Native son: Polka time in Ely

by Charles D Novak -

They must have played polka music at my baptism. It was the first music I remember hearing! When I reached the “age of reason” I discovered my father played in a polka band called the “3 Y’s.” The band consisted of Abby Smuk on accordion, Billy Zupetz on button box and my father Charlie Novak on guitar.
Billy died at the young age of 32 and a fellow by the name of “Devich” joined the group playing base. They were very popular. The 3 Y’s played mostly at the Yakich Bar on Sheridan Street. On occasion my dad would take me to the bar (no age limit in those days!) and the miners would give me their pennies. The old faded “Yakich” sign is still on the front of the building. The bar later became the Portage.
The 3 Y’s were also popular at the Slovenian National Home and frequently played for weddings and birthdays. It was a way to pick up some “extra change” as my father described it.
In those days miners were paid around $40 a week for the dangerous work they did. – hardly enough to raise a family. My father was also a sausage maker at the old IGA grocery store which is now called Northern Market. I often was “volunteered” to help him.. The first time I saw how blood sausage was made I couldn’t eat it until years later.
I know the 3 Y’s made some reel to reel tapes of their music but have no idea if the tapes still exist. All three members of the polka band spoke Slovenian fluently and sang the polkas and waltzs popular in the “old country.”
My mother was close friends with Mary Gotchnik. She was one of the rare female button box players whose playing made you want to get up and dance. We loved listening to her and she loved playing for us.
I had the good fortune to work with Mary at Vertin’s Restaurant. She was one of the most favorite cooks in the kitchen. Mary passed away on February 2, 2000 and I’m sure the angels are still dancing to her accordion playing.
One of the premier polka orchestras in Ely was the Barich Brothers. Bernie on the accordion, Johnny on base, George on banjo,
Popo Rozman on the button box and Jim on drums. My cousin Jerry Fink took over the drum playing later on.
George Barich died in 1998 and Mike Weinzerel took over the banjo playing, Mike died in 2015.
The Barich Brothers were probably the most recorded polka group in Ely. I have all the cd’s they made. They have since been transferred to my I-Pod. I listen to their music when I clean my apartment. Makes me clean faster!
Born and raised in Ely Matt Gouze was the founder of the fabulous Duquesne University Tamburitzans which I first saw perform in the early ’50s. He always introduced his mother who sat in the front row of every performance. Washington Auditorium was always packed when the Tamburitzans came to town They played a matinee and evening performance. Matt died in 1988 at the age of 77. The last time the Tamburitzans performed in Ely was August 7, 2005. My parents and I were there and the group brought the packed house to its feet with their Slovenian Polka Medley
Recognition must also be given to accordionist Joe Baltich who currently gives a monthly concert at Carefree Living in Ely. My mother Amelia (Gorshe) Novak, who is in memory care is brought over to the performance building in her wheel chair. With a big smile on her face she really gets into the polka music. Thanks Joe for remembering these grateful people!
The Iron Range Historical Society just published a new and fantastic book written by Kathy Bergan. It’s filled with pictures of all the famous polka bands that played the Iron Range through the years. Some of the featured bands are Frankie Yankovic, Johnny Pecon, Frankie Kramer and Verne Meisner. I knew and heard most of them except Viola Turpeinen. She was the first recorded woman accordionist! She made at least 90 records!
You can read her amazing story in this book. Her only performance in Minnesota was in Hibbing .She died in 1958 at the age of 49.
The book is named “Historic Slavic Music” and is available from the Iron Range Historical Society, PO Box 786, Gilbert, MN 55741. (218-749-3150) It will only cost you $12 plus $2 postage. A bargain! Treat yourself and get a copy for a polka loving friend!