LIDGERWOOD, N.D. — In the days following the start of World War II, Lidgerwood was like a lot of rural towns across middle America. The small Richland County town (population 1,042) in the extreme southeastern part of the state was home to people who worked long hours on the farm, but who knew how to unwind when they had the chance.
And for a particular group of people in the county, that meant dancing. In 1871, Richland County became home to the first group of settlers from Bohemia, part of what is now the Czech Republic. They brought with them a love of music, starting school, community and dance bands not long after they built small homes on the prairie. In Lidgerwood, they even built a dance hall they would call Bohemian Hall.
It was there, at one of the many weekend dances in the early 1940s, that Joe and Mary Mikesh would cut a rug to some of the best polka music around — and with them, taking it all in, was their young son Albert.
“My mother was Polish and my dad was Bohemian and they both knew how to dance real well,” Albert or "Al" Mikesh recalled. ”Whenever they’d get the chance and could afford it, they’d go. But they couldn’t always afford a babysitter so I’d go along.”
But young Al wouldn’t just watch his parents dancing — his eyes were as wide as saucers watching the band.
“I’d spend the evening sitting behind the curtain just watching these guys play. I loved it,” he said.
He never could have guessed that more than 80 years later, he would have the kind of music career those musicians at the Bohemian Hall would envy.
On Sunday, Sept. 5, Mikesh will celebrate 70 years as a professional musician. Over the years he’s traveled thousands of miles entertaining people in 13 states and Canada, hosted a polka festival in Lidgerwood, recorded 16 albums and was inducted into the Dakota Musicians Association Hall of Fame.
A natural talent
Not long after those first days watching the band at Bohemian Hall, his parents bought him a button box accordion for $19. After “diddling around with it,” he learned how to make music. At the age of 12, he bought a guitar for $14.95. By 15, he was able to talk his parents into buying him a $175 dollar accordion.
“That was a lot of money back then,” he said. “Gas was 25 cents a gallon, so it was a big deal to get it for Christmas.”
He never learned how to read music, so he played by ear his entire life.
“It was really all about ‘practice, practice, practice,’" he said.
He said by the winter of 1951, he was listening to a polka music show out of New Ulm, Minn., which, at the time, was dubbed “the polka capital of the nation.”
“Every Sunday, they’d play for three hours and I would sit by that radio. I found out I had a good enough ear that if they were playing a song and I was on the keyboard, I could find what key they were playing in. So I played with these boys all summer long,” he said.
By early fall, it was Mikesh’s turn to be on the radio.
The 'Talent Parade'
On Sept. 5, 1951, Mikesh’s parents took him to the Sargent County Fair in Forman, N.D., to compete on a popular WDAY-AM radio show, “Talent Parade.” He made it into the top five that day. Here is a rare recording of host Ken Kennedy introducing the then-16 year old Mikesh.
WDAY-AM Radio Broadcast from Sept. 5, 1951 at the Sargent County Fair
Mikesh said although he was extremely nervous playing for the radio audience, he was excited when he found out he had won. Part of his prize was an all-expenses-paid trip to Fargo to perform on “Talent Parade,” where he got to stay at the Gardner Hotel and an employee warned the Lidgerwood farm boy about the dangers of the "big city."
"The lady who took care of the rooms at the Gardner told me, 'Oh, you better not go down to Front Street,'" Mikesh recalled with a laugh.
After his stint on WDAY, he joined a band with Tommy and Elaine Martineck in New Effington, S.D., and played with that band until 1956. The following year, he started his own band with Jerry Tesch on rhythm guitar, Noel Lawrence on drums, Wesley Wolitz on sax and Mikesh on accordion. Over the next several decades, he’d play with many more musicians and appear on television and radio.
Mikesh’s daughter Betty remembers a childhood of watching her dad play.
“My favorite memories are at the American Legion Pavilion in Breckenridge, Minn. That was a fantastic dance venue,” she said. “The dance floor was huge, and there was a little cubbyhole off to the side of the stage, where all the band members would hang out. All of us kids would be back there, joking around with the band members.”
Dangers on the road?
As busy as he was making music in dance halls, wedding venues and polka parties, it wasn’t all Mikesh had going on in his life. He was farming part time in Lidgerwood and became a husband and father. Many of his gigs were in Fargo, so that meant climbing into his Volkswagen Rabbit for late night trips back to the farm.
“You know, that's something I think about quite a few times. I got really drowsy on the way back from a dance to, but I never had an accident. I did go into a ditch a couple of times, falling asleep, and the good Lord was protecting me, I just know it,” he said.
But he would also occasionally make use of his time behind the wheel to practice new instruments like the violin or the concertina.
“I’d put my knee up against the steering wheel, so I could move the wheel a little bit. I’d be practicing up and down the road. I shouldn’t be telling you this. It’s about as illegal as can be,” he said with a laugh.
70 years and counting
His behind-the-wheel practicing probably led to his next venture. By 1989, he decided to become a one-man band.
The Al Mikesh One-Man Band featured the button box and piano accordion as well as the four-row diatonic accordion, concertina, lead and bass guitar, fiddle, and five-string banjo. Other than a few lessons he received on the piano accordion as a teenager, he learned the remainder of these instruments on his own without any formal training.
Into the 21st century, not much was slowing down Mikesh. But in 2010, he was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma.
“I thought it was the end of the road for me,” he said. “But it’s hard to believe, they cured it in two treatments.”
Perhaps, Mikesh was meant to stick around a little longer and share his music.
And that’s what he’s doing from his homebase in Breckenridge. He said it doesn't seem like it's been 70 years. It's all so vivid.
But he’s not all about the music. After getting divorced twice and becoming a widower twice, he’s currently married to his fifth wife, Alice. In fact, when Alice was first married in 1965, Mikesh's band played at the wedding dance.
He’s also a father to 10, grandfather to eight and great-grandfather to five. His children wrote a tribute letter to him on behalf of his music anniversary. Much of the information in this story is based on that letter. Read the full tribute letter below.
“We’re all so very proud of him,” Betty said. “He’s amazing.”
Mikesh said at the age of 86, he has no plans to retire as long as his “mind stays” and he can keep playing his songs.
Eighty years after sitting behind that curtain at the Bohemian Hall and 70 years after making his professional debut, life is pretty great for the man many still know as “Smiling Al.”
“I'm grateful for my children. And I'm grateful for the life I had in music. I guess I'm really grateful that the Lord let me learn music.”