STRASBURG, N.D. - A gravel route off U.S. Highway
83 rises gradually westward on the landscape for two miles. A
turn north, followed by a short drive and a turn east, leads tourists
to the old Christina and Ludwig Welk homestead.
It doesn't look that old.
The site is modest. The driveway, freshly graded, widens into
a parking lot suitable for parking the most massive of motor
homes. The buildings are a tidy white with handsome blue-green
trim, save for the red barn.
Bright paint also masks the many years belonging to some farm
equipment, lined neatly along southeast fence. Beyond the fence,
the Strasburg skyline breaks the horizon, including the 85-foot
tower on the Welk family's parish, Saints Peter and Paul Catholic
And one unusual building stands out on the Welk property, between
the barn and building market as a buggy house and granary. It
is a bandstand, bearing the name of Ludwig Welk's third son.
Before Champagne Ladies and bountiful bubbles, before TV and
even radio, before hotel gigs and one-night stands throughout
the Midwest, this rural Emmons County locale was home to Lawrence
Welk's first "musical family."
The six-acre Welk homestead site has been restored in recent
years to resemble, for the most part, its appearance during
the more prosperous 1920s. It is under a 99-year lease from
Evelyn and Edna Schwab, daughters of the late Michael Welk,
Lawrence's younger brother, who took over the property in the
1930s and lived there until 1966. It had been vacant for years.
A local non-profit preservation group, Pioneer Heritage Inc.,
opened the site for its second summer season of tours on May
15. Nearly 7,000 visitors toured the site in 1991, representing
each state, all but one Canadian province (Quebec) and 12 foreign
nations, from Egypt to Thailand.
The homestead project - recognizing the area's German from
Russia heritage as much as its famed native son - will be formally
"We are very proud that we can claim Lawrence Welk was
born here," said Rosemary Schaefbauer, president of Pioneer
Heritage, who like many other area natives speaks with a German-tinged
accent for which Welk was so recognized. "But we're also
trying to save our heritage."
The "King of Champagne Music" never got to see the
restored homestead in person. He died May 17, at age 89, in
his Santa Monica, Calif., home - a huge financial fortune and
lengthy life's distance from his south-central North Dakota
But Pioneer Heritage did send videotape of the project to Welk's
daughter, Shirley Fredericks, the family contact for the group.
Her father saw the video, Schaefbauer says: "Shirley would
say when he was watching, he'd get tears in his eyes."
The Welk place has been restored entirely with fund-raisers,
souvenir sales and private donations, including $100,000 from
the philanthropical Welk Foundation. It's a fact restoration
backers can't stress enough.
The homestead became ensnarled in a national controversy in
the past 1-1/2 years. Some members of Congress and President
Bush criticized a $500,000 loan application that, they claimed,
was pork-barrel spending to restore the Welk home.
In fact, the aid was for low-interest, matching loans to help
area businesses related to tourism and for creating a Germans
from Russia heritage museum that, at first, was planned on the
Welk homestead site. The grant ultimately was denied, even though
it met federal criteria, supporters say.
"I wouldn't say it's dead," Schaefbauer said about
museum plans. She laughed. "Hey, we're Germans. We don't
give up that easily." But nobody expects federal aid to
be involved. "Right now we're just trying to focus on what
On his long-running TV program, Welk talked frequently and
fondly of Strasburg and his North Dakota home, where he said
he was taught "to work, to share and to live according
to God's laws."
Road signs recognize the town of about 600 people as Welk's
birthplace. The homestead restoration project started in the
late 1980s after "people would stop in town, and they wanted
to know, `Where was this place?'" Schaefbauer recalled.
Music over farming
Ludwig Welk played the accordion and Christina taught the children
how to dance. But Lawrence wasn't supposed to be a musician.
His was a deeply religious, German-speaking farm family. In
1893, like thousands of other Germans from Russia, Ludwig and
Christina arrived in America after leaving the Odessa region
in the southern Ukraine, to escape increasing czarist oppression.
The pioneer farm - 160 original acres, plus 80 added later -
was to be passed down to the four Welk sons.
But young Lawrence felt uncomfortable farming. His musical
dreams took root while he was convalescing from a ruptured appendix
and resulting peritonitis that nearly took his life in 1914.
To pass time, he played the pipe organ and learned to play his
Later, to get his dad to buy him a $400 piano accordion, the
slight, shy 17-year-old Welk exchanged four years of profits
from playing the accordion at dances and parties in the Strasburg
area, many times in Bichler's Pool Hall (later Mattern's and,
currently, Horner's Lounge and Blue Room).
On his 21st birthday, Welk bid goodbye to his skeptical father,
loving mother and his siblings, and embarked for Aberdeen, S.D.
- where he had friends to stay with, and enough travel money
to reach - and life away from the farm, as a professional musician.
"So you're going," Ludwig Welk told him, according
to "Wunnerful, Wunnerful" (1971), Welk's first best-seller
with biographer Bernice McGeehan. "Well, you'll be back.
You'll be back just as soon as you get hungry." The man
turned to his family. "He'll be back in six weeks, looking
for a good meal!"
Young Welk returned 1-1/2 years later, in a new, paid-for car
and speaking a bit more English. He came back to Strasburg many
more times over the decades; his last visit was about 10 years
His parents moved to town in the 1930s. Welk's father died
in 1937, but not before telling his son, "You surprised
me...I knew the music was inside you...I just prayed you could
have your music and keep your faith."
Welk's mother died in 1940. She and her husband are buried
in a cemetery northwest of Saints Peter and Paul Church. Some
distinctive iron metal markers found in the cemetery were made
by Ludwig, who also was a blacksmith.
The Welk homestead mixes original family belongings (including
dishes Lawrence bought for his mother in 1926) with items purchased,
donated or on loan.
Pioneer Heritage uses mannequins in some buildings, dressed
primarily in period garb. Most noticeable is the figure in the
barn loft, supposedly playing the accordion; it represents young
welk, who often escaped to the barn when his frequent practicing
drove family members to distraction. For effect, taped accordion
music is played in the barn.
Visitors to the Welk homestead register and begin their tour
at the summer kitchen, built to keep the house cool and clean
during the busy planting and harvest seasons.
Outside, tourists see a beckhaus - a privy - at the south end
of the property; the Welk home never had indoor plumbing.
Next is the two-story house, built in three distinct sections
- a tradition of the ancestral Alsatian homeland along the Rhine
River. The downstairs rooms are small. They include the parents'
bedroom, living room, kitchen and dining room.
In the dining room, eyes focus immediately to a far corner
and a slightly-larger-than-life-size cutout of a smiling Lawrence
Welk, in full conducting garb. "He looks so alive,"
Schaefbauer said. "And his eyes just seem to follow you."
A pump organ rests in another corner. Nearby, soft strains of
Welk versions of songs such as "Don't Sit Under The Apple
Tree," "Paloma Blanca" and "Getting to Know
You" appear to come from an old phonograph (the source
is a nearby, hidden cassette player).
The home interior is cool, even on a hot day. A wall cutaway
in the small entryway reveals the reason: Clapboard siding hides
a thick wall of sod-like bricks the Welks used to build the
house because wood wasn't available.
Actually, the bricks are a mix of native clay and straw, set
in the sun to dry. A similar mud mixture was used as mortar,
and a clay-lime mixture - "laama" - was smeared on
the finished walls. Before the Welks were able to add wood siding,
the adobe walls had to be coated with this substance and maintained
An exterior stairwell leads to the attic, first used for storage.
Later, as the family grew, the upstairs included a single bedroom
for Lawrence Welk and his three brothers. An old accordion -
similar to that owned by Ludwig Welk - sits in an old corner
The bandstand was built and dedicated in 1989 as a Strasburg
centennial project, and later moved to the Welk homestead.
Other outbuildings, reconstructed at the site of their original
foundations, include the blacksmith shop. At the combination
granary-buggy house, tourists can view videos about Germans
from Russia or about Welk himself on one side, and purchase
souvenirs, from T-shirts and plates to video and audio tapes,
on the other.
The current barn, moved to the Welk site in the 1950s, has
Though Welk's older, loyal following gradually dwindles, Schaefbauer
believes the Welk homestead to be a viable tourist attraction
for decades to come. The Germans from Russia connection is an
important part of that draw, she adds.
"I'm 54," Schaefbauer said. "Add 20 years to
my age. My age group, they're still going to be coming out here,
if they're like me, anyway."
And when visitors leave the homesite, they can imagine the
morning of March 11, 1924, when Welk bid farewell to his family
and the farm.
He walked to a buggy with a small valise in one hand, his piano
accordion in another, train fare in his pocket and three $1
bills pinned to his inside coat pocket. Then he rode down the
road leading to Strasburg:
"I was filled with a mixture of emotions -
excitement, hope, joy, and a small tinge of sadness. Occasionally,
I would turn around and look back toward the farmhouse. All
the rest of the family had returned to their chores, but my
mother stood out where she could see me as I drove down the
road; and whenever I turned around she would withdraw her hands
from beneath her white apron and wave both arms in the air.
I waved back, until finally I came to a turn in the road...and
I could see her no more."
Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.
Ludwig and Christina
Birthplace of Lawrence Welk
When: Through Sept.
15; by appointment dur-
Time: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission: $2.50 adults;
free to ages 17 and
Information: (701) 336-
cutout of Lawrence Welk presides over the dining room
of his restored boyhood home. The pump organ is similar
to one in the original Welk farmhouse.
many times in this Strasburg dance hall. It's now called
mannequin, representing a young Lawrence Welk, greets
visitors to the Welk family farm. Recorded music wafts
from the barn.
of Linton, N.D., snaps a picture of Bob and Delia Kallock,
Seattle, in front of the Ludwig and Christina Welk house.
The Welk farm
lies within view of Strasburg in extreme south-central
North Dakota. Pioneer Heritage Inc. has restored the home