Goldade, Bill. "Welk's Home." North Dakota Horizons, 1992.
From inside the faded red barn, the sound of a
lone accordion wafts through the farmyard. The wooden screen door
on the freshly painted white "summer kitchen" slaps its frame
smartly behind another group of people escaping the August afternoon
sun. A smiling volunteer, herself with a bit of German accent,
greets the tourists with a resounding: "Hi! Welcome to Lawrence
Welk's birthplace. We'll be starting another tour in a few minutes.
Please sign our guest book."
Lawrence Welk, America's "Champagne Music" man,
now 88 and happily retired in Santa Monica, Calif., had vivid
memories about the humble farmstead, the many friends, and the
loving family he left behind in Strasburg, North Dakota on March
11, 1924 - his 21st birthday. Today, people from around the world
are touring the farm of Ludwig and Christina Welk, now restored
(except for the barn) as it was in the 1920s.
Since opening in May, 1991, under the direction
of Welk Heritage Inc. (recently renamed Pioneer Heritage), nearly
6,400 tourists have taken the sentimental journey back to the
simple, rugged 1920s life-style that prepared an ambitious Lawrence
Welk for his climb to the top of the musical world and a television
program that has entertained millions of fans for 31 of the past
36 years. Thus far, people from every state in the union, every
Canadian province, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Egypt and
Singapore have toured Welk's humble home.
The farm's restoration does more than celebrate
the success of North Dakota's most famous "favorite son." It also
recognizes and preserves the heritage of thousands of Germans-from-Russia
who emigrated to the Great Plains of North America from Russia's
Black Sea and lower Volga River regions between the 1870s and
Sharon Eiseman, executive director of Pioneer Heritage,
says the restoration has sparked an interest among many German-Russians
to learn more about their ancestors and what brought them halfway
around the world to begin a new life.
"The Germans-from-Russia is a very important part
of Pioneer Heritage because Ludwig and Christina were of German-Russia
heritage. It's a heritage that not too many people have heard
much about. We also wanted to put a lot of emphasis on the farmstead
and the architecture of the house. The Welk story is a much bigger
story to tell with the German-Russian heritage tied into it,"
"We went to the Germans-from-Russia Heritage Society
three years ago and asked for their support, and they have given
us an enormous amount of information about the German-Russia heritage,
including a video that tells about the hardships endured by the
German-Russians through the years in Germany, Russia and then
here in America."
The Germans-from-Russia Heritage Society, established
in 1971, is an international organization based in Bismarck with
1,900 members in 26 chapters: 13 in North Dakota, five in Canada,
with the remainder in South Dakota, Montana and Washington.
Clarence Bauman of Bismarck has served as the organization's
president and in 1987, he worked closely with Marcella (Mrs. Mike)
Volk of Strasburg, and Katie (Mrs. Felix) Wald of Hague, in establishing
the Strasburg chapter, named Swartzmeer Stammhalter Verein (Black
Sea Rootkeepers Society). For Bauman, who has been instrumental
in organizing six other Germans-from-Russia chapters, gathering
historical data and preserving sites before they disappear are
"We had a real fear that if we didn't help them
in preserving the site, it may just disappear," he said.
Based upon what visitors to the homestead are saying
now, the joint effort to save the site came at a critical time.
Rosemary Schaefbauer, president of Pioneer Heritage,
and one of the attraction's 33 volunteer guides, beams as she
recalls remarks made by fans of the ban leader.
"People who had been here before said it's about
time we did something to restore Lawrence Welk's birthplace. They
had been here previous years. The weeds were so tall and the house
was bad, I mean you couldn't even hardly go in. They're just really
happy. They like Lawrence Welk so much; they're happy we're doing
something to restore it. Now people can see where Lawrence was
born and what a humble life he lived."
One thing people are surprised to see is that two
of the site's volunteers know the farms as if they grew up there
- they did, back when their last name was Welk. Sisters Evelyn
and Edna (married to brothers Larry and Jimmy Schwab of Strasburg)
are Lawrence Welk's nieces, a fact that Evelyn says has caused
more than one ardent Welk fan to exclaim, "Oh, I can't believe
Herry VanderPol, Mount Vernon, Wash., a close friend
of the Welk family who has visited the homestead several times,
remembers how the empty farmstead was slowly decaying.
"The last time we were here, we couldn't hardly
walk up the steps (the outdoor staircase leading to the home's
second - story bedroom); it was almost ready to fall down and
the weeds were about a foot-and-a-half high. It was evident that
there was no one taking care of it."
Years earlier, VanderPol and his family were given
the opportunity to buy the farm site from Lawrence's brother,
Mike, who lived there until 1966, when he retired in Strasburg.
"The time we were here before that, Mike Welk was
(living) here. Of course, he was getting pretty old, he couldn't
maintain things anymore. He wanted to sell us the eight acres
(the homestead site) of the farm. We kind of thought about it;
we felt, way out there in Washington, what are we going to do
with Lawrence Welk's farm?"
Less than 18 months ago, no one knew what to do
with the farm where Lawrence Welk first learned to play the accordion
- in the house, in the barn, wherever he could; often to the dismay
of family members. The homestead where Ludwig and Christina Welk
raised eight children (another died in Russia) was crumbling away
after setting empty for over twenty years. Plans to restore it
were five years in the making. Among a group of Strasburg residents
who were brainstorming ideas for a North Dakota Centennial project,
Mylo Zacker suggested they restore the Welk farmstead.
After many conversations, a series of committees
which officially became Pioneer Heritage Inc., began working closely
with Shirley Fredricks, Welk's oldest daughter and executive director
of the Lawrence Welk Foundation in Santa Monica. The Welk Foundation
supported the project, financing a feasibility study that laid
the groundwork for the restoration.
The house has been beautifully redone, complete
with some of the original furnishings used by the Welk family.
Other pieces are on loan from the Yegen Estate (a prominent Bismarck
dairy family) and from individuals in the surrounding area. While
the farmhouse received much attention, other buildings were not
neglected. The restored "summer kitchen" (used to prepare meals
during hot weather, allowing the house to stay cool) serves as
the tour's starting point. The blacksmith shop, where Ludwig Welk
practiced the trade he learned from his father in Russia, (including
crafting wrought-iron crosses used as grave makers) was completely
rebuilt based on old photos and what remained of its foundation.
What used to be a buggy house now serves as a souvenir room where
audiotapes of Welk's band and a cookbook featuring favorite recipes
of the Welk family are strong sellers. In another part of the
same building, the granary is utilized as a theater to view "At
Home on the Prairies," the video that chronicles the Germans-from-Russia
experience from 1763 through the 1950s.
The restoration of the barn will have to wait until
adequate funding - estimated to be $60,000 - is raised. Like the
barn, all of the monies used in restoring the farm are from private
sources. The failed (and highly publicized) federal grant that
would have allocated monies to establish a Germans-from-Russia
museum in Strasburg mistakenly led many people to believe that
the Welk homestead restoration was federally funded. It wasn't.
Volunteer tour guides Ervin and Lucille Hirning
from nearby Hague, enjoy the sense of comradery they experience
with other volunteers and especially the casual, neighborly atmosphere
that surrounds every individual tour - of which no two are exactly
alike. Visitors are encouraged to ask about the Welk family and
pioneer life in general. Lucille says that for many visitors who
grew up in the first half of this century, touring the house with
its 1920s furnishings and appliances, walking around the restored
farmstead complete with old farm implements, and watching the
Germans-from-Russia video stirs their own memories of a simpler
time and place they called home.
"A lot of older folks will start to talk about
their younger years and how much everything has changed."
Visitors at the site bring more than just a hunger
to experience another era. They bring their appetites (and those
of their vehicles) to Strasburg's Main Street as well.
Al and Katie Kramer, owners of Pin Palace Lanes
& Cafe since 1966, are pleased to see more hungry people come
to their restaurant. Al estimates that tourist business has "increased
15 to 20 percent over last year," adding that it benefits other
businesses too. "They come here to eat, fill gas, and we sell
some souvenirs. I see a future in the town of Strasburg (concerning
tourism). We should have done this 25 years ago."
Rosemary Schaefbauer echoes Kramer's thoughts.
"Hey, the whole town has everything to gain. It's
too bad this wasn't started about 20 years ago."
The Pioneer Heritage board of directors is thrilled
with the success of its first season and is gearing up for the
site's official dedication in 1992.
Besides a dedication ceremony, Eiseman says plans
to schedule several activities on a monthly or a bimonthly basis
are being considered.
"We're looking at possible events like Sodbuster
Days, Western Days (in conjunction with the annual rodeo), an
ethnic festival (featuring all types of ethnic foods and arts
and crafts show) and other types of events to relive the heritage
of the early 1900s."
Eiseman adds that "There's more than just German-Russian
heritage in the region. We have Dutch settlements here too."
In 1992, the Welk homestead is scheduled to open
from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week starting May 15 through
September 15, with off-season group tours available by appointment.
Whether you're a fan of Lawrence or want to experience
the German-Russian heritage that shaped the lives of thousands
of families like Ludwig and Christina Welk's, the $2.50 per person
admission is an inexpensive and fun way to travel 70 years back
Reprinted with permission of North Dakota
|A beautiful and faithful restoration
of the humble homestead where North Dakot'a most famous son
grew up has caused Strasburg to become a `must sea' for his
||A life-sized figure of Welk stands in the
dinning room near a pump organ similar to the one he learned
to play as a boy, mirrors stained black from the oil lamps
used during the long, dark winter nights.
|Ludwig Welks blacksmith shop
is slowly being restored with the tools of the trade he first
practiced in a German colony in Russia.
||The sparsely furnished living room also
was the bedroom for Ludwig and Christina Welk. The family
bible - in German - sits in the lap of the mannequin.
|During the summer months it's
not unusual for tour busses and senior citizen's buses to
unload adoring fans at the Welk home.
||In order to reach the bedroom Lawrence shared
with his three brothers, visitors must climb a narrow stairs
outside the main house.
|Past a store room and chimney is the cramped
bedroom the Welk boys shared. A vent in the floor drew heat
from the living room below. Welk recovered from a near fatal
illness in this room, practicing the accordion for his ticket
to a better life.