What do Minnesota politics and polka have in common? Florian ChmielewskiWhen Florian Chmielewski played his accordion last Tuesday at the Cloquet Senior Center, Maria Schroeder and Evelyn Graham were sitting front and center. “We’re a bunch of groupies,” said Graham with a chuckle. “We go with [the Chmielewski Fun Time Band] to Branson, North Dakota, Wisconsin, you name it.”
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
When Florian Chmielewski played his accordion last Tuesday at the Cloquet Senior Center, Maria Schroeder and Evelyn Graham were sitting front and center.
“We’re a bunch of groupies,” said Graham with a chuckle. “We go with [the Chmielewski Fun Time Band] to Branson, North Dakota, Wisconsin, you name it.”
These women and Chmielewski do not have a typical “star/groupie” relationship.
In the first place, they take the bus together to the previously mentioned exotic locations and dine together at stops along the way. Second, they’re all senior citizens (but so is Mick Jagger). Third, Chmielewski and his band members play primarily polka music, a much more cheerful sound than many other musical genres. Finally, both sides appear to respect the other (while indulging in some playful humor at times.)
Plus, Chmielewski’s groupies have been following the band longer than your typical fan.
“I probably saw them the first time 40 or 50 years ago,” said Schroeder, who moved to the area in 1957. “Lorren Lindevig too, I’ve known him since the Sixties.”
While Chmielewski turned 84 on his last birthday, he maintains a pretty grueling performance schedule. While the band plays 150 gigs a year on average, he also does solo shows at senior centers and nursing homes around the area.
“When I go there, I feel compelled to make those people happy,” he said.
Folks who have lived in the area a long time know that Chmielewski is a man of many talents. In addition to his musical skills, he was a farmer – and still owns and lives on the farm near Sturgeon Lake where he was born and raised – and a politician, serving as Pine County Commissioner from 1960 to 1970 and a State Senator from 1970 to 1996.
At the age of 22, Chmielewski was drafted into the Army Air Corps (which became the Air Force) during the Korean War after being deferred the first time he was drafted, in 1945. In the military he had a number of jobs, including cooking and baking and a stint as one of the soldiers who had to go pick up people who went AWOL (absence without leave).
“They were mostly kids who just wanted to see their girlfriend or mother,” he said.
While he got to travel to England, the Azore Islands and Bermuda while he was in the service, Chmielewski headed straight to the farm when he got home.
“The war was over, but they wanted me to re-
enlist,” Chmielewski said. “I called Dad from Shreveport, La. I said, ‘Dad, I want to buy the farm.’ My dad just cried. Fifteen kids, one had finally come to the rescue.”
That was 1953.
Did all the traveling make Chmielewski realize how much he loved the dairy farm in beautiful northern Minnesota?
“I don’t know,” he said, pausing to reflect for a moment. “I always wanted to do something that shows you’re productive, and I enjoyed it. If you enjoy hard work, you love the farm. You milk cows, drive tractor … we didn’t even have tractors when we started.”
After a year or so of milking an average of 60-65 cows for his day job and combining that with a band that was getting more and more popular, Chmielewski’s life took a “wonderful turn.”
The date was Oct. 31, 1955. He met Patricia Stolquist.
“We were playing a gig in Michigan and they told us we couldn’t get there because of the snow, so I stopped at the Elmwood Inn [in Atkinson]. I was talking to the owner and this young lady came and asked me to dance. Twice. After negotiating about a half hour with the family who’d brought her there, I finally won and I gave her a ride home to Duluth. As we approached her home, I stopped at a stop sign and said ‘What do you say, let’s get married?’ To my surprise she quickly said, ‘You give me a diamond in June; we’ll get married in September.”
Long story short – despite very little courtship in the intervening months – that’s exactly what happened.
“I was 28 or 29,” Chmielewski said, when asked if he was normally an impulsive man. “In my mind, if I was going to do all this farming, I needed to have a companion, a wife. It was just a natural thing for me. She was 22; maybe she was looking too. I think we were at the same stage in life.”
(By the way, Chmielewski’s son, Florian Jr., also told his future wife they ought to get married the first time they met. It appears to be something the men in the family do.)
Chmielewski said he did check in with his future wife a few times – “but the band was playing every day of the week” – and he invited Pat for dinner so his parents could meet her (at their suggestion).
The couple had four children – Florian Jr., Jeff, Mark and Patty – and were happily married for 47 years. Pat passed away eight years ago.
“She did everything,” Chmielewski said. “Her mother had warned her not to marry a farmer, but that’s exactly what she did. She was wonderful. She could get along with people so well, they just loved her. Not as much as I did, of course.”
While Chmielewski does nothing half-heartedly, he’s also not afraid to call it quits when the time is right. When Pat burst into tears over milking the cows once when he was gone, he called the cattle buyer in Rush City and sold them within a few days.
No matter, he was busy with other things and had been a successful farmer.
Thanks to his music, Chmielewski has also had a long and productive television career. From the first show on WDSM to the current show on the RFD-TV cable channel – which airs at 6 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and 9 p.m. on Saturdays – he and the family have been beaming polka music into living rooms around the Northland and beyond for decades. In fact, there was a time that the “Chmielewski Fun Time” show was more popular than Archie Bunker and Sunday night football in northeastern Minnesota. According to a 1973 newpaper article, it was outranked only by the comedy series “Maude.”
At that time, the Chmielewski band included Florian and Pat, their four children (ages 10 to 15 then) and his brother, Jerry Chmielewski.
“I met special people who were guests on the show,” he said, adding that polka great Frankie Yankovic was a guest more than once, along with Myron Floren from the Lawrence Welk show and, believe it or not, Bob Zimmerman (better known as Bob Dylan today).
Talking to Chmielewski, it seems he was probably never happier than when he was working full time as a state senator and a musician.
With typical Chmielewski flair, he managed to somehow blend polka and politics into a perfect mix.
“Freshman senator stages ‘polka protest’ at Capitol,” screamed a newspaper headline, the story detailing how Chmielewski, the Sturgeon Lake DFLer and orchestra leader, had broken out his accordion and done a special rendition of the song “Please Release Me, Let Me Go,” on the ninth day of the special
It went something like this:
Please release us, let us go:
We don’t want to tax you any more.
To waste our time would be a sin.
Release us and let us go home again.
We’ve done our time, now let us go.
Ernie, you’re moving much too slow.
Ten grand a day is much too much.
Compromise … before we all go nuts.
Chmielewski had friends on both sides of the aisle and worked hard to get important measures passed, rather than focusing on party politics he said.
“It wasn’t as bad as what’s going on in Wisconsin today,” he said. “But it could be challenging.”
In his time at the Capitol, Chmielewski served many years as President and President Pro Tem of the Senate, and headed a number of different committees, including being chair of Labor and Commerce. During that time he authored bills on workers’ compensation, unemployment compensation and was instrumental in keeping the state hospital in Moose Lake open and converting it to a prison. He also persuaded Gov. Arne Carlson to sign the bill authorizing the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.
“I told him, this is so different, it’s the only college in the whole United States like this,” he said. “It’s not just an Indian college, it’s for everyone.”
Nowadays, the political career is over (at least for now) and Chmielewski leases much of his farmland, although he is still the one to mend the fences and fix what needs fixing.
The music, though, it doesn’t stop.
Just like Chmielewski.