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New Ulm, Minnesota was once known as the ‘Polka Capital of the Nation’

New Ulm is now home to the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, which honors polka groups and dance orchestras from the state’s past as well as more contemporary musicians.

photo of sign and building of mn music hall of fame
The Hall of Fame’s home is the 1936 Moderne-style Public Library and Historical Museum building at 27 North Broadway.

The Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in New Ulm offers a wide-ranging display of artifacts, mementos, and photos acquired since it recognized its first class of inductees in 1989. It pays tribute to music performers and artists who shaped Minnesota’s music scene in the mid-twentieth century, with a focus on the polka groups and dance orchestras that were popular around New Ulm at that time.

Founded in 1854, before Minnesota attained statehood, the city of New Ulm claims a long tradition of music performance and appreciation. The German immigrants who arrived there particularly favored polka music — a style that often featured a concertina and a tuba, among other instruments, and was frequently labeled “old-time music.”

Beginning in the 1920s, as recording and radio technology brought music into people’s homes, a number of talented New Ulm musicians became widely known. In 1949 New Ulm’s own radio station, KNUJ, went on the air and began broadcasting polka music throughout southern Minnesota. By midcentury, due to the popularity of eighteen professional bands with local roots, the city was referred to as the Polka Capital of the Nation. Between 1953 and 1971 it hosted Polka Days, an annual festival that attracted tens of thousands of visitors each July.

New Ulm’s rich music history prompted cultural leaders in the late 1980s to establish and host the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame recognizes and honors musicians who “contributed significantly to the Minnesota Music scene in all genres of music.” Each year, its board of directors selects a new class of inductees.

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The Hall of Fame’s home is the 1936 Moderne-style Public Library and Historical Museum building at 27 North Broadway. Noted New Ulm architect Albert G. Plagens designed the project, constructed with locally made Artstone. The Brown County History Museum occupied the first floor until 1984, when it moved across the street to the 1910 German Renaissance-style building and former Post Office. The Hall of Fame moved to the library’s museum space in 1999.

One of the first New Ulm artists to gain notoriety was “Whoopee John” Wilfahrt. He played the concertina in polka bands beginning in the 1920s and reached large audiences through live performance, radio broadcasts, and recordings. Whoopee John’s band performed extensively into the 1950s. The International Polka Association notes that Whoopee John is considered the founder of the New Ulm school of old-time music, and that the National Ballroom Operators Association named his band the leading polka band in the nation in the early 1950s.

The Six Fat Dutchmen, based in New Ulm, achieved considerable fame as well. The group was voted the nation’s top polka band several times in the 1950s. Harold Loeffelmacher founded the group in 1932. In spite of their name, the musicians were German rather than Dutch; in American English “Dutch” was often exchanged for “Deutsch,” meaning German. The band toured extensively in the 1940s and 50s and recorded 800 songs with RCA Victor, which branded the group as “nationally known” and the “largest old-time band in America.”

After World War II, ballrooms were popular destinations for those looking for entertainment, as well as for touring dance bands. Minnesota was home to nearly one hundred ballrooms. The Hall of Fame contains a display of the names, locations, and historic photos of many of those sites. In New Ulm, George’s Ballroom opened in 1947 and hosted the bands of Lawrence Welk, Glenn Miller, and the Six Fat Dutchmen, among others. One of the rarest and most noteworthy artifacts on display in the Hall of Fame is a poster promoting Buddy Holly’s concert appearance in Mankato, at the Kato Ballroom, on January 25, 1959, the third of the “Winter Dance Party” tour stops. Holly died in a plane crash days later on February 3 in Clear Lake, Iowa.

From Minnesota icons such as Bob Dylan, Judy Garland, and Prince to tuba legend Stan Freese, the Andrews Sisters, and Bobby Vee, the Hall of Fame shares snapshots of Minnesota’s music history. Its first class included a nod to New Ulm’s heritage with Whoopee John Wilfahrt along with F. Melius Christiansen, founder of the St. Olaf Choir and Band. Additional honorees in recent decades include Mary Jane Alm, the Blenders, John Holmquist, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Leo Kottke, Lorie Line, the Replacements, Soul Asylum, Sounds of Blackness, the Steele Family Singers, and Mick Sterling. Classical groups and artists include the Minnesota Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Minnesota Opera, the Dale Warland Singers, and the Minnesota Chorale; conductors Philip Brunelle and Frank Bencriscutto; and composers Dominick Argento and Libby Larson. As of 2021, there are 179 inductees.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.