Who was Hugo Helmer? New exhibit at Skagit Historical Museum strikes a local chord


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 is organizing a unique exhibition about this local man who made music and souvenirs for local children.

From Sweden to Skagit

Hugo was known as a musician, but he was much more famous for those who were lucky enough to learn to play the accordion from him.

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

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 liked was music, especially the accordion. He began to teach 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

Striking the right notes: more than just a fanfare

What to do with a profusion of accordionists? Form a fanfare, naturally! Founded in the 1930s and the first of its kind in the United States, Hugo Helmer’s Accordion Band has become a staple of parades across the Pacific Northwest.

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

Duane Bretvick remembers: “I can’t remember a time when we didn’t make money as a walking unit. Hugo divided the prize money among the group, which was usually $ 20 or $ 3 per person, ”which means the kids could go and have fun!

Hugo had high standards and a big heart. Everyone was supposed to practice, practice, practice. Uniforms had to be spotless before the show, and Hugo even kept a pot of white shoe polish on hand! A former student says Hugo insisted that the group “be 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 long lasting memories. Money was tight during WWII, but Hugo still took the kids to Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia, or Seattle to parade in the grand parades. These trips were “as much anticipated as if we were going to New York,” recalls Selma.

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

A man with a vision

Hugo started Hugo Helmer Music because his children needed hard-to-obtain accordions. He was the first to bring television to Skagit County in the 1940s, selling the units in his store.

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

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

For directions on the map, click here. To learn more about the museum, consult the website.

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Patrick F. Williams