By Tim Krohn
NICOLLET — When the distinct oompah sounds come ringing down the street, everyone on the parade route knows the Schell’s Hobo Band is on its way.
The signature music of the Hobos is a staple of community events and an integral part of the New Ulm brewery.
This week, the Hobos lost their founder.
Les Magers, the Nicollet man who started the band 60 years ago, died Wednesday at age 92.
Magers, who played the tuba in an Army Band in one of the coldest spots on Earth, swore off music after the service — but only for a while.
“He always said you can do a lot of other things, but once you learn music, it’s always with you in life. Music was most of his life,” said his son Dwayne Magers of Nicollet.
Les was in the 85th Army Band for five years during World War II, serving three years in Kodiak, Alaska.
When he got out of the service, he worked as a butter maker at the Vernon Center Creamery, and said he had no interest in picking up a horn again.
But two years later, he got the itch to play and got some family members and Army buddies together to play at a VFW. When they asked what to wear, he told them “whatever you wouldn’t wear otherwise.”
Thus started the rag-tag hobo look that would eventually garner them their Hobos name.
At their first parade appearance, in Glencoe, the truck that was to carry them never showed, forcing the eight-member group to walk the parade route and earning them an award against some 100-member bands.
Ted Marti of Schell’s Brewery in New Ulm said the Hobos are closely identified with the brewery.
Marti’s grandfather, Al Marti, picked up the sponsorship of the band a couple of years after it started in 1946, changing the name from the Nicollet Novelty Band to the Schell’s Hobo Band.
The brewery bought some fancy marching band uniforms for them. They wore them exactly once, before returning to the hobo outfits parade-goers had come to expect.
“Parades were huge and it was a great way to get our brand out there,” Ted Marti said. “What I’ve always admired about them is the music has always been impeccable. There are only six or eight guys, but they always sound like a full-fledged band.”
The Hobos play at brewery events and part of the brewery’s museum is dedicated to the band.
“Les has always been a great friend. It’s a sad day. They’re an integral part of our brewery.”
Gary Schmidt of Schmidt’s Meat Market said Les and the Hobos made Nicollet proud.
“They’re just a real institution. They’ve played every Friendship Days parade since it started. When you hear that one standard song they have (the Barnum and Bailey Favorite March), you know they’re coming down the street.”
Over the years, the Hobos have played from 15 to 100 engagements a year. More than 100 musicians have passed through the band with a core group of about a dozen at any given time. The band won numerous awards and produced three albums and a recent CD.
In 1995, the Hobo Band was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame.
Les last played with the Hobos in the late ’80s. At about that time Dwayne began playing with the Hobos and still does.
He still plays the same sousaphone his dad started with. The instrument was nearly destroyed in a house fire years ago, but Les had it rebuilt.
“I might retire it and put it in the museum at Schell’s,” Dwayne said. “But maybe not. There’s a lot of memories in it.”
Dwayne said the band, in the heydays of the ’50s and ’60s, had offers from major companies who wanted to sponsor them and a few promoters who proposed national tours. But the Hobos never wanted to stray too far from their Nicollet-New Ulm roots.
Dwayne said the band’s success is tied to their enjoyment of the music.
“Their style of music was something people enjoyed to listen to. They liked to clown around and have a good time. That’s what made (Les) happy, making people happy.”
Les Magers worked much of his career at the Co-op Oil Co. in Nicollet. He had recently moved into the Benedictine Living Center in St. Peter. Funeral services are 11 a.m. Saturday at Trinity Lutheran Church in Nicollet.