- Range History
- Mining Features
January 17, 2014 Edition
Cletus and Carol Shoen and their 50-year polka legacy
I’ve written in these pages before about my affinity for garages, sheds, workshops, and the like. More often than not, they are the domain of men who can do things beyond my comprehension, and they fascinate me.
Last weekend we were hanging out in a garage like that, at our friends’ place. In the midst of all the tools and manuals and mysterious hardware was an ancient 8-track tape player/radio. A collection of 8-track tapes were stacked above, covered by years of dust and grease. “Does this tape deck work?” I asked.
We shoved in a Simon and Garfunkel tape, and it worked! Next up was Sly and The Family Stone, which was promptly eaten by the tape deck – beyond repair. Examining the stack of tapes, I said, “The Gizmos? Who are The Gizmos? This tape says it was recorded live during Oktoberfest at Grandma’s in Duluth.” In it went, and it was polka music. Polka music with a lot of humor.
So, while reacquainting ourselves with the finer operations of an 8-track tape player (SHOVE the tape in, YANK it out, insert a matchbook if necessary to get it to play), we’re all wracking our brains trying to remember who The Gizmos were. Our recollections were dim. No one was sure about it. But, on the back of the 8-track it said: “JBM Sound Productions, Cletus Shoen, Star Route #1, Box 112, Orr, MN 55771.” Yes! I had a name.
Sometimes I love technology. I asked my Facebook friends if any of them knew or remembered The Gizmos. I received several comments from people who fondly remembered the unique polka band. One friend was savvy enough to post Cletus’s obituary (April, 2010) for me, which gave me a lot of family names to follow up with.
The Gizmos recorded their one and only vinyl record album in 1969, titled “Gizmo Throws a Party.” Our cover photo today was taken from the back of that album cover. The record producer’s dedication on the album sleeve reads:
“Everybody from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian Border calls him Gizmo. His real name is Cletus Shoen. He plays a Star concertina. He plays a concertina differently. When Jerry Schuft listened to the tapes of this album…and let me remind you that Jerry is one of the greatest concertina players in the country…he commented: ‘Gizmo does some things on the concertina that makes you wonder how he does it, and then he does other things that make you wonder why he does it.’ Anyway we think it is one of the finest concertina albums to come along for some time…fresh, different, funny. It was a lot of fun to record.”
In 1969 Cletus Shoen was 39 years old. He and his wife Carol, then 30, who played banjo with The Gizmos, had eight children. Soon, they would make their home on the Iron Range, where polka was just as popular as it was in southern Minnesota.
Cletus grew up on the family farm in Comfrey, MN, while Carol grew up in nearby Lamberton, MN. When Cletus was in the 8th grade his father broke his hip and Cletus quit school in order to help run the farm. After serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean Conflict, he and Carol were married in Sanborn, MN, near their respective hometowns. Cletus was 26 and Carol, 17.
Both Cletus and Carol came from big families and they wasted no time in creating their own. They and their ever-growing family lived in several towns, earning a living playing polka music with The Gizmos and myriad other ventures, including a stint as co-owners of a bar in Murdock, before making a move to Buhl in 1969, then Cook, then Orr, and finally to Ash Lake in 1976. Cletus loved to fish, which may explain their ever northward migration.
While most of the Shoen household income came from gigs The Gizmos played across the northland and Wisconsin, there were 10 mouths to feed and Cletus and Carol were very enterprising in finding ways to supplement their income, according to their son Roland Shoen, who lives in Chisholm.
Some of our readers may remember a white and orange sign along Highway 53 near Orr in the early 70s that read, “Gizmo’s Enterprises.” Translated, that meant, “We sell stuff.” The Shoens sold Shaklee Products (“And they used them, too,” said Roland), and Kero-Sun heaters. “Every Tuesday I would go with my dad to International Falls to sell heaters at the mall,” said Roland. “We’d drive all the way there, and sit there all day and really hope that we sold at least one heater, which would make the trip worth the time and expense.” Roland said there was an added benefit to being a Kero-Sun heater sales rep. “There were times when the wood stove might not be working so good, and then we could plug in one of the heaters. But we [kids] had to be very careful, steer very wide of it, because they were for sale –as new, not used.”And he chuckled. “My dad always had something to sell.”
Cletus also met and befriended Ernie Lund in Orr, who owned Ernie Lund Equipment Services, and drove a sewage truck for him for several years.
Carol was thrifty and her talent for sewing, knitting, quilting and various other handwork was a benefit for the family. “Every year for Christmas we got new slippers and mittens that Mom knit,” said Roland. She would also take seasonal work planting trees to add a little money to the household pot. For several years Carol worked at Worn- A-Bit in Orr, a thrift shop operated by the Catholic Church. “Father Antus could see that we kids didn’t have much, and he told Mom that if she worked a few hours a week at the store, she could take whatever clothes she needed for the family,” said Roland.
The polka-playing couple with eight children found ways to make ends meet. When they moved to their final homestead in Ash Lake, it was to a small one-bedroom house. “So my dad bought a backhoe and then built a 40 x 42-foot addition. He did everything himself. Then, after the house was built, he used that backhoe to do jobs for other people in the area, like building driveways, hauling gravel, pulling tree stumps. “There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do,” said Roland. “He knew how to make things work.”
In Ash Lake Cletus sold bait and tackle and block ice from their convenient location on Highway 53. The concertina-playing fisherman, his banjo-playing wife, and their eight children had finally found their permanent home.
The Gizmos took their band name from the musical instrument Cletus invented. It was made of a 5-gallon can with a piece of rubber stretched over the top and a rope with a big washer on the inside end, and the other end attached to a pump handle. The whole thing was welded to a heavy metal base. (You can see it in our cover photo.)
Cletus had another “instrument” he used: a wooden soda pop crate that he rested his feet on. He would depress his heels, tipping the box up, and he’d slap it down when he wanted to add emphasis to a note.
Roland said The Gizmos could be defined as “a German polka comedy band.” The music defined them and their playful, humorous and good-natured personalities. Other band members who might play the accordion, the guitar, a brass instrument, or The Gizmo itself, would join them depending on the location or type of gig. They played gigs everywhere, for every kind of occasion – weddings and anniversaries, parties at VFW and Legion Clubs, parades and community celebrations. Polka Fest at Iron World, and every bar and saloon across the northland from Baudette to Grand Marais hosted The Gizmos. For 20 years they played Oktoberfest at Grandma’s in Duluth, and the annual week-long gig at Telemark Ski Lodge in Cable, WI, during the Birkebeiner Ski Race. “The Birkie was a big deal every year,” said Roland. “They played two gigs a day, one from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and then another from 8 p.m. to midnight, for a whole week.”
Roland’s sister, Brenda Broten of Tower, remembers the Birkebeiner, and going along for the adventure when she and her siblings were old enough. “They were always joking around,” she said. “They were not your normal polka band, they were humorous, they would dress up strange. We had a lot of fun after we were grown up, following them around.” She tells of one of their famous songs, the Laughing Polka. One stanza is sung, alternated with a stanza that is laughing. “Guys, men, would be falling on the floor, laughing,” she said.
“My dad was very talented. No matter what the instrument, he could play it,” said Brenda. She said that Dale Holtz from southern Minnesota, who has written several books on polka, called her dad the best concertina player he knew. “He played every day,” she said.
The Gizmos were busy and Saturday nights were always booked. Roland said they often didn’t get home until early Sunday morning, as his parents never stayed overnight after a gig. “But no matter what time they got home, we still went to church on Sunday morning,” he said. “That was the rule. We never, never missed church.” Roland said of being one of eight children, “You didn’t want to be the last one to the table, that’s for sure.” Brenda said that it was a special family. “Holidays, all the holidays, at our house were really, well, really loud,” and she laughed. A lot of people, many instruments, and a lot of music. “My mom had eight kids by the time she was 30,” said Brenda. “Can you imagine?” And those eight kids were born in a 13-year span.
From their marriage in 1956 until The Gizmo’s last performance in 2007 or 2008 (at the Longbranch Saloon in Winton for an Oktoberfest celebration), The Gizmos were a fixture in the Minnesota polka world.
The concertina Cletus is holding in our cover is a Star, which has 88 keys. He also had two Stratavarius concertinas (108 keys), and a Brown concertina (88 keys). “We still have the Brown,” said Roland.”It was his favorite the last few years. He played the Star at Oktoberfests because it was in the key of C. The Brown was an E flat.”
Cletus taught himself how to play the concertina when he was 14, according to Roland, and he also taught Carol how to play the banjo. “He gave lessons to other people, too,” said Roland. “He could play anything.”
For their parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, in 2006, Cletus’s and Carol’s children rented a recording studio in Chisholm and recorded their parents as they played a total of 17 songs. “It took six hours,” said Roland. “They had some health problems by then, my dad had back pain, so they had to rest lot.”
Carol, who had put the banjo away around 1990, “picked that thing up and played it like she’d never stopped,” said Brenda. Carol, after playing with The Gizmos for over 30 years, was “tired of running all the time, and she had carpal tunnel from playing,” said Brenda.
But on this day in the recording studio, they rallied, for each other and for their children. “It was a blessing,” said Roland, as he turned the anniversary CD over and over in his hands.
Cletus passed away on April 5, 2010, just shy of his 80th birthday. Not long after, Carol joined him on December 17, 2011. Roland speaks a bit haltingly when talking about his parents’ 50th anniversary and their deaths. “You feel like an orphan,” he said. “You go from talking to them every single day, to…well…not. It’s hard.”
But there was a gentle smile on his face as he listened to The Laughing Polka, with his father’s infectious laugh, and a few other of his favorite tunes on the anniversary CD.
"I really enjoy talking about my mom and dad," said Roland. "It brings me much joy to tell people about the great parents I had.”
2014-01-17 / Features