Last year marked the last Great Bend Polka Days, as most of the members of the Polka Lovers of America Kansas Chapter have reached an age where the preparations and the dancing are too physically taxing.
“It’s not an older persons sport,” said LeRoy Degenhardt, one of the original organizers of the event.
The long-lasting tradition, 27 years in all, was shaped by a culture that was built around good music, good food, and vigorous dancing. It was an expression of the character of the people that settled in this area.
To ensure this piece of Barton County’s heritage isn’t lost, LeRoy Degenhardt and Marilyn Degenhardt brought memorabilia belonging to the club, gathered over the reign of the Great Bend Polka Days, to the Barton County Historical Society Tuesday. The museum will have them on display for the next six weeks, and they will become part of the museums permanent collection.
Items include a set of both the red and the white outfits club members would wear to the local dance and other dances held all over the state by other chapters. The Polka Lovers Club of America had thousands of chapters around the country at one time.
In 1987, Great Bend held its first Polka Days. It was held in one of the Expo buildings at the fairgrounds west of town. The first year, the weather was wonderful, but the second year, it was too hot, and it became clear if the celebration was going to continue, a venue with air conditioning would need to be found. The Highland Manor, not the Great Bend Convention Center, was secured.
The Degenhardts remembered the year the Highland Manor put in a new carpet in the space the club rented for the annual party. The crew of volunteers arrived on time to put the 60 by 80 foot wood floor together, and when the dancing started, the floor “floated.”
Towards the end, the club members became too old to lay the floor down, but volunteers with younger backs stepped up and installed the floor so the party could go on.
“We and the membership of the Polka Lovers of America Kansas Chapter will never forget the years of support they received from the Great Bend community,” Marilyn said.