A champagne toast to N.D.’s Welk plans

Dennis, Tom. "A champagne toast to N.D.'s Welk plans." Grand Forks Herald, 3 July 2013.

Bob Dylan’s boyhood home in Hibbing, Minn., is privately owned. No one’s thinking of turning it into a state-run tourist attraction, despite Dylan’s status as one of the 20th century’s most popular and important musicians.

So, why should North Dakota support the State Historical Society’s proposal to buy the boyhood home of Lawrence Welk?

Here’s why:

Because it’s not just about Lawrence Welk.

It’s about Lawrence Welk and pioneer farming and the immigration history of Germans from Russia, all in one.

True, the house where Dylan grew up is privately owned. But here are just a few of the tourist attractions that are open for business in northern Minnesota:

There’s the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm, Minn., Minnesota’s largest museum complex outside of the Twin Cities. The center “tells the story of the Iron Range, its people and its culture,” the center’s website notes.

There’s the Minnesota Museum of Mining in Chisholm. There’s the Minnesota Forest History Center near Grand Rapids, Minn.

And there are the Bois Forte Indian Heritage Museum, the Virginia Area Historical Society Museum, the Hull Rust Mahoning View Mine and a dozen more.

As the State Historical Society of North Dakota knows, Welk’s appeal on its own couldn’t sustain an attraction. That’s why the society has bigger plans for the property, which would cost around $100,000 in money that the 2013 Legislature provided. (At its July 12 meeting, the society’s board will consider finalizing the purchase.)

“The organization proposes to use home in the tiny town of Strasburg to also highlight the importance of agriculture and the region’s German-Russian heritage,” The Associated Press reported.

As the Iron Range attractions show, tourists enjoy sites that entertain and enlighten on American heritage. And if the sites feature key elements of our heritage that previously have been neglected, all the better.

Such is the case with both pioneer farming and the history of Germans from Russia.

Take the latter of those topics. Lawrence isn’t the only North Dakota celebrity to hail from that background. Angie Dickinson does, too.

Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. of New Mexico also boasted Germansfrom-Russia heritage. Most Americans remember him by his stage name: John Denver.

Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today; former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle; and according to the 2000 Census, some 43 percent of North Dakotans have German ancestry as well.

“Approximately one million descendants of these Russian Germans live in the United States,” Wikipedia reports. Sounds like more than enough potential visitors to make a heritage site a going concern.

Back in 1991, a proposed federal grant to build such a site also got mislabeled as centering on “And a-one, and a-two, and a-three ... and a-$500,000!” a congressman ridiculed.

But “far from honoring a single individual,” the site “would have called attention to the contributions these immigrants have made to this part of the United States,” the Herald editorialized at the time.
That was true then, and it remains true today. A site that uses the farmstead asa springboard to pioneer and ethnic history could work. The society should give it a try.

Reprinted with permission of Grand Forks Herald.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller