Many folks who live in Skagit County know the name of Hugo Helmer because of Hugo Helmer Music. But who was the man behind the name?
The Skagit Historical Museum is hosting a unique exhibit about this local man who made music and memories for local kids.
From Sweden to Skagit
Hugo was known as a musician, but he was much more to those who had the fortune 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 rapidly growing United States. Landing in New York, likely going through Ellis Island like so many before them, they immediately made their way out west to work as loggers. Why they went west remains a subject of speculation among family. Perhaps opportunity and adventure beckoned.
Jack’s sister, Gertrude, joined them the following year and she and Hugo were married and had two daughters, Carol-Anne and Lillian.
Hugo soon realized that what he really loved was music, particularly the accordion. He began to teach, and his joy was infectious. At one point, Hugo had more than 90 students.
Hitting the right notes: more than just a marching band
What does one do with a profusion of accordion players? Form a marching band, naturally! Established in the 1930s and the first of its kind in the US, Hugo Helmer’s Accordion Band became a fixture in 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 win money as a marching unit. Hugo would divide the prize money among the band, which usually amounted to $2 0r $3 dollars a person,” meaning the kids could go and have some fun!
Hugo had high standards and a big heart. Everyone was expected to practice, practice, practice. Uniforms were to be immaculate before the parade, and Hugo even kept a jar of white shoe polish on hand! A former student says that Hugo insisted that the band “look good together, be accurate together, be steady together, and stay together.”
Hugo’s high expectations taught self-esteem, self-respect, teamwork and accomplishment, and gave the kids great lasting memories. In the Second World War, money was tight, yet Hugo still got the kids up to Victoria and Vancouver in British Columbia, or to Seattle to march in the big parades. Those trips were “as much anticipated as if we were going to New York City,” remembers Selma.
It was about more than music: Hugo was in it for the kids. His big heart shone through in his ability to notice when someone was having a bad day, helping the kids by talking stuff through.
A man with vision
Hugo opened Hugo Helmer Music because his kids needed hard-to-get accordions. He was the first to bring TV to Skagit County in the 1940s, selling the units through his shop.
While Hugo may be gone, his legacy lives on in the music store, still run by family, but most importantly, in the many young lives he made better in tough times by giving them the gift of happy memories, a sense of accomplishment and the ability to find strength in themselves.
Check out the amazing life of Hugo Helmer and the legacy he left behind. Museum exhibit runs June to the end of the year. Temporary hours are Friday to Sunday, 11:00 am to 4:00 pm.