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Hundreds gather for Senior Day, speculate about polka festival revival

Veryl Hohn, 74, of Mitchell, plays accordion during the Senior Day event Thursday at the Moose Lodge in Mitchell. (Chris Mueller/Republic)

When Veryl Hohn was 10 years old, he picked up his first accordion and learned to play, and in just a few years, the sound of his instrument was delighting dancers at local events.

Now 74 years old, the Mitchell resident can still squeeze out a tune that can bring people to the dance floor.

"I've been at it a long time," he said with a smile and a laugh.

On Thursday, he and his accordion took the stage in front of about 300 seniors who attended Senior Day at the Moose Lodge in Mitchell.

The event has traditionally been held the day before the Corn Palace Polka Festival, but in March the Mitchell Corn Palace Festival Board canceled the annual mid-September polka bash after it decided the event was no longer financially viable.

The festival had been running for 31 years.

Vera Uecker, 90, of Mitchell, had attended the Corn Palace Polka Festival for six years before it was canceled.

"It was too bad," she said. "We will miss all those people who came for the polka festival."

Uecker's late husband, Dale Uecker, played in a dance band in the '50s and '60s and played at the Corn Palace Polka Festival in the early '80s.

With polka music still being played in the crowded dance hall, a few tears appeared in Uecker's eyes as she spoke about her late husband and his music.

Uecker hopes the festival will be revived or another can take its place.

Geddes resident Billee Thompson, 78, has been an outspoken critic of the festival's cancellation.

"There was no reason why they couldn't have had a polka festival this year," she said.

By shortening the three-day festival to two days and only inviting two bands, Thompson said the event could have been financially sound.

"Look at the amount of people that are here," she said, gesturing at the crowd. "And this is just local."

Thompson attended every Corn Palace Polka Festival since it began in 1980.

"People like to get together and see their friends," she said. "It's not only the music and the dancing, it's the socializing."

The smaller Moose Lodge space was appreciated but couldn't rival the Corn Palace. "This is too small of a floor here," she said. "You need to have a bigger floor."

Thompson and Hohn both said the possibility of holding the festival elsewhere -- at the Highland Mall or Davison County Fairgrounds, for instance -- was considered, but neither knew yet if those sites are possible for the future.

A petition in favor of bringing the festival back to the Corn Palace was circulated at Thursday's event. Even if the festival is revived at the Corn Palace or elsewhere, Thompson said, many out-of-state attendees may not return.

"People planned their summers around this," she said. "Whether you can get them to come back, I don't know."

Corn Palace Director Mark Schilling said Thursday it will be hard to revive the festival.

"Never is a long time," he said. "But it will be very difficult."

Schilling is open to the possibility of a group renting the Corn Palace for a polka festival, but he said the group would need to supply its own dance floor.

"Our basketball floor is not suited for a polka festival," he said. "It just takes too much wear and tear."

In the past, the Corn Palace's gym floor was refinished right after the festival, Schilling said. Now that volleyball is played on the floor around the same time as the festival, Schilling said there is no time to completely refinish it.

"It just did too much to the floor," he said.

"Each time you refinished, you could see exactly where the dancers had gone to."