Builder: Leland Colligan
Leland Colligan sold the first accordion he made with his own hands for a two-month supply of beef.
“I was going to scrap it, but I had a friend of mine that raised cattle to sell for slaughter,” Colligan recalled. “He said, ‘I am going to give you a calf for that accordion.’ I told him that it didn’t look all that good, but he said it didn’t matter because ‘it sounded good.’ So we did the deal.
“We had meat for a long time, man. We had a little freezer, and we filled it up.”
In the three-plus decades since that trade, Colligan has handcrafted and sold hundreds of his trademarked Acadiana Triple Hearts accordions.
Everyone from his cousin Chuck Estilette to Grammy-winning musician Jo-El Sonnier has bought one of Colligan’s squeeze boxes.
Colligan grew up around Cajun French music as he was raised in the family’s small wooden frame house with a tin roof in Carencro. It was here that Colligan was taught how to first play the harmonica, and later accordion, by his parents Joseph and Rena and his grandfather Gilbert.
“I was 7 years old when I started playing a little German accordion,” Colligan said. “Mommy and daddy put me aside more than one time because I was making a lot of noise with it.”
As he grew up, Colligan pursued music, playing in numerous bands around Acadiana. For years, he would wake up early in the morning to go work at Evangeline Maid Bread company. After a long work day, he would stay out late playing music with his friends at bars and dance halls.
But by 1983, Colligan needed a break.
“I was tired,” Colligan said. “But I didn’t want to leave the music all at one time, you know? So I started making accordions in my little shop. It kept me involved with the music.”
“We didn’t have as many builders in Louisiana like we do now,” Colligan said. “When I started in ’83, we only had a handful of people building them. Now, there might be a 100 guys making them. Plus a lot of them are now being mass produced in Japan and China.”
As for the name of his accordion brand, that inspiration came simply from the area where he was born and raised.
“When I first started, I thought about the name,” Colligan said. “Mark Savoy’s accordions were called Acadian so I told him that I was thinking of going with Acadiana since we live here in Acadiana and he said ‘that was okay.’ ”
As for the three hearts that accompanies the name, Colligan said that represents “my wife, my kids and me.”
Colligan has made his accordions from all types of different woods over the years, but he prefers to use walnut. Everything in his accordions are handcrafted except the knobs and metal-plate corners.
What is the most difficult part of the building process? According to Colligan, it is making sure the placement of the finger board is just right.
“If you do it wrong, you will know it,” said Colligan, whose father would test out each accordion for his son.
Colligan makes sure not to rush the process, either.
“It doesn’t take that long to cut it out, but it is the finishing that takes time.” Colligan said. “One day you may wake up, and the humidity is high. You can’t put lacquer on there because it would turn as white as that cabinet up there.”
After three decades of crafting instruments, Colligan is beginning to phase himself out of the accordion business. He currently is wrapping up an order for a friend and no longer has a large stock of his accordions, as he has sold most of them in recent months. Colligan does still have three on display in his shop: a German accordion that is his own and two that he has made for his granddaughter and grandson.
“It is just too expensive for me to put them on the shelf anymore,” Colligan said. “My first accordions I sold for about six or seven years went for about $700 or $750. Now, they run anywhere between two to three thousand dollars. You know, years ago, people would buy them for back porch parties and stuff like that. People can’t afford to do that anymore.”
That doesn’t mean though that Colligan is stepping away from the music he loves.
Colligan has developed a new passion for the fiddle, but just don’t expect him to turn that into another side business.
“They tell me its rough to make them,” he said. “I am just too old to be taking that on, but I will play it all night.”
P.O. Box 451
Carencro, La. 70520
Article by Raymond Partsch III
Photos by Brad Bowie