By Linda Scherer
WINSTED, MN For more than 40 years, Ambrose Lewandowski of Winsted put away his accordion, choosing farming over his love of old-time music.
“I knew I couldn’t make a living playing (the accordion), so I just quit and went into farming,” Lewandowski said.
After helping on his father’s dairy farm from a very young age, and then, later, running his own 240-acre dairy operation for many years, Lewandowski finally decided to retire in 1983 and take life a little easier.
He and his wife, Dolores, sold their farm and dairy cows, and moved to a home in Westgate.
“We were all wondering what Dad was going to do when he retired because all he had ever known was farm work,” Lewandowski’s daughter, Joyce Schultz of Winsted said. “He had no hobbies, no interests that we were aware of.”
The family was amazed one day when their father picked up Schultz’s accordion and started to play.
“He had never mentioned that he was interested in the accordion, other than he wanted me to learn how to play it,” Schultz said.
When Schultz was 8 years old, Lewandowski had given her an accordion and for two years drove her to Waverly for accordion lessons.
“I don’t play at all, but I always thought I should, just for him,” Schultz said.
It was apparent to the family watching Lewandowski play that he had played before.
Eventually, they were to learn that their father had actually played professionally when he was much younger.
Lewandowski’s parents, George and Nancy Lewandowski of Winsted, had bought him his first accordion when he was just 8 years old.
It was a small 12-base accordion.
“I liked it (accordion) before I even started,” Lewandowski said.
In his early years, Lewandowski spoke Polish before English and attended a small school called South Grass Lake, not too far from his parents’ farm near Carlson Orchard Bakery and Restaurant.
For entertainment, the family would go to home parties.
“They would take all of the furniture out of one room and dance,” Lewandowski said. “They would have an accordion and a fiddle. It was a lot of fun.”
Lewandowski’s favorite music was the polka.
One neighbor, Lewandowski recalled, had a barn dance every week in June.
“I was young then. That was in the early ‘30s,” Lewandowski said. “The Littfin boys had an orchestra there. A four-piece band with an accordion, drum, violin, and trumpet. I saw the accordion and I didn’t care if I played with a band or by myself. I just wanted to play.”
Learning how to play the accordion didn’t seem to be too difficult for Lewandowski, who taught himself how to play.
“I suppose if you make up your mind you want to learn it, you are going to learn it,” Lewandowski said. “I didn’t even think of it being hard.”
He was about 15 years old when he had his first professional job.
“I got 50 cents, playing for four hours. It was a dance in a granary of one of our neighbors,” Lewandowski said.
He continued to play professionally until be was about 20 years old, then put away his accordion, devoting all of his energy to running his farm just west of Winsted with his wife, Dolores, and raising three children.
But at 62, Lewandowski got another chance to return to playing the old time and country music he had loved years before.
He began practicing with Schultz’s accordion.
Then, he started purchasing other accordions, looking for just the right sound.
He ended up trading the accordion seven different times until he found the right one.
“The sound I wanted wasn’t in one, so I just kept trading until I bought what I liked,” Lewandowski said.
He settled on a very expensive, 120-base Excelsior accordion, which was brand new at the time. It is still the one he plays today.
He would play for family gatherings, and at Christmas time Schultz remembers singing Christmas carols along with her dad playing the accordion.
By the age of 66, Lewandowski was ready to begin his second career in music. He was hired to play his accordion for a neighbor’s New Year’s Eve party in 1987.
“And from there it just kept going,” Lewandowski said. “Many times I would play eight jobs in one week. Sometimes in the afternoon, and sometimes in the evening.”
Some of the places Lewandowski remembers playing at were the Bayrischer Hof in Montrose for 11 years, Carlson Orchard for 15 years, at nursing homes, senior dances and birthday parties, Pola-Czesky Days in Silver Lake, at the Blue Note, the Pla-Mor Ballroom in Glencoe, at the Polka Fest in Gibbon, Polka Fest Days at Bird Island, and VFW halls in Minneapolis.
Lewandowski’s wife was his biggest fan.
“Dolores came every time. She never missed,” Lewandowski said of his wife, who passed away in 2006.
In 2008, Lewandowski made a CD he dedicated to his wife.
It is currently being sold at Keaveny Drug in Winsted.
Lewandowski is glad he made the CD when he did.
Since October he has not been feeling well, but he is hoping with warmer weather he will be back out entertaining in the spring.
Some of the songs on the CD are sung in Polish, as well as in English, with polkas, waltzes, and some country tunes.
Lewandowski’s favorite song on the CD is “Johnny’s Knockin.”
Ambrose and Dolores have three children.
• Larry is married to Laurie and they live in Detroit Lakes.
• Joyce is married to Donald Schultz and they live in Winsted.
Patty is married to Mike Kelly and they live in Cokato.
Ambrose and Dolores have seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.