By Shelby Pendowski Enterprise intern
Posters around Leelanau County advertise the Cedar Polka Fest as the 33rd annual, but it was actually conceived in 1975 by five members of the Polish Legion of American Veterans with the help of Cedar community members.
“It was a small group of guys that started to do this. It was a big risk, but they did it and they were successful,” said Kathy Hughes, daughter of Polka Fest founder Lawrence Novak. “They were shocked as to how many people came, so they did it the next year.
“They had three successful years and then it rained really bad and they lost everything.”
Following the loss, the festival took a hiatus. During the break, Novak continued to hold the festival near to his heart, while researching and traveling to other Polish festivals.
“My dad decided to go to other polka fests to see how those were operated,” Hughes said. “He said ‘We will be more structured and we will change a lot of things and we can do this again,’ and now it has been going straight for 33 years.”
Lawrence Novak, Ed Fleis and Adolph Novak, along with other Polish community members, created the Cedar Polka Fest that continues today.
In 1982, the Polka Fest was reintroduced to the community of Cedar and in 1989 it became a four-day festival.
“I thought it was great and good entertainment,” Adolph Novak said. “We had people from Poland and we from all over the country.”
Planning the four-day event is a year-round job. The festival board, along with the Cedar Chamber of Commerce, have to maintain the venue and arrange the music, food and volunteers months ahead of time.
Over the years, the board has changed. Larry Bruckner, Ed Novak, Frank Novak, Judy Bugai and Ron Novak are current board members. But this is the final year for Bruckner and Frank Novak, as they will be retiring.
“When I took it, I said I was going to only do it for five years,” Novak said. “I have been heading it up 15 years. I think I fulfilled what I was going to do.”
Bugai, who has been involved with the festival for two decades, said the board is always looking for new members.
Although the board and chamber organize the festival, the fest requires about 120 volunteers. Each volunteer usually takes two shifts over weekend. Next year, Frank Novak said he’ll be part of the volunteer group.
“Every year it has grown, but we are pretty much the same as far as the festival goes,” Bugai said. “You just get caught up in the music and the people and when it’s over, it is exhausting but it is very rewarding.”
The board works a minimum of 40 hours the week of the Polka Fest, but it’s more like 60, Novak said.
“There are so many Polish people here and it is in their blood,” Bugai said. “I am not Polish myself, but every year it just seemed to get bigger and bigger.
“There are a lot of festivals around but this festival draws a lot more people in general because of their heritage.”
The money raised by the festival is used for local scholarships, field and venue maintenance and keeping the village’s roads, lights and sidewalks clean and nice. It also helps the local fire department.
One foundation that benefits from the festival is the Ed and Irene Fleis Education Fund, although it is not the fund’s only source of income. Today the fund is overseen by members of the Fleis family. The fund honors the late Ed and Irene Fleis, who contributed so much to the Polka Fest. The Fleis Foundation board, with help from the Maple City Lions Club, selects seniors from around the area to receive their fund’s scholarships.
The Cedar Chamber of Commerce also awards scholarships to local seniors through Cedar Polka Fest proceeds. This year $10,000 in scholarships was awarded to 16 students.
“I think it (the Polka Fest) is a benefit for the community,” Adolph Novak said. “The money stays locally.”
Although the festival brings in a lot of money, it was started to preserve the heritage in a ‘little Poland,’ for the founding and current organizers, Hughes said.
“His (Lawrence Novak) heritage meant so much to him and he found a way to bring heritage and to raise money for the community in one lump sum. He brought Poland to Cedar and raised money,” Hughes said of her father. “When people come here they say it looks like little Poland.”