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Welk homestead more than bubbles

Isern, Tom. "Welk homestead more than bubbles." Bismarck Tribune, 27 July 2013.


On July 12 the board of the State Historical Society of North Dakota convened in Strasburg to gauge public sentiment on the prospective purchase of the Ludwig and Christina Welk Homestead, in Emmons County. This is the site generally known to the public as the birthplace of Lawrence Welk, the nationally significant entertainer and North Dakota Roughrider.

The Welk Homestead is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is instructive to examine the paperwork that placed the site on the register, especially in the light of recent discussion of its proposed purchase. Some say, the fame of Lawrence Welk is fading, and the site has lost its significance.

Such assertions are uninformed and untrue. The site is not listed on the National Register under Criterion B, for association with a famous person. It is listed under Criterion A, for association with historic events (German-Russian settlement), and under Criterion C, for architectural design (particularly the earth-brick walls of the farmhouse). So the proposition, as provided by the legislature, is that the SHSND might purchase the Welk Homestead and interpret it exactly according to its recognized themes of significance.

The sentiment expressed by a roomful of citizens in Strasburg, without exception, was positive. It also was informed sentiment; Representative Mike Brandenburg and Senator Robert Erbele were there to brief the board and the public as to legislative intent. Senator Erbele, incidentally, spoke with remarkable eloquence about the need to preserve an irreplaceable and endangered site of heritage.
An active nonprofit group called the Tri-County Tourism Alliance, formed to promote heritage tourism and to brand Emmons, Logan, and McIntosh counties as "German-Russian Country," has called on the state to support its efforts by making the Welk Homestead a state historic site.

The establishment of this state historic site is, undeniably, a matter of local benefit from state expenditure. It is perfectly legitimate for citizens to scrutinize the proposition critically. Let us, therefore, do that, in the context of the historic site program of the SHSND.

The society lists on its website forty-four state historic sites. Of these, not a single one is located in Emmons, Logan, or McIntosh counties. The appeal of the Tri-County group for some gesture of state support thus is legitimate.

Of the forty-four state historic sites, not a single one interprets homesteading and pioneer agriculture. The state's most fundamental industry and way of life is absent from this realm of heritage conservation.

Of the forty-four historic sites, not a single one deals with the Germans from Russia, the state's largest ethnocultural group. This is a startling omission.

These three points considered, suddenly state purchase of the Welk Homestead appears to be a strategic act, addressing serious omissions in the historic site program.

The SHSND board, then, took wise action on July 12. It voted unanimously to proceed with fact-finding to determine, as instructed by the legislature, the costs of redressing deferred maintenance at the Welk site, and to explore local sources of assistance. This is good governance.

(Tom Isern is a professor of history at North Dakota State University.)

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