The Polka King – A True Door County Character

The late Freddie Kodanko (or Freddie K, as he is remembered around these parts) was a man who wore many hats:  potato farmer, spider dancer, crate builder, bean farmer, ballpark DJ, cat lover, among others. The hat I’ll always remember was a large, blue, puffy, jewel-studded crown. This crown was also accompanied by a long majestic blue cape and generous amounts of quality ear candy:  polka music. For many county folks Freddie K will always be remembered as the Door County Polka King, and that’s a big hat to fill.

Freddie Kodanko with potato crate

Freddie Kodanko with one of his famous potato crates. Photo courtesy of the AC Tap.

My first Freddie K experience is a vivid and happy memory. Some friends and I were strolling around Fish Creek during the Winter Games when we happened upon a truly unforgettable sight. Here was an old man wearing a blue crown and cape over his heavy winter jacket sitting on a rickety old folding chair outside of the Bayside Tavern. His battered boombox was blaring the various oompahs of his favorite polkas while he shook a box of beans to the rhythm. He then handed me two short planks of wood which he asked me to clap together. One was scrawled with “Freddie K” and the other with “Polka Timer.” I marveled at the genius in simplicity, at his obvious unshakable love of polka, and at the visual treat we were all being asked to join in on.

Freddie K was a grass roots polka DJ, but not exactly for hire. He would share his polka recordings where and when he wanted to. In earlier years his “sound system” consisted of vinyl records and an old phonograph player. Sometime in the 1990s he switched to a more convenient hand-held boombox with polka cassette tapes. He would routinely bring his portable audio polka show to local baseball games, various Door County festivals, Valmy’s Thresheree, and even through holiday parades on his own rolling polka float! Wherever he brought his polkas, people couldn’t help but smile and accept the simple joy he offered.

Almost as iconic as Freddie himself was his old orange tractor. One friend explained to me how longtime Door County Sheriff Hollis “Baldy” Bridenhagen had taken away Freddie’s driver’s license back when he drove a ‘49 Ford pickup. From that point on, Freddie’s tractor became his slow but effective legal mode of transportation. Another friend recalls, “Only two things made Freddie mad – if you messed with his music or with his tractor.”  Most locals will recall seeing his tractor parked outside the A.C. Tap, a somewhat calming sign that Door County still retained some eccentric character and Old World charm. Among the cozy clean inns and fancy art galleries around the county, Freddie’s tractor was a reminder that his was a rural community of real people, at times oblivious of the bustling tourism industry surrounding his potato farm.

Just as dear to Freddie was his polka music. The sheer joy that polka brought him made it near impossible for Freddie to stand still when his polka was in the air. To his old friends, Freddie was known to be incredibly light on his feet. Karl Kodanko (Freddie’s cousin) recalls one night at the old Parkway (now the English Inn). The music drew Freddie alone onto the dance floor. He danced and floated solo about the floor, drawing a crowd around him. Soon people were throwing their tap glasses down near Freddie’s feet. He continued dancing and happily jumping around, carried by his love of music. The place really came alive and Freddie continued his dance, never once cutting his feet on the broken glass.

To some, Freddie is remembered as the originator of the “Spider Dance.” Greg “Fuzzy” Sunstrom (current owner of Freddie’s famed tractor) explained the dance to me as a sort of crabwalk stance, down on all fours, where Freddie would alternately high-kick each leg with his opposing arm while happily shimmying around the floor. Karl Kodanko remembers Freddie pulling out “The Spider” at the Greenwood Supper Club. Bobby Schultz, another friend, witnessed Freddie doing The Spider on the ferry deck to Washington Island, but that’s another story. One could say that the Spider Dance is as Door County as fish boils and goats on the roof, though a little less known to some.

In researching this article, I couldn’t help but smile wider with each phone call I made. One could say that the Freddie K story is more like an unending list of individual stories, and, up here, it seems everyone has one. In the last few weeks I acquired pages and pages of these stories.

Bobby Schultz of Baileys Harbor works with the Baileys Harbor A’s, a local Door County League baseball team. In his later years, Freddie was the self-appointed ballpark entertainment for the team. They set aside a special area for Freddie and his sound system. Freddie would play the national anthem to start each game and then various polkas during game breaks. Freddie K, as the local ballpark polka DJ, was a genuine slice of true local culture. He would usually bring himself and his music to the home games via his famed tractor. For the away games, Freddie would often catch a ride with Bobby Schultz or Butch Hugenroth. Bringing Freddie to the games alone was the seed to many good stories.

Bobby recalls many years ago that he and Mark Jonas carted Freddie and his sound system up to Washington Island for the A’s to play the Islanders. Freddie’s sound system at that time was an old phonograph player, which more resembled a centerpiece furniture console and rode in the back of Bobby’s pickup truck. While racing up to catch the ferry, a small car darting across the road forced Bobby to slam the breaks, bringing Freddie’s beloved music player crashing into the back of the truck bed. Freddie was angered that his player might be broken. Once aboard the ferry to the island, he finally was able to test the monstrous turntable. When tested, joyous polka still flowed from the antique music player. Overcome with happiness, Freddie began dancing around the ferry deck. As Bobby recalls, Freddie started doing The Spider and all the islanders and tourists aboard circled around and clapped, joining in on Freddie’s celebration.

Butch Hugenroth, Bobby Schultz’s half brother, would also transport Freddie to some away games. After certain festive Saturday nights, Butch would like to sleep in a little before going to the Sunday game. Well, Freddie would be right outside Butch’s bedroom window at 7:00 am blaring polka music till Butch would wake up and take him to the game. Then, sometime in the mid ‘80s, Freddie got his first telephone. He excitedly made his first call to Butch and played him polka music over the phone for a full hour! Another Sunday, Butch was taking him home from a game down in Kolberg. While passing through Baileys Harbor, Freddie (in his usual sport coat) asked Butch to pull over and let him out to “stop by the boys” (Jeff and Jerry Kwaterski at the Florian Supper Club). While getting out of the car Freddie commented, “I’d invite you in, too, but you’re not dressed for the occasion!”

Freddie Kodanko.

Freddie Kodanko traveled by tractor after losing his license. Photo courtesy of the AC Tap.

Steve Mueller, current owner of the A.C. Tap, recalls how Freddie rigged an AC adapter to his tractor so he could play his phonograph records while riding on his tractor! Steve couldn’t help but laugh as he fondly remembered Freddie pulling away on his tractor and his polka records skipping on every bump. Steve also has happy memories of his father accompanying Freddie’s polka music with his “polka cello” (or “stump fiddle,” depending on who you ask). Freddie Kodanko’s garden vegetables were sometimes seen for sale on a small table inside the A.C. Tap. Steve said some people would even call in and special order Freddie’s potatoes.

The list of stories goes on and, yet, when trying to explain Freddie’s charm, they never seem enough. How can you say enough about a man who once was the main potato supplier for all the northern Door County fish boils? How can one fully convey Freddie’s ties with local history without mentioning how his family lived in the last farmhouse in what is now Peninsula State Park? (See Kodanko Field on Middle Road.) Freddie’s now famed potato crates exist all over the county, quiet reminders of a happy dancing potato farmer who became Door County’s Polka King. At the conclusion of his funeral in Sister Bay his casket was rolled out while the stereo played Roll Out the Barrel. Memories of Freddie and his polkas will no doubt live on forever.

Related Organizations