It starts with a handwritten agreement which reads, “I, Joseph H. Farmer, will sell for $4,900 , plus stock. A $200 Down Payment will be refunded if licenses are not granted. I, Alcuin M. Athmann, will take possession September 1st, 1955. If I change my mind the $200 down payment will be my loss.
March 3, 2021 was my pleasure of a ‘sit down and reminisce’ session with Edna Athmann, wife of Alcuin (Porky) Athmann, and now a gracious 92-year old lady of warm spirits, congenial heart, and positive attitudes. Also at the table were sons Merlin, 62; Marty, 55; and Jean Athmann, 62 wife of son Mark who passed away last Nov. 25.
The reason for this amiable session? Athmann’s Inn is for sale! Yes, this 66-year-old Bird Island landmark goes to the highest bidder. The sale includes the tradition-rich Bird Island Ballroom, immediately east of town on busy U.S. Highway 212. The ballroom initiated the popular Polka Fest in 1984 which immediately became a Midwest stomping favorite!
You betcha! Polka Fest, a three-day event held the first weekend in July, featured a variety of Polka Bands from the upper Midwest. As popular as the music were the delicious servings of breakfast treats, tasty lunches and luscious evening meals prepared by the same crew prepping those good foods at Athmann’s Inn, downtown Bird Island. Relates Merlin, “Perhaps our biggest event was 1986. I walked the parking lot counting license plates from 37 states.”
Covid-19 shut down Polka Fest 2020; likely the same for 2021.
Why did Edna and husband get into the food business? Edna simply says, “Because the café was for sale. Also my husband had two years of carpentry work and decided, I think, there must be a better way to support his new bride.” She winked giving me that answer! Also, Porky’s sister owned a restaurant in Lake Lillian, Minn.
So in 1955 Porky and Edna purchased the Korner Café which later became Athmann’s Inn. “But for a long time our patrons simply called this Porky’s place,” recalls Edna.
Marty relates, “When Mom and Dad got into this business, they only expected to be involved for five years or so and then move on to something else.” But so much for those early expectations!
The Korner Café also included an upstairs living area. Perhaps convenient for Edna and Porky — now starting their own family — while also providing breakfast, noon and evening meals to local patrons and highway travelers.
“I’d get up early and do morning coffee and breakfasts; then come down and take care of the noon lunch service; then we’d start preparing the evening foods. That morning shift also included a quick breakfast for our boys before they were off to school. But we had good kitchen help … certainly couldn’t have managed this business otherwise,” relates Edna.
Soon the Korner Café was expanding. In 1967 Porky started an extensive remodeling program. With help of many family and friends, a new kitchen and two food service rooms were added. Before ownership by the Athmanns, the restaurant had become a regular stop for railroad crews, as Bird Island was a water stop for the steam-powered trains in those days. The restaurant even offered mail service. Folks could drop off their letters. The village cop would then deliver to the depot for the 1 a.m. trains which would carry these letters to Minneapolis post office.
In 1973, Porky passed away. Edna and son Mark continued to run the business. They were later joined by Merlin and Marty — two sons who had both attended restaurant and cooking schools. And the popular restaurant continued to grow. During their 1967 remodeling binge, the “Island Room,” the “Bird Room” and the “Red Room” were added.
The Athmanns’ expansion bug persisted. In 1977 the Red Room expanded to provide a new meeting room for the Bird Island Lions and Lioness Clubs, Civic and Commerce Association, plus a facility for wedding receptions, anniversaries, etc. In plain language, Athmann’s Inn had become the gathering place for any and all.
Because of their growing reputation, there was a growing request for a catering service. Said Merlin, “Rather than folks coming to our place for home-cooked foods, we decided we could provide the same service to others at their locale. It began with small company parties and picnics; then into area businesses; then a big expansion with the purchase in 1984 of the Island Ballroom. (We were) rapidly catching on with area seed companies such as Trojan Seed, then RBA Seeds, then Keltgen Seeds — all at Olivia. We were soon serving upwards of 1,000 people at some of their events.”
Adds Marty, “I had recently moved home from college. We could see the restaurant alone wasn’t going to support four families. But the ballroom really enabled us to expand the catering portion of our business. And we were a great venue for hosting large weddings, family reunions, even the new Bird Island Farm and Home Show where exhibitors could set up their equipment both outside and inside.”
“We heard just a few years ago that my dad was considering the purchase of a supper club in Norwood. But some of their Bird Island friends such as the Sheehans, the Schmeltze’s, and the Setzepfandts convinced them it was better to stay right here,” Marty continued. “I’m speaking for my brothers, my sister, our great working crew, and especially our tremendous friends and family who have helped sustain the business these years. We are grateful to Mom and Dad’s special friends who convinced them Bird Island was the very best place to run a family restaurant.”
And who gets credit for the Polka Fest? Merlin says that was the brainstorm of another Bird Island businessman, Les Frassel, who built the ballroom in the mid 1970s and launched the Polka Fest to help sustain his own investment. “So the Polka Fest was already an annual event when we purchased the ballroom in 1984. But it was just a three-day affair. We needed the ballroom to generate events year ‘round.”
I asked the Athmanns if 20 years back would you have ventured you’d still be in business today, or would you be comfortably retired and simply living the good life? As expected, some hearty chuckles and arms in the sky from the three offspring. Wizened 92-year old Edna smiled, “I remember my husband suggesting, let’s at least give this a five-year run. But he didn’t tell me which five.”
Most everyone at the table agreed it will be unlikely for the new owner to continue the name. Even Edna agrees a name change will happen. She smiled, “I’ve worn the name for 67 years. But even those things can and do change. Regardless the new owner or the new name, I’ll forever cherish what and how this family enterprise has enriched my life. And literally the thousands of new acquaintances and happy faces added to my own pleasure.”
They pretty much agreed that even with the remodeling and additions they’ve made during their 60-plus years of ownership of the building, the new owner would likely make changes. But would there still be a special ‘token room’ for the Bird Island Lions Club — embellished with Lion’s regalia including signature engravings of the past 20 years of Bird Island Lion’s Club presidents?
Both Merlin and Marty are past presidents of the club. That list also include Brian Sheehan, Bird Island President in 1996-97 who this year will serve as President of Lion’s Clubs International. (LCI is the world’s largest service organization.)
With over six decades of history, it would be inevitable there would be pitfalls which really tested the enterprise. With unanimous consent they agreed, “We early on learned to roll with the punches. It is what it is. Stay determined. The present is your gift. The future is your motivation.”