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Bay City institution goes down dancing a polka

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

For more than a century, Pulaski Hall has been a cornerstone of Bay City’s Polish community. But Thursday was the last dance.

The beer and the stories flowed at Pulaski Hall as the band played polka after polka.

“This was the place everybody stopped after work before they went home and after church,” Tom Reeter recalled.    

He’s been playing in polka bands at Pulaski Hall since the 1950’s, but he says times have changed.

“Lately, just like other organizations, veterans’ organizations, church organizations,” says Reeter, “the young people aren’t interested and we are dying off.”

Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Pulaski Hall has been a stable pillar in Bay City's changing southside neighborhood.

The hall opened in 1902.  It grew and expanded overtime as Bay City grew.

On the first floor are the bar and the dining hall, but away from the band and the bar, up a very steep set of stairs, is the old ballroom.

It’s been many years since the ballroom saw better days.

But on this night, Kendra Agdanowski-Barker is slowing twirling in the half lit room  

Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Kendra Agdanowski-Barker dances in the old Pulaski Hall ballroom

With the faint sound of the polka band downstairs, she’s dancing by herself on the same floor her parent’s danced their first dance as husband and wife back in 1950.

She says the hall was a key part of a very close knit community.

“You just lived in the south end, went to school in the south end, went to weddings in the south end.  It was a different era,” says Agdanowski-Barker. “Now out of the 7 children that are in our family, there’s not one of us who lives in the south end. My parents don’t even live in the south end.”

And that’s the problem.

Most of the people here tonight moved away from the neighborhood years ago when they were children or later as adults. Fewer Polish families nearby meant fewer wedding receptions in the hall. The crowds at polka nights thinned out.

Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
From the first note, people danced.

Ronald Sobczak is the president of the St. George Society that runs Pulaski Hall. He’s the third generation of his family at the hall.  And it’s closing on his watch. 

“It is tough.  It was a tough decision that we had to make,” says Sobczak. “But economics dictate. I hate to say it. Economics dictate.”

The society owes more than $20,000 in back taxes.  And the building needs a new roof that the society can’t afford.

The building has been up for sale for a year.

Ann Bankowski is the president of the Michigan division of the Polish American Congress. 

She says many Polish communities in Michigan are struggling to maintain their traditions and pass them down to the next generation.

“It’s just kind of an evolution that’s happening,” says Bankowksi.

Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
David Idzior gives his son, Blaize, an upclose look at the musical instruments.

Back at the hall, while the band took a break, David Idzior took the opportunity to show his very young children the accordions, saxophones and other instruments. 

“I’d really like to get back to my roots, get back to the heritage of the Polish community in Bay City,” says Idzior. “I think a lot of my generation don’t like to polka dance, don’t like to get into it.  It’s sad that this place is closing because of that.  I’d like to pass the traditions down to my children.”

"If you got a request, keep it to yourself,”  band leader Steve Drzewicki joked with the crowd, that had grown to the point people were spilling out the door. 

The dancers didn’t seem care. 

They were just glad to dance one last polka at Pulaski Hall. Watch here:

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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