It's New Year's Eve, 1973, and Walter Spack loads his old maroon station wagon with a drum set, tambourine, trumpet, bass, accordion, sheet music and his three children Joe, 10; Carol, 16; and Walter, 13; and nephew Tommy Krutsick, 13.

They set off through a snowstorm from their Lansford home to Henning's Hotel in Jim Thorpe for the fledgling Villagers polka band's very first professional gig.

Joe, little trouper that he was, had a toothache, but still played the tambourine that night, with Carol on the accordion, Walter on the drums and Tommy on bass.

"From then on, it just kept on going," Spack says.

The band, which eventually became the "Pennsylvania Villagers," went on to record such hits as Polka Carousel, Happy Andrew, and the Happy Tappy. Today, it features Joe on trumpet and vocals; Carol (now Carol Hunadi) on accordion; Joe Ogozalek on trumpet and vocal; Freddie Kitchen on accordion; Ed Kozel on bass; and Andrzej Chwistek on drums.

Spack, now 80, continues to serve as manager.

Growing up in the Andrewsville section of Lansford, Spack says he was drawn to the polka bands that played at local church picnics.

"I wanted to play, and I couldn't, because my parents couldn't afford the lessons," he says.

Spack made sure his children would be given the opportunity he missed.

"I started my kids when they were in grade school," he says. "I put them together (as a band) when Joe was only 10 years old."

The band was more successful than he ever imagined.

"I guess it was just the push behind them," he jokes. "I didn't give up on them."

Spack was adamant that his talented children practice.

"He's the one who pushed us as kids to take lessons," says Hunadi. "He'd say 'You're not quitting'."

Spack had worked at Bethlehem Steel with a man who had a polka band. That prompted him to form his own, home-grown band, Hunadi says.

Asked how she came to choose the accordion, Hunadi says "he (Spack) chose it for me. I was 8 or 9 years old, and one day he said 'You're going to take accordion lessons'."

Among Hunadi's favorite band memories are the "good, old-fashioned church picnics in Lansford and Coaldale ... Saint Cyril & Methodius (in Coaldale) and Saint Michael's (in Lansford)."

"We made our first tape it was a cassette tape called 'First and Favorites.' It had a picture of the No. 6 coal breaker on it," Spack recalls.

That was in 1993. The band went on to produce albums such as "Polka Carousel" in 1995, "Enjoy Polka Music" in 1997, "Polkas Bring Sunshine And Smiles" in 2000, and "Polka With a Smile" in 2005.

The selections on the albums include some originals. Hunadi wrote Carousel, Spack wrote Polka Fiddles and the Happy Andrew polka.

The Pennsylvania Villagers play at venues within about a 100-mile radius of the Panther Valley.

"The farthest we go is Ocean City, Md.," Spack says. "We're booked there every year for their Octoberfest."

On June 19, the band will play from 3-6 the Animal Awareness Day event at the Grove Park in Lehighton.

"Our goal is to keep the tradition going," Hunadi says. "I always tell my kids, 'Remember, polka is a part of you'."