N.D. Home Still Attracts Visitors: Welk Family Home Carries on Memories

Boldt, Megan Boldt. "N.D. Home Still Attracts Visitors: Welk Family Home Carries on Memories." Forum, 10 November 2002, sec. A21.

STRASBURG, N.D. - It has been decades since anyone has lived on the same farmstead that made this small North Dakota farming community so famous.

But listen carefully. As visitors drive-up from the gravel road, they can hear the champagne music flowing freely from the barn where Lawrence Welk used to play his accordion.

"His sisters would get so sick of him playing that thing that they would send him out to the barn," said Welk's niece, Edna Schwab.

Ten years after Welk's death at age 89, people still visit his family farm in Strasburg, tune into reruns of "The Lawrence Welk Show" on public television and join fan clubs celebrating the "wunnerful, wunnerful" orchestra leader.

Schwab is one of several community members who gives tours of the Welk farmstead two miles outside of Strasburg, a town of about 550 people south of Bismarck. Fans are greeted by a life-size cutout of the King of Champagne Music himself as they walk into the sod house in which his parents and seven siblings lived.

The homestead, which includes a summer kitchen, granary, buggy house, blacksmith shop, outhouse and barn, was restored and open for tours in 1991.

Wedding pictures dot the home, though it's missing one - the music maestro's wedding in Sioux City, Iowa.

"They didn't have a photographer," Schwab said.

A German bible and prayer book lie on one of the end tables in the Welk living room. The organ is a close match to the one the Welk's owned.

About 6,400 visitors came in 1991 to take in such pieces of history. The number dropped to about 3,000 this year - probably because most people from the area have seen the homestead by now, Schwab said.

It's tucked away, about 100 miles south of Bismarck and two miles off the "Lawrence Welk" Highway. The drive on the two-lane highway runs through farmland and an occasional small town.

In the fall, volunteers put on the storm windows, move some displays indoors for winter and take the Welk souvenirs into town in case passers-by are interested. But guides will open the homestead for tour groups during the off-season.

Schwab is never short of stories to tell to visitors who come from as far as California and Tennessee.

The Welks never had running water. And they were quite the musical family, she said.

"The older brother was probably the better musician," schwab said. "He could play almost any instrument."

The visitors tell her some stories, too.

"They'll say, `I danced with Lawrence Welk' or `My grandma made me watch it on TV,'" Schwab said.

Welk left his family farm on his 21st birthday after playing at community weddings and barn dances. He didn't hit the big time until more than 20 years later, with a 1951 television appearance in Los Angeles. ABC picked up his show in 1955.

It ran for 16 years, and was syndicated until 1982.

Public television stations started running Welk's show again in 1987. About 5 million homes now tune in to the 267 stations that air it nationwide every week, said Margaret Heron, syndication manager for the Welk Group.

Heron, Welk's longtime secretary and friend, said generations of a family can watch the show together.

"I think its appeal is that it takes us back to a gentler lifestyle that we don't live today," she said.

Besides watching the reruns, people travel to places like the Welk resort in Branson, Mo., to see live shows featuring Welk's music.

Larry Welk, the son of the champagne music-maker, said the Christmas show is the most popular in Branson. Producers also bring the show on the road to fans across the country and Canada.

"It brings back a lot of nostalgia and memories," Welk said. "And not just for older generations. I don't think my father or any of us thought it would go on as strong as this."

The show plans to come to North Dakota during its tour in March, to the Spirit Lake Casino near Devils Lake, March 7-8.

WelkNotes, a Yahoo!-based fan club started in 2000, allows about 230 avid fans to log on to the Internet and chat about Welk and stars from "The Lawrence Welk Show."

"These are die-hard fans," said Judy Shaw, who runs the listserv. "You'd be surprised how many fans are still devoted to him. It's amazing."

She started a fan club in 1972, and then decided to start the Internet chat group.

The group has few stated rules. But the Web site warns of one thing that is unacceptable: "Take note: Flaming, offensive language, or anything of an unfriendly nature will not be acceptable on this list."

Welk would approve. He liked to keep things clean, even firing original Champagne Lady Alice Lon in 1959 for showing "too much knee" on camera.

Edna Schwab walks toward the front door of the Lawrence Welk farm house in Strasburg. Schwab is a niece of Lawrence Welk.

Reprinted with permission of The Forum.

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