Musical Schwab Family Helped Make the Blue Room a Place to Remember

"Musical Schwab Family Helped Make the Blue Room a Place to Remember." Emmons County Record, 5 September 2000, sec. 3B.

Magdalena "Lenny" (Baumgartner) Schwab grew up with Lawrence Welk, and her family had as much to do with making The Blue Room a place of memories as anyone else.

Lenny, born in 1907, and John Schwab, born in 1902, were married in 1925 at Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Strasburg. It was about that time that John came into demand as an accordionist play at wedding parties, barn dances, namesday parties and golden wedding anniversaries.

His abilities on the accordion prompted his friend, Lawrence Welk, who was a year younger, to ask him to teach him some of his songs. John had learned to play the button accordion from his father, Lorenz. The instrument was popular among Germans from Russia who began settling in the Emmons County area in the 1880s.

Lenny knew the Welks because her family's farm was about two miles from the Welk homestead, which is now a museum operated by Pioneer Heritage, Inc.

Lawrence and John and other young musicians practiced together many times before Welk left Strasburg at about age 21 to launch a career that would make him world famous and a very successful businessman.

"Lawrence Welk had guts. He could hardly talk English when he left Strasburg but look how big a man he got to be," Lenny said.

As far as I can remember, John and Lawrence never performed together in public," she said.

Lenny said she was very proud of her husband and his musical talent, and she enjoyed accompanying him to the events where he performed.

The Schwabs had 10 children, four of whom performed with John as kids and young adults. The family includes Joe "Juddy," Larry, John Jr., Jimmy, Florence (Klein), Irene (Lipp), Clarence (deceased), Luverne (Feist), Antonia (Baumgartner) and Clara (Huber).

When the Schwabs performed together, Florence played the accordion and the piano. Larry played the piano, Jimmy was on the trumpet and Clarence added rhythm with his drums. They played many times over the years in The Blue Room.

The Schwab brothers later became the "Bubbling Quintet" and continue to perform, although not as often as they did for so many years. The quintet also included Bill Mastel and Eugene Weisbeck.

Adding to the family's memories of the ballroom, the wedding parties of Juddy, Larry, Clara and Clarence were held in The Blue Room.

Frequent performer

John switched from the button accordion to the keyboard instrument after buying a used 1915 model from Tom Guttenberg of Bismarck, who introduced the "piano" accordion to the area.

On a regular basis, John would pack up his accordion and ship it to Chicago where it would be repaired or rebuilt. The last time he sent it, the company said they could not fix it. That did not stop John for he took it apart and overhauled it himself. The ivory keys were worn through to the wood beneath them, so he replaced the keyboard.

While John played a large repertoire of songs by ear, he was probably most noted for his rendition of "The Wedding March."

Lenny remembers that he would arrive in The Blue Room well ahead of a wedding party and play the march as the honored couple and guests arrived after saying their vows at Sts. Peter & Paul.

Until his death in 1956, John was The Blue Room's most frequent performer, and a wedding almost wasn't a wedding without his beautiful accordion music.

Cooking for crowds

Like John, Lenny was also a key person at The Blue Room. She cooked for countless weddings, gold anniversaries and other events held at the ballroom.

After John's death, she also cooked at the Strasburg School for 10 years.

"When I first cooked in The Blue Room, the kitchen was in the south end. The kitchen was on one side of the stage, and the coatroom was on the other," Lenny recalled.

At first, the kitchen was equipped with cookstoves that were stoked with wood and coal. They were later replaced with kerosene stoves that had tanks that held a gallon of kerosene and had to be refilled frequently.

"The cookstoves had an advantage over the kerosene stoves because you could cook more on a cookstove," she said.

There was no running water in the kitchen for years, and Lenny would haul cream cans full of water for use in cooking as well as for drinking water for the people.

Lenny believes it was in the 1950s when the kitchen was moved to the north end of the ballroom, and running water and gas stoves were installed.

"The gas stoves were quite an improvement, and I didn't miss filling the kerosene tanks on the stoves," she said. She said the gas stoves were a lot handier and cleaner than their predecessors.

When a family asked Lenny to cook for a wedding, she helped organize the menu and told them what would be needed for the meal. Although it depended upon the family, most families butchered their own chickens and brought potatoes and other ingredients from their gardens. They also provided the kuchen for dessert.

With the help of one other lady, usually Margaret Kraft, Lenny would spend the day before the wedding getting everything ready in The Blue Room kitchen. The family would help out, and the potatoes would be peeled and the coleslaw made.

"Wedding parties sometimes last two or three days, but, for many years, we usually prepared noon dinner and supper for wedding parties," Lenny explained.

A typical noon menu would be German chicken noodle soup, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, coleslaw and kuchen. Supper would include sausage, rice dressing, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, cakes and kuchen.

"There were no smorgasbords when I cooked at The Blue Room. Everything was served at the table, plate by plate," Lenny said. "The family provided the waiters and waitresses, who were usually younger kids."

Lenny doesn't remember the biggest group she ever served, but she said many wedding parties included over 300 people.

The future

In addition to her memories about cooking in The Blue Room and watching her husband perform there so many times, Lenny's most recent memories are of the Schwab family reunions, including one held earlier this summer, at The Blue Room.

At 97, Lenny can remember when Strasburg was booming with three big general stores and many other businesses, including the Keller Hotel. The streets would be packed with people coming to town to do their week's business.

"I hope The Blue Room can be rebuilt," she said. "The town needs it."

For Lenny Schwab, life is full of rich memories of a wonderful ballroom packed with happy people, good food and great music.

Pictured at one of their reunions in The Blue Room are, back row, left to rigt, Larry and Evelyn Schwab, John Schwab, Jr., Jimmy and Edna Schwab, Florence (Schwab) Klein, Irene and Jim Lipp and Luverne and Jimmy Feist; seated, Juddy and Imogene Schwab, Antonia Baumgartner, Lenny Schwab and Clara and Jim Huber.
Lenny Schwab holds her late husband John's accordion. She did not play the instrument, but she is very proud of her husband's musical talent.
The Schwab family continues to maintain the sod house that homesteader Lorenz Schwab built northeast of Strasburg. John and Lenny Schwab raised their 10 children in the house, and they moved into Strasburg in 1947. Juddy and Imogene Schwab then took over the farm. Although it is not occupied full time now, the family continues to maintain it, and it was painted after this picture was taken. It is similar to the sod house where Lenny (Baumgartner) grew up. It has an outside stairway to the attic, much like the Lawrence Welk family homestead.
John and Lenny Schwab are pictured as a young couple.

Reprinted with permission of the Emmons County Record.

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