A man and his concertina
The Steele County Fair wouldn't be the fair without a little polka music, and yes, one man in particular along with his concertina.
Throughout the six-day fair that wrapped up Sunday night, Luverne Wanous of Owatonna logged in yet another fair. For the 81-year-old musician, he has been performing at the fair for 69 years.
Do the quick math and you’ll quickly gure out he started there when he was 12.
He’s been dazzling crowds around the region for decades. He has touched many lives all over the Midwest, and especially in southeastern Minnesota.
His first paid job wasn’t actually at the fair, but for the Farmers Union at the Steele Center Town Hall. He made 75 cents. He started with a push-button accordion.
Ever since he started playing, it has always been by ear. “I can’t play by note,” he confesses. He’s only missed one fair - in 2014 - after a botched attempt at retiring.
In 2015, he came back to fill in for another musician, Hans Hohrmann, who missed because of heart surgery. Now both men are back as strong as ever.
For years, Wanous performed on his musicmobile, a traveling music trailer pulled around the fairgrounds by a tractor. These days Wanous finds comfort sitting in the entrances of the Four Seasons Building as fairgoers come and go through the commercial exhibits.
Wanous still gets a twinkle in his eye and a big smile across his face as he plays yet another old-time tune.
Beer Barrel Polka and Blue Skirt Waltz are two of his favorites.
“I get complete satisfaction when I can make a crowd dance and make them smile,” said Wanous, who successfully retired from farming several years ago.
A few knee and back problems have been creeping into his body, but not enough to quell him from playing the concertina.
Besides the fair, Wanous plays around the area at senior dances, birthday parties, nursing homes and even some funeral services.
“No more ballrooms,” he says with a little disgust. “That’s the change of times.”
Just last month, Wanous played “Apple, Peaches and Pumpkin Pie” following the sermon at a funeral service. Some of those in attendance actually got up and danced around the casket.
This year he’s on pace to perform at more than 100 events.
While performing at the fair last week, someone came up to him to let him know he had performed at his wedding 51 years ago.
“I’m just happy to be a part of it all,” Wanous said.
The musician swells with pride inside when he sees how people react to his music. A while back he saw a 95-year-old woman hunched over and nearly lifeless at a Dodge Center nursing home.
“I played a song and it registered in her head as she stood up in her chair,” Wanous said. “It gets me how you can bring someone to life with one song.”
The woman’s family told Wanous she hadn’t responded to any music for eight years prior to him playing. She died five days later.
“The music they like, you can’t take it out of them,” Wanous said.
He has seen other people at nursing homes show signs of life with his music.
“Some are in bad shape,” he said. “I see them tap their fingers, sing with their lips and tap their toes. That’s what makes the heart pound for me.”
Asked how long he plans to keep playing, Wanous didn’t miss a beat and said, “As long as I can make other people happy and keep myself happy.”
He’s most happy with music.
“It puts life in me and puts a tune in my body,” Wanous said. “I also like to keep life in other people,” he added.
As long as Wanous continues rolling out the barrel, he’ll be in hot pursuit of having a barrel of fun and entertaining folks with his old-time music.