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Making music: Family comes together over love of accordion
Members of the Henry Blumer family sit in a circle as they practice their accordions ahead of the 100th anniversary of Cheese Days. Three generations of the family will join the group of more than 130 accordionists at Cheese Days in a performance of the Cheese Days song at about 12:55 p.m. Saturday at the Main Stage. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
By Emily Massingill

For the Times

MONROE - It brings a tear of joy to Henry Blumer's eye when he thinks back to Christmastime as a child. He remembers his mother Sadie playing the piano and his father Harold hopping on his concertino accordion. Music, it seems, has always surrounded his life.

And as he wipes away his tears, he sees clearly his three daughters, Becky Blumer, Judy Meier and Julie Blumer, surrounding him, each with their own musical talents. They'll be showcasing those talents at this year's Cheese Days, when side-by-side with their dad, they'll each play an accordion as part of the 100 accordions event to mark the 100th anniversary of Cheese Days. Along with them will be his 22-year-old granddaughter, Katie Meier, making it three generations gathering for the love of the festival and music - and an instrument that's ignited a bond between them.

On Saturday, more than 130 accordion players will be joining the Monroe City Band under the direction of Randy Schneeberger to play the Cheese Days song. The extravaganza is set for about 12:55 p.m. on the Main Stage on the south side of the Square. The group will begin playing from different parts of the Square and congregate to play as one.

"This is wonderful," Henry said. "It gives everyone a chance to get back into it again." He's anxious to be with so many other accordion players.

"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I hope there's quite a few there as old as dirt, like me."

The event has somewhat restored Henry's faith that the accordion is still alive. While organizers were initially aiming for 100 accordions, to date more than 130 have signed up to play. Because of this event, Blumer is seeing younger generations quickly learn and enjoy the instrument that's brought him so much pleasure over the years.

Through the years

Henry comes from a strong German and Swiss family background, and was raised on a dairy farm where he helped his father before taking over.

When he was 9 years old, his family purchased an accordion for $525 and he took lessons at Rudy Burkhalter Studios from Yvonne Metz.

Henry admits the start to his accordion playing was mostly to please his mother. "I couldn't get out of the house before I practiced every day," Henry said, but it wasn't long before he loved the instrument.

At one point he entered a contest from WREX-TV in Rockford where he competed against other musicians with other instruments and won - both times he entered.

Henry played other instruments in the high school band and could mostly play by ear. He had his own dance band, "Hank's Polka Boys," that started in the early part of the 1960s and played until about 1984. With his family farming and milking fulltime, it became hard when weekends would sometimes start on Wednesdays and last through Sunday. But his daughters say they feel lucky that they could attend some of their father's band performances and were allowed little "extras" because of his involvement with the band. Ken and Bob, Henry's sons, also played with the band for a time on trumpet and drums.

Family affair

When word got out that Cheese Days was marking 100 years by having 100 people play accordions, his three daughters came to him and said it was something they wanted to do.

Becky, the eldest, took accordion lessons for a few years when she was about 10. She and her brothers played for the Junior Leaders Band for 4-H. She now says she's having fun getting back into playing and songs from her past are coming back to her during the family's Thursday night practices.

"We were all given the opportunity to experience music and found our way to what we enjoyed playing - it was a gift, really," Becky recalled of her childhood.

Judy took piano for a year and then played tenor saxophone in the high school band. She's on the Cheese Days board this year, and for the past three months, has been learning to play the accordion alongside her sisters and father. She's picking it up quickly and is enjoying the practices with family as well.

Her daughter Katie is also musical and reads music well enough that she's also picked up the accordion to be a part of the celebration.

Henry's youngest daughter, Julie, played trumpet in high school. She played around with her grandmother's accordion in the past, but can also now play the accordion by ear.

"She adds pizzazz," Henry said of Julie. "She's a natural." She's also the vocalist of the group. Her talent was discovered when she was younger and was caught singing in the milk house.

The accordion Henry plays is, and always was, a fixture in the living room. His wife Mary Joyce might not fully appreciate the décor, but the music being so readily available brings a sense of peace and calmness to Henry, who grabs it to play whenever he can.

"Even if I can't play the song - it's frustratingly relaxing," Henry said. He loves the instrument that offers up its own bass on the left, accompanied by the right hand. He also says he likes that there's not always a need to sing - you can yodel along if you like.

Henry is impressed with how quickly his daughters have picked up the instrument he loves so dearly.

"I was totally amazed when the girls decided to pick it up," he said.

Besides bringing his family together, Henry gives credit the accordion with forging new, lasting friendships. He still plays at Squeeze Box Night at Turner Hall on the third Tuesday of the month - and the girls might even join him now.

"You might say I squeezed out a lot of songs," Henry said. "But I still tell my wife she's my main squeeze."