Maintaining 'Wunnerful' Memories

Armstrong, Patti Maguire. "Maintaining 'Wunnerful' Memories." Algona Upper Des Moines, 23-28 December 2001, 8.

Maintaining `Wunnerful' Memories
Evelyn Schwab leads tours of the Welk family farm.

When Lawrence Welk left his hometown of Strasburg, N.D., (pop. 549) in 1924 and became a famous bandleader, he was not alone. He took a piece of Strasburg with him---the hearts of the town's German-speaking immigrants from Russia, of whom Welk was one.

Although Welk, known as "Mr. Wunnerful" because of the way he pronounced the word wonderful, died in 1992, the people of Strasburg have kept his memory alive by restoring his boyhood home and remembering the musical legacy he left the nation.

"It seemed that anyone who owned a TV had it turned on Saturday nights to Lawrence Welk," recalls Evelyn Schwab, Welk's niece and a volunteer tour guide at the restored Welk homestead since its opening in 1991. "And even after Lawrence became famous, he regularly returned to Strasburg and always visited the family home."

As part of North Dakota's preparation to celebrate the state centennial in 1989, state officials offered small towns grants to restore sites and structures of historical value.

"Since Welk fans occasionally came to Strasburg and asked where his boyhood home was, restoring it was the obvious choice," says Rosemary Schaefbauer, president of Pioneer Heritage Inc., which spearheaded the restoration project, funded with a state grant and private donations.

Lawrence Welk's boyhood home provides a look into the lives of North Dakota's early settlers.

Restoration of the six-acre Lawrence Welk Homestead, two miles northwest of town, was completed in 1991 and brought 7,000 visitors the first year. People continue to stream into Strasburg at a rate of more than 3,000 a year to tour the Welk farm and see what it was like to homestead the North Dakota prairie.

Strasburg, named after Strasbourg, France (once a part of the German Empire), was established in 1903. Ten years earlier, Ludwig and Christina Welk, Lawrence's parents, immigrated to the United States from Odessa, Russia, where German immigrants had settled a half-century earlier. The Welks were typical of the German-speaking people who fled oppression in Russia to stake claims on the Great Plains.

When they arrived in North Dakota, they found a vast, treeless landscape, similar to the steppes they had farmed in Russia, and built sod homes just as they had in Russia. Made from mud and clay bricks, these earthen homes provided good insulation against the bitter winter cold. A section of the restored Welk house siding has been removed so visitors can see that when Ludwig eventually added wood siding, he built it over the original sod.

Lawrence Welk Birthplace.

Visitors to the Welk homestead also can see how the immigrants, despite living in small quarters without electricity, running water, or modern heating and cooling systems, carved a rich life for themselves. It was his childhood filled with love of God, family, and hard work that Lawrence often attributed to his success.

Ludwig and Christina, who had lost their first baby before immigrating, went on to have eight more children in their new homeland. Lawrence was their fifth, born in 1903. He learned to play the accordion, and on his 21st birthday he left home to pursue a music career. In 1955, the Lawrence Welk Show made its television debut. It was an instant success and lasted 26 years. Reruns of the show are still aired around the world today.

All of the tour guides at the Welk homestead are volunteers. Nicole Leier, who graduated from Strasburg Public High School in June, has led tours for two years.

"I have met people from all over the country and world through this," Leier says. Traveling around the state as North Dakota State Dairy Princess, Leier was proud to discover that Lawrence Welk has made her hometown famous. "As soon as I mention I'm from Strasburg, everyone says, `Oh, the home of Lawrence Welk.'"

Reprinted with permission of the Hometown Spotlight.

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