Who was Hugo Helmer? A new exhibit at the Skagit Historical Museum strikes a chord in the region


Many people who live in Skagit County know the name Hugo Helmer because of Hugo Helmer Music. But who was the man behind the name?

Skagit Historical Museum organizes a unique exhibition on this local man who created music and memories for local children.

From Sweden to Skagit

Hugo was known as a musician, but he was much more so for those who had the chance to learn to play the accordion with him.

In 1925, Hugo arrived from Sweden with his brother-in-law, Jack, to start a new life in the growing United States. Landing in New York, probably passing through Ellis Island like so many before them, they immediately headed west to work as lumberjacks. Why they went west remains a subject of speculation within the family. Perhaps the opportunity and the adventure presented themselves.

Jack’s sister Gertrude joined them the following year and she and Hugo married and had two daughters, Carol-Anne and Lillian.

Hugo soon realized that what he really loved was music, especially the accordion. He started teaching and his joy was contagious. At one point, Hugo had over 90 students.

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On the move: Hugo Helmer’s group. Photo courtesy of Skagit Historical Museum

Hitting the right notes: more than just a fanfare

What about a profusion of accordionists? Form a marching band, of course! Founded in the 1930s and the first of its kind in the United States, Hugo Helmer’s accordion band has become a fixture on parades across the Pacific Northwest.

As musicians, they were exceptional. “The average age of the players was 10,” says former student Selma Garberg Johnson.

Duane Bretvick recalls, “I can’t remember a time when we didn’t make money as a marching unit. Hugo split the prize money between the group, which was usually $2 or $3 per person,” which meant the kids could go have fun!

Hugo had high standards and a big heart. Everyone was supposed to practice, practice, practice. The uniforms had to be immaculate before the show, and Hugo even had a jar of white shoe polish on hand! A former student says Hugo insisted that the group “look good together, be precise together, be stable together and stay together”.

Hugo’s high expectations taught self-esteem, self-respect, teamwork and achievement, and gave the children lasting fond memories. During the Second World War, money was tight, but Hugo always took the children to Victoria and Vancouver in British Columbia, or to Seattle to participate in the big parades. These trips were “as expected as if we were going to New York,” recalls Selma.

It was more than music: Hugo was there for the children. Her big heart shone in her ability to notice when someone was having a bad day, helping the kids by talking things through.

A man with a vision

Hugo opened Hugo Helmer Music because his children needed hard-to-get tunes. He was the first to bring television to Skagit County in the 1940s, selling the units from his shop.

Although Hugo is gone, his legacy lives on in the music store, still family-run, but most importantly, in the many young lives he has improved through difficult times by providing them with happy memories, a sense of accomplishment and the ability to find strength within.

Discover the incredible life of Hugo Helmer and the legacy he left behind. Museum exhibition runs from June to the end of the year. Temporary hours are Friday through Sunday, 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

For map directions, click here. To find out more about the museum, see the website.

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Patrick F. Williams