress Centre was a considerable amount of work. When the crowds started thinning and it got too expensive to keep it at the Cypress Centre, the event was moved to the Harmony Hall in Redcliff.
Martin added, “we enjoyed putting it on, it was always lots of fun and we met lots of people. We know people from all over Alberta and Saskatchewan. I also had a band and we played in lots of the Polka Fests.”
“Ed was a good organizer and a good speaker,” continued Shirley. “He helped us because none of us could get up and do the speaking. We all worked hard at it to keep it going.” Both agreed it was all about teamwork and are glad when Linda Cleveland took it over so that they only had to arrive to enjoy the dancing and visiting. “The feet don’t get sore, but the back and the hips do. That’s called a senior moment,” Martin told me when I asked how two days of dancing was on the body.