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A World of Accordions unites cultures, music in Superior

The old church in Duluth's Lincoln Park neighborhood, where it all started, is being restored for a second museum.

Helmi Harrington, A World of Accordions Museum president and curator, smiles as she plays a tune on her accordion
Helmi Harrington, A World of Accordions Museum president and curator, plays a tune on her accordion in the room she teaches lessons at the Harrington ARTS Center in Superior on Tuesday, Oct. 18.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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SUPERIOR — Cultures of the world meet a diverse musical repertoire at the corner of Belknap Street and Hammond Avenue.

A World of Accordions, 1401 Belknap St., was created by the lifelong passion of the museum’s founder, Helmi Harrington.

“Helmi’s dedication to the instrument is boundless,” said Willard Palmer III, the son of acclaimed pianist, accordionist, composer and music educator. “If you have toured the museum, you can see that there are many different kinds of instruments that are called accordions, and Helmi can play them all.”

Curator Helmi Harrington stands next to “Big Red,” a 10-foot long harpsichord, on the stage of the performance hall at A World of Accordions Museum
Curator Helmi Harrington stands next to “Big Red,” a 10-foot long harpsichord, on the stage of the performance hall at A World of Accordions Museum in Superior on Tuesday, Oct. 18. Big Red was donated to the museum by William Palmer III. His father had the instrument custom made.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Palmer’s instruments including a 10-foot custom-made harpsichord known as “Big Red” are among the collection that features more than 2,000 instruments in addition to music, recordings and reference materials housed at the museum.

Harrington said her passion for the instrument developed early in life.

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When her mother, a German who emigrated to the United States during World War II, set up her own studio in Corpus Christie, Texas, Harrington admits: “I stuck my nose in her business from very early on.”

Instruments and memorabilia are on display at A World of Accordions Museum
Instruments and memorabilia are on display at A World of Accordions Museum in Superior.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

By age 9, she was working with her mother’s slower students. At age 12, she had her own students, and by the time she graduated from high school, Harrington said she managed to save $5,000 from giving 50-cent music lessons.

“And of course, I’ve stayed with the accordion and piano forever; that has been a passion,” Harrington said.

Harrington went on to the University of Houston, where she earned a bachelor’s and dual master’s degrees in piano performance and music literature before entering the doctoral program to earn a degree in musicology after studying for two years in her mother’s native Germany.

Then known as Helmi Strahl, Harrington was among Willard Palmer’s students, his son said.

“This was not ‘oom-pah’ music,” the younger Palmer said. “It was classical music that required great technical skill and dedication to master.”

Helmi Harrington, A World of Accordions Museum president and curator, sits alone as she repairs an accordion in the basement of the Harrington ARTS Center
Helmi Harrington, A World of Accordions Museum president and curator, sits alone as she repairs an accordion in the basement of the Harrington ARTS Center on Tuesday, Oct. 18.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Harrington said after earning her degrees in Texas, she married and moved with her husband to Duluth, where she took over the Duluth Accordionaires and the accordion repair department at Red Wing Technical College. It was there she learned the draw the instrument had for people.

“They allowed me to use the displays in the commons area, which I filled with accordions and other interesting paraphernalia related to that division,” Harrington said. “I saw how people were attracted to it. They came from all around just to look at that display.”

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The museum got its start as a subsidiary of the Accordion-concertina Repair Technician’s School (ARTS), started by Harrington in Duluth in 1994, after her department at Red Wing Technical College was eliminated.

Helmi Harrington, A World of Accordions Museum president and curator, gives a tour of the museum
Helmi Harrington, A World of Accordions Museum president and curator, gives a tour of the museum Tuesday, Oct. 18.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

A World of Accordions became a separate entity in 1998 and the following year affiliated with the American Accordionists Association International, the same year it acquired the musical estate of a world-prominent musician, Charles Magnante.

Helmi Harrington works on a display in the performance hall of the Harrington ARTS Center
Helmi Harrington works on a display in the performance hall of the Harrington ARTS Center in Superior on Tuesday, Oct. 18.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Magnante’s work as a piano-accordionist and composer are credited with helping to raise the accordion from an instrument suitable for folk music to an instrument accepted in many genres.

“The accordions here are here by choice, not by happenstance,” Harrington said. “It’s not a home for misplaced or lost accordions, but for those that teach the history of the accordion in a unique way.”

With about 1,000 instruments in its collection, Harrington said the school and museum simply outgrew its space in Duluth, prompting the move to Superior. However, the museum is up to its rafters again, Harrington said.

A World of Accordions Museum is located inside the Harrington ARTS Center at 1401 Belknap Street
A World of Accordions Museum is located inside the Harrington ARTS Center at 1401 Belknap St. in Superior.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

The former St. Peter's Swedish Episcopal Church in Duluth, 2801 W. First St., in the Lincoln Park neighborhood — where it all started — is being restored for a second museum, Harrington said.

Accordian museum.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

A World of Accordions II will feature the George Curletto collection and other virtual and electronically enhanced accordions as a specialty center in the small church in West Duluth where the museum got its start.

However, Harrington said one of the advantages of the museum in Superior is “perfect acoustics” in the Hanni Strahl Concert Hall, where performances are held regularly, sometimes highlighting the various cultures where the instrument features prominently.

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The iconic sound echoed across the great hall at the Duluth Depot. It was Helmi Harrington on one of the 10 accordions she brought to the Discover History Fair last week.

In 2019, the museum had its first-ever performance by Japanese artists, Harrington said. Mihoko Goto and Chiharu Ebihara performed for a sell-out crowd.

An area dedicated to the breakthroughs by George Curletto are on display in the archives room at A World of Accordions Museum
An area dedicated to the breakthroughs by George Curletto are on display in the archives room at A World of Accordions Museum.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“Culturally, it’s just very significant in Superior,” Mayor Jim Paine said of the museum. “It’s the largest collection of accordions in the entire world. That seems like a silly thing to be proud of, but the accordion, as I learned at the museum, is one of the most common instruments to appear in every culture around the world.”

A display of some of the museum’s instruments is being showcased in the display window outside the mayor’s office in the Government Center.

Helmi Harrington replaces one of the 120 individual bass rods in an accordion in the repair shop in the basement of the Harrington ARTS Center
Helmi Harrington replaces one of the 120 individual bass rods in an accordion in the repair shop in the basement of the Harrington ARTS Center on Tuesday, Oct. 18.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“The World of Accordions Museum isn’t just a building full of accordions,” said Palmer, who donated his father’s instruments to the museum after meeting Harrington in Texas in 2011. “It’s a family. It’s a shrine to the accordion and the great players of the instrument living and dead who have proven its versatility and significance as an instrument.

"When I walked into the former sanctuary and experienced its ambiance, not only acoustically, but visually and spiritually, I realized this was a very special, wonderful place," Palmer said.

Oktoberfest 2022

A World of Accordions is hosting a traditional German celebration starting at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23, at Harrington ARTS Center, 1401 Belknap St.

Helmi Harrington sits on the corner of a pew as she looks over the performance hall
Helmi Harrington sits on the corner of a pew as she looks over the performance hall at the Harrington ARTS Center on Tuesday, Oct. 18.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Celebrate Oktoberfest 2022 with happy music by accordion ensembles and the band.

"Everyone knows what a classic car show is, and this is the first time we're going to invite people to bring their classic accordions and jam in with the orchestra," said Harrington. "We're looking forward to seeing a bunch of classic accordions and still hearing wonderful accordion music of Oktoberfest-type."

Helmi Harrington, A World of Accordions Museum president and curator, takes a quick break while she explains a display during a tour of the museum
Helmi Harrington, A World of Accordions Museum president and curator, takes a quick break while she explains a display during a tour of the museum Tuesday, Oct. 18.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

The "classic" jam session starts at 3:30 p.m.

A video of the Munich Germany Oktoberfest will be playing in the background and typical German refreshments will be available.

Harrington said the public is encouraged to come in traditional German garb like lederhosen and dirndl.

Helmi Harrington, A World of Accordions Museum president and curator, looks up as she inspects an instrument that is on display in the performance hall of the Harrington ARTS Center
Helmi Harrington, A World of Accordions Museum president and curator, looks up as she inspects an instrument that is on display in the performance hall of the Harrington ARTS Center on Tuesday, Oct. 18. Almost every instrument at the A World of Accordions Museum is in working order.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Shelley Nelson is a reporter with the Duluth Media Group since 1997, and has covered Superior and Douglas County communities and government for the Duluth News Tribune from 1999 to 2006, and the Superior Telegram since 2006. Contact her at 715-395-5022 or snelson@superiortelegram.com.
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