An Outsider’s Perspective on North Dakota and Lawrence Welk

Wall Jr., Richard J. "An Outsider’s Perspective on North Dakota and Lawrence Welk." Emmons County Record, 24 December 2009, 20B-21B.

Before last summer, my wife and I had not visited the beautiful and friendly state of North Dakota. And we probably would never have journeyed at all to the Peace Garden State had it not been for that famous native son of Strasburg and Emmons County, Lawrence Welk.

Prior to our visit, Margaret and I had no first hand impression of North Dakota, either positive or negative. One thing we did know, however, is that Lawrence Welk had been born there, and this gave us a warm feeling about our destination. Because of that, Margaret and I decided to make the visit. And are we glad we did!

Among my earliest memories is a Saturday night dinner at my maternal grandparents’ house in the summer of 1955. It was there, at the age of 5 in my own hometown of St. Louis, that I watched the first nationally broadcast Lawrence Welk television show on the local ABC affiliate. Over the ensuing years, the Lawrence Welk Show became my family’s favorite Saturday night entertainment staple, whether I was with grandparents or at my parents’ home, where I watched with Mom, Dad and my younger brothers. We all enjoyed the Lawrence Welk Show because it was wholesome entertainment that everyone in the family could enjoy.

As I got older, and Lawrence Welk retired, I lost track of the show, which finally ended up where it is today, as a reliable fundraiser for Public Television across the country. A stage version of the show has also continued until very recently at the Lawrence Welk Theater in Branson, Mo., only a couple of hours from my own boyhood home. It’s remarkable when you think about it, though: a television program that has endured for almost 60 years, and a stage show that carries the Welk entertainment tradition into its ninth decade. It’s no exaggeration to say that The Lawrence Welk show is as sturdy as a North Dakota farmer! 

One thing that always stayed with me from my "TV encounters" with Lawrence Welk was the solid set of values that I originally learned from my own parents and grandparents but that Lawrence Welk reinforced on his television show and in his long public life. One of the reasons I wanted to visit Strasburg and the nearby Welk farmstead was to gain some understanding of the family and broader community that shaped Lawrence Welk’s personality and values.

Our trip to North Dakota was part of a larger journey that encompassed a visit to St. Louis and a return to our home in Wyoming via stops in Michigan, Chicago, Wisconsin, Minnesota and finally Emmons County. (While visiting St. Louis, I went to my grandparents’ house, where Margaret and I stay while seeing relatives. Although the small screen television is no longer there, I stood for awhile looking at the places where my grandparents and I sat while watching the Lawrence Welk show almost 55 years ago. Nana, Papa and Lawrence Welk are now long gone from this life, but the happy memories of them will remain with me forever.)

Not knowing what to expect in North Dakota, I located the phone number of Edna Schwab, a niece of Lawrence Welk. Although the farmstead was normally closed at the time of our planned mid-week visit, Mrs. Schwab was gracious enough to open it for us. As I drove up, Margaret and I were thrilled to hear a recording of Lawrence Welk’s polka music serenading us from the barn. We got out of the car and literally polka-ed up to the summer kitchen, where we met Mrs. Schwab, paid our money, and signed in.

The farmstead’s state of preservation and the quality of Mrs. Schwab’s commentary reminded me of a past visit to Mt. Vernon, the home of George Washington. But I enjoyed our tour of the Welk home much more than George Washington’s, which lacks that warm, homey feeling and the personal touch provided by Mrs. Schwab.

My wife and I enjoyed our tour of the Welk farmstead so much that we turned what was planned as a one-day visit into a four-day stay in North Dakota. Spread among hotels, restaurants, museum fees and other purchases, we spent almost $1,000 in the Emmons County, Bismarck and Minot areas. We now realize that there is still much more for us to see, especially in western North Dakota. But that will have to wait for our next visit. In any event, none of this would have happened without Lawrence Welk, a great revenue generator for Emmons County almost 20 years after his death.

After our initial visit to the farmstead (where I was able to purchase interesting books, videos and musical CDs), Margaret and I explored Strasburg and its many fascinating points of interest. We were staggered by the beauty of its Catholic Church, Sts. Peter and Paul. We also enjoyed excellent food and outstanding service from the friendly wait staffs at the town’s local eateries. Before leaving that day, we also loaded up with locally made crafts from Strasburg’s shops. (It was our version of "Christmas in July," as friends and family members will soon find out.)

From there, we branched out to other towns and spots in Emmons County, such as Linton and Hague. The Catholic Church at Hague is another architectural and artistic gem. Both Strasburg’s and Hague’s Catholic churches are far more beautiful, for example, than any church I have ever seen in Wyoming, including the century old St. Mary’s Cathedral in the Cowboy State’s capital city of Cheyenne. These Emmons County houses of worship also rival some of the most beautiful churches in my own hometown of St. Louis.

It is only the good taste, the outstanding financial generosity and the highly skilled labor of Emmons County citizens that made such gorgeous and spiritually edifying churches possible in North Dakota. I am very thankful that Emmons County’s present-day citizenry has so lovingly preserved them for future generations of residents, as well as for out-of-state pilgrims and tourists to enjoy.

After a day exploring Bismarck (another town that looms large in the saga of Lawrence Welk), Margaret and I ventured to Minot. In each of those places as well, we were given the royal treatment by North Dakota’s friendly citizens. I could only ask myself: why did I not know about and understand all the wonderful things that the Peace Garden State has to offer so that I could have visited sooner? As someone once said about Wyoming, "I wasn’t born in North Dakota, but I got here as fast as I could." And I am glad that I did!

After three days of enjoyable vacation in North Dakota, we were determined to make yet another visit to Strasburg and the Welk farmstead, which we knew would be open on the weekend. While there, we got to meet other friendly and helpful Emmons County residents who were assisting Mrs. Schwab. We also got to mingle with other Lawrence Welk fans from various parts of the country. From my discussions with them, it is clear that Lawrence Welk was the initial draw to North Dakota, and some were on their second and third visits to the Peace Garden State in general and to the Welk farmstead in particular.

As we talked with Welk family members, Sts. Peter and Paul parishioners, Strasburg residents and other Emmons County citizens, things that I had been reading in the books authored by Lawrence Welk began to come into sharp focus. There seemed to be three defining characteristics about the personality and values of Lawrence Welk.

First, he had a deep belief in and love for God. Second, he had a strong sense of personal and public standards of morality. Third, he was a great entrepreneur. Where did this come from? I see the answer very simply and clearly.

When Lawrence Welk grew up, there was no radio or television. Young Lawrence’s sole influences were his family, his church, and the broader citizenry of Strasburg and Emmons County. In his autobiography, Lawrence Welk summed up what these meant to him during his first vacation home after leaving the farm for a musical career.

"I enjoyed those few weeks at home and, looking at my family and friends through new eyes," young Lawrence wrote, "I saw what good people they were and how deeply fortunate I had been in being allowed to grow up in a home and in an area where the emphasis was still on the simple virtues and where the love of God was still the dominant theme that underlay every other consideration."

He continued, "I did not feel that I had fallen away from the teachings of my youth, but those weeks at home made me realize with renewed clarity how true those teachings were."

After spending two days talking with the people from that home, that church and that community, I understood where Lawrence’s Welk’s love of God and high standards of public and private morality came from.

Ludwig Welk’s opposition to his son leaving the farm for life as an itinerant accordion player, for example, had nothing at all to do with keeping young Lawrence in some form of involuntary servitude as a farm worker. On the contrary, Lawrence Welk wrote in his autobiography that his father’s opposition derived primarily from a desire to preserve young Lawrence’s spiritual and moral life.

"I don’t want you to lose your faith and fall into a life of sin," Ludwig Welk told his son. "It’s not a good life," he said (referring to life as a traveling musician). "You don’t know the temptations."

The same family, church and community environment in Emmons County also helped to produce Lawrence Welk’s sense of entrepreneurship.

Contemporary news accounts at the height of Lawrence Welk’s career, for example, said that the Maestro of Champagne Music was the second richest celebrity in Hollywood. Only Bob Hope had become richer. The source of the Lawrence Welk fortune was his music, of course, but it extended into hotels, resorts and premium apartments, condominiums and office space on some of the most valuable real estate in the Los Angeles area.

How could a man with a fourth grade education (whose passion was music, not business, and whose background was farming) accomplish all this? How could he put together and lead an efficient team of musicians, businessmen, lawyers, accountants and other professionals to achieve this amazing feat?

Again, it comes right back to his family, his church and the people of Strasburg and Emmons County. When Lawrence’s parents, Ludwig and Christina Welk, arrived in America late in the nineteenth century, they brought with them little more than their leather-bound Catholic Mass missals and an antique accordion that had been in the Welk family for generations.

With money borrowed from a relative, they disembarked from the train, bought a wagon and two oxen, and then traveled almost 50 miles to the site of their homestead claim. None of the comforts we take for granted was available to them. They dug a hole in which to live and then turned the wagon over for a roof. And that’s where the family stayed before Ludwig could construct the sod house where Lawrence was born and reared. That sod house stands to this day as a testament to the energy, hard work and creative ingenuity of the Welk family and to the other pioneer families of Emmons County.

It is important to remember that a farmer is an entrepreneur. He is totally responsible for everything that happens (or doesn’t happen) on his farm. Because of financial constraints, he can afford to buy or hire very little. Most of what needs to be done, he must do himself. If the farmer is lazy, indolent and dull, he won’t enjoy much success. In the case of Ludwig and Christina Welk, they did not inherit a "going jesse." They had to create their dream from whole cloth, so to speak, "learning by doing," as Lawrence himself said. Young Lawrence saw all of this. He absorbed it, from his parents and from his neighbors. And he applied it to all his subsequent endeavors.

Early in his musical career, and in all the years that followed, Lawrence Welk identified each of the elements necessary for success, based on what he learned at home and in Strasburg and in broader Emmons County. And then young Lawrence worked these elements himself until he could afford to hire others to help him. While still on the farm, for example, he formulated the plan for his first big evening of entertainment. He personally painted the signs and posted them. He arranged for tickets to be printed and then personally sold them. He set up the hall, personally arranged the chairs, and then made sure his musicians showed up and were ready to play. Then he helped count the money, paid his fellow musicians, and broke down the hall before moving on to plan for his next "gig."

Lawrence Welk wasn’t someone who simply showed up and performed. On the contrary, the harder and smarter he worked the luckier he got. Like his father and their farming neighbors, Lawrence Welk worked from early morning until late at night, making things happen, which were lessons he learned on the farmstead and from his family’s friends in Strasburg and other parts of Emmons County.

Our country is in hard times right now. But this is nothing that Lawrence Welk and his fellow citizens of Emmons County would fear. They knew that, with God’s help and their hard work, they could overcome any difficulty.

It is my fervent hope that the people of Emmons County will continue to support the Lawrence Welk Farmstead & Birthplace. Not only will the story of Lawrence Welk help transmit to future generations the spiritual and moral values that made America great. It will also sustain a first-class tourist attraction that generates business and tax revenues necessary for prosperity in Strasburg, Emmons County and North Dakota, the places that Lawrence Welk loved the most and that filled him with such justifiable pride.

(Editor’s Note: Richard J. Wall, Jr., is a lawyer who divides his time between Wyoming and his old hometown of St. Louis. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he has developed a great affection for Strasburg, Emmons County and North Dakota.)

Re-runs of The Lawrence Welk Show continue to be the most popular Public Television programming in the nation for senior citizens, although the show has many viewers who were children during Welk’s final television years in the early 1980s. His television show aired from 1951-82 and has been rebroadcast ever since.

Richard and Margaret Wall enjoyed their first Emmons County visit and plan to return.

The farm where Lawrence Welk was born and raised near Strasburg is open to visitors in the summer.

Lawrence Welk

Having some fun at the Strasburg School are the late great Lawrence Welk, Johnny Klein and Mike Dosch. Klein played in the Welk band for many years, and Dosch was a nationally known musician. All were Strasburg natives.

Lawrence Welk plays his accordion in one of the earliest pictures of him performing.

Reprinted with permission of the Emmons County Record.

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