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Neighbors: Hometown traditions capture nostalgia

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I’ve been an admirer of Duluth artist Chris Monroe since I first saw her “Violet Days” strip in the now-defunct alt-weekly Twin Cities Reader and the current Star Tribune, both based in Minneapolis. I’ve carried on that admiration since moving to Duluth and finding her in this very publication each Thursday.

We have a shared fascination with the Busytown illustrations of Richard Scarry, and I am always amazed by Monroe’s uncanny ability to fetch the absurd seams of her childhood from her brain and incorporate them into her strip.

The appreciation grows each year as I find myself less nostalgic with age. And the journalistic bent in my soul has me looking at things more in black and white than idiosyncratic gray.

I recall getting frustrated as a child after my parents shrugged their children off when we asked about the “good old days.” They didn’t seem interested, and I wondered why. Now, I get it. That old stuff just matters less and less with each passing year.

I’m a bit jealous of Monroe, who has hilarious books full of what she has recalled over the years.

Memory also gets harder as the environment around you changes. I grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota. Since leaving the nest, the entire house has been remodeled. The barn fell down. Trees replaced farm fields. Some fell, including the one holding our triple-decker treehouse and another in the front yard we once used as third base for kickball.

I thought of all this memory and childhood stuff after talking with the subject of last week’s column, Norway native Ingrid Paulsen. She talked about how Norwegian customs in Minnesota are a type of time capsule on the old way of life in Norway, when people started flocking to the U.S.

And so it is where I grew up, Montgomery. It is known around the world (maybe) as the Kolacky Kapital of the World, a homage to a fruit-filled bun made by natives of Czechoslovakia (Bohemia) who migrated to southern Minnesota. Just north of Montgomery is New Prague, the rival town.

Ask anyone in the old country what a kolacky is and you get a puzzled look. Try out the broken Czech language we’ve all learned over the years and you get even more quizzical faces.

As you read this, I am probably preparing for another Grand Day Parade as part of the annual Kolacky Days celebration. Once a must-do every summer, I only periodically get to my hometown for the festivities these days.

It’s a unique, impromptu way to catch up with old classmates and farm neighbors and eat ethnic (sort of) foods, including my favorite, the raspberry kolacky.

Not much has changed over the years. You might say the annual celebration is a time capsule of a time capsule. It is a living memory by virtue of not changing much.

The thing about Kolacky Days is that in growing up with it, you tend to take things as the norm while an outsider might find them a bit odd.

I recall taking a friend who grew up in a Twin Cities suburb to the Brass Rail on a hot Saturday night. There was a wall-to-wall polka dancing frenzy to the Larry Novotny Trio. Beer, sweat and concertina. He was enthralled by the absurdity of it all.

I told him our school fight song was the “Redbird Polka” and his bemused look broadened.

I’ve watched former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who has Czech roots, take part in the kolacky-eating contest. You have to eat a set amount of the buns and then be the first to whistle. It is preceded and followed by the The Czech Lites band and polka dancing experts.

The kolacky queen and her court parade around town in traditional Czech outfits. An old high school girlfriend was a reluctant princess. It meant a lot of weekends at other town festivals wearing the distinct, often uncomfortable, clothing.

The parade is a smorgasbord of tractors, fire trucks and music. I recall becoming bored with it some years, when it seemed like an endless truck and tractor pull (which takes place afterward). The last time I was down for the parade, it had an appreciated mix of the big rigs and musical acts, be they sit-down barbershop quartets, Czech dancers or a high school band.

While a lot of Kolacky Days is an amalgam of many festivals in the state, the Czech twist and the kolacky feting makes it unique. Organizers have done a good job over the years keeping the roots of the festival intact.

And thus some of the absurdity.

I hope to see more renegade polka, drink pivo, eat too many kolackies, and take part in the Schleis’ annual post-parade meal. Who needs nostalgic reminisces when you have this crazy kind of tradition every year? I appreciate the time capsule mirror to part of my childhood.

If it ever starts to change, I’ll have to call up the strength of Chris Monroe and capture it.

Mike Creger is always looking for interesting stories about friends and neighbors. Contact him at (218) 723-5218 or