Lunch and a Bite of History: Loeffelmacher’s story, continued

NEW ULM — The Brown County Historical Society continued its monthly Lunch and a Bite of History program Thursday with part two of local historian Terry Sveine’s presentation on the life and career of Harold Loeffelmacher, founder of the old time band Six Fat Dutchmen.

Sveine recapped the first part of his presentation that detailed the early life of Loeffelmacher and later expanded into Harold’s and the band’s career after the war years.

The band’s local career remained steady throughout the 1930s and 1940s, but after World War II ended, the band had a silver lining on the horizon.

“The war ended and times were good,” Sveine told presentation attendees. “It was said that people in the U.S. had lived through ‘double trouble.’ Ten years of depression and six years of war. So it was time to party.”

While World War II disrupted much of the music business in the United States, the need and popularity of bands spiked after the war ended in 1945.

Throughout the inter-war years, Harold and the Six Fat Dutchmen played in many venues in New Ulm, including the New Ulm Ballroom and Kalz’s Corner.

Sveine said the band made its big break one day in 1946 when an agent from RCA Victor visited New Ulm.

“If they weren’t the biggest, they were the next biggest recording company in the United States,” Sveine said. “After the war, and the people’s whole ‘let’s party’ attitude, they wanted to increase all of their recordings, including old-time.”

The band was signed to a 15-year contract with RCA Victor in 1946. Sveine said he couldn’t find any sources on the exact amount of records recorded, but nonetheless they recorded hundreds of records with RCA.

“When Harold started with RCA, they didn’t just sign hime to a contract,” Sveine said. “They signed him to a contract and promoted the heck out of them. The ‘Six Fat Dutchmen’ were the biggest old-time band in all of RCA’s stable.”

RCA was pushing the Six Fat Dutchmen in a “big way,” Sveine said, and the band’s new releases and albums were heavily advertised in magazines and promotions. Harold’s and the band’s names frequently appeared next to other big-name musicians such as Count Basie and county guitar player Chet Atkins.

“He is in big company here,” Sveine said. “I just want you to get the fact that this wasn’t just a contract. RCA was pushing the Six Fat Dutchmen in a big way.”

As popularity and promotions grew, Harold was tasked with creating more songs, Sveine said. The need for more content drew the band to Vitak Elsnic, a music publishing company that would become a gold standard of polka genre publishing, and through the company, the band acquired more songs.

But with the band approaching 10 to 12 members, the need for an arranger arose to compose and adapt written music so multiple instruments could play in harmony.

The band acquired a musician and arranger, named Verne Bottenfield, who joined the band in 1948. Another musician named Leroy “Sliver” Dewanz later joined as well and together they brought their dual musical and arranger talents to the band.

“With these two men’s work creating the book as it was called, that is, the written out songs for each specific instrument, was a key to the band’s success,” Sveine said.

The band soon hit the road touring across Minnesota and the country, often making long treks to play.

“When they went on the tours, those boys were all over the place,” Sveine said. “They were playing as many as 325 dates a year. That’s not a day a week off.”

Sveine clarified that the band wasn’t on the road constantly for all of the scheduled dates, but were perhaps for half of tours on multi-day performances at a time.

Sveine said the time spent on the road touring was wild with tales of unkempt roads, near collisions with other band buses and not knowing the location of the next gig.

“It’s a hard life, it’s a tough life,” Sveine said. “You’re playing weekends, you’re playing nights and you’re always gone, it seems.”

Touring across the country drew more listeners to the band, and popularity grew. Sveine said after the band built credibility and fame, RCA began to brand the Six Fat Dutchmen as “nationally known” and “largest old-time band in America.”

“So they’re making some pretty big claims,” Sveine said.

In 1950, Sveine said Harold married his wife, Geneva, and after marriage and the further success of the band, the financial situation with Harold improved. Harold began investing in businesses, buildings and farmland within the Brown County area.

Later, after musical tastes shifted toward rock-n-roll, and old-time music popularity waned, Harold and the “Six Fat Dutchmen” continued to record with RCA and released their last album in 1960.

Record companies still saw value in Harold after he left RCA, and he signed with Dot Records where he’d play 80 to 100 gigs a year, Sveine said.

Harold was later inducted into the International Polka Association in 1975.

“He called that his biggest honor he ever got,” Sveine said.

Harold died Jan. 30, 1988, at 82 of heart disease. On his headstone, Harold’s accolades are listed.

“Look at what he chose to say about himself,” Sveine said. “He had the Six Fat Dutchmen, he played horn instruments, the ‘Bard of the Basshorn’ and he’s in the Polka Hall of Fame. That’s pretty cool.”

Gage Cureton can be emailed at gcureton@nujournal.com.


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