State to purchase Welk Homestead

"State to purchase Welk Homestead." Emmons County Record, 16 January 2014, 1 & 20.

South central North Dakota got its first historic site on Fri., Jan. 10, when the State Historical Society of North Dakota Board voted to purchase the Welk Homestead at Strasburg.

Meeting at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck, the board debated whether to use $100,000 appropriated for the purchase by the 2013 legislative session. It was the third consecutive quarterly meeting of the board where the Welk site was at the top of the agenda.

After an hour and a half of discussion, the board voted 6-5 to adopt the motion made by Secretary of State Al Jaeger, a constitutional member of the board, to proceed with the purchase. The second was offered by Mark Zimmerman, Director of the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, who opposed the purchase.

Jaeger said he is a German-Russian from Mercer County and that the site is not just for Strasburg or Emmons County but for all of the people of the state.

Voting for the motion, in addition to Jaeger, were President Calvin Grinnell, North Dakota Tourism Director Sara Otte Coleman, Prof. Albert Berger of the University of North Dakota, Darcy Rosendahl of the Department of Transportation and Gerald Gerntholz. Opposing the purchase were State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt, Art Todd, Zimmerman, Rep. Diane Larson and Margaret Puetz.

Schwabs relieved

Evelyn and Edna Schwab, nieces of Lawrence Welk (daughters of his brother, Mike), of Strasburg own the six-acre homestead, leased it to Pioneer Heritage, Inc. and have been active on the group’s board since its inception. Pioneer Heritage, a non-profit corporation, developed the site and have operated it since it opened in 1989.

Because of the increased burden of operating the site and not having enough money to adequately promote it, the aging Pioneer Heritage Board decided to close the site, turn it back to the owner who would then sell it and auction off the antiques collected for the site. However, before that happened, Sen. Erbele, Rep. Kretschmar and Rep. Brandenburg agreed to try to pursue $25,000 in temporary operating money during the 2011 legislative session. The legislature appropriated the money for the SHSND which turned it over to Pioneer Heritage to operate the site for at least two years. The SHSND did a feasibility study of the site which was encouraging but also indicated there would be significant costs to expand the site with a new visitor center, a campground and other enhancements that tend to go with some state historic sites.

Frustrated that SHSND appeared not to be pursuing the purchase of the property, the Schwabs put the property on the market for $125,000. When the 2013 legislature convened, Sen. Erbele took the lead on trying to get $100,000 (an amount agreed to by the Schwabs) appropriate for the state’s purchase of the site. Reps. Kretschmar and Brandenburg carried the bill on the House side. The delegation also tried to get up to $50,000 in operating money, but that provision was dropped during final negotiations of the Senate-House conference committee.

The Schwabs agreed to hold off on trying to sell to anyone else, and the process of moving the purchase forward continued through the rest of 2013 and concluded on Friday.

“We are so pleased that the homestead will be preserved and will be a state historic site,” Evelyn and Edna said after the Friday meeting. “We have been so worried that it wouldn’t work out.”

They expressed thanks to Sen. Erbele for his leadership, Reps. Kretschmar and Brandenburg, Pioneer Heritage, the Tri-County Tourism Alliance and all of the other supporters who helped.

Good news for area

District 28 Sen. Robert Erbele of Lehr, who has led the effort and guided the appropriation through the Senate while Reps. William Kretschmar and Michael Brandenburg worked on the House side, said the purchase is “good news” for all of North Dakota.

“The Welk Homestead is a treasure and now belongs to the people of North Dakota,” Sen. Erbele said. “We now have the first pioneer farmstead and the first sod house in the state’s inventory of historic sites. It is an ideal setting to interpret the impact of the Homestead Act on our state, the sacrifices of the pioneer settlers as well as the immigration of the Germans from Russia, our state’s largest ethnic group.”

Sen. Erbele, who advocated for the project at the three SHSND Board meetings, said there is much work yet to be done before the site opens to the public this spring, but he called the purchase a “milestone” in the process.

Pioneer Heritage, Inc. will continue to operate the site until the 2015 legislature appropriates operating funds, and fund-raising efforts are being planned.

Kevin Gabriel of the Pioneer Heritage Board is working on a grant application to help fund the site.

Pioneer Heritage President Adam Baumstarck is lending money to the organization to pay for current operating costs, primarily utilities and insurance.

Board discussion

Of the five SHSND Board members who voted against the purchase, only State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt opposed the purchase itself. She said decisions shouldn’t be based on emotions and joked that some will probably want basketball star and coach Phil Jackson’s dorm room made into an historic site.

Carmen Rath-Wald, President of the Tri-County Tourism Alliance, pointed out that 41 percent of the state’s population is of German-Russian ancestry.

The other four board members spoke favorably of the importance of the Welk site but expressed concerns about the costs of re-interpreting and expanding the site and worried that it could be difficult to get operating funds and other money from the legislature in 2015 and beyond that.

Sen. Erbele prepared a letter that was distributed to the board prior to the meeting in which he summarized the repair work to which volunteers and organizations have committed, the benefits of the purchase and the site’s implications for the future.

“The state’s 125th anniversary will be kicked off next week, and this site fits very well with that story,” Sen. Erbele said.

Prof. Isern talked about the “sense of history” that people gain from visiting a site like the Welk Homestead.

“They get the feel of the place and feel like history happened here,” Isern said.

Isern plans to bring college students to Strasburg this summer to help with repairs on the buildings at the site.

Gary Satern of Bismarck, the original curator of the Welk site who oversaw its restoration, told about his first visit to the homestead. He said the sod house was starting to fall in and a wall was bowed.

“There was a cow inside the house,” he said.

He praised Weber Brothers Construction of Linton for their careful attention to detail in restoring the house and other buildings at the site as well as re-creating the buggy shed.

Satern described the work that went into getting the site added to the National Register of Historic Places and the generosity of the Welk family who paid for much of the cost of the project.

After his work on the homestead, the Welk family asked him to help design and develop the Champagne Theater in Branson, Mo.

“It would be a shame and a national embarrassment to North Dakota to let (the site) go,” Satern said.

Rath-Wald of Napoleon cited the national interest in and enthusiasm for the Welk Homestead and said volunteers are ready to go to work. She said the Tri-County Tourism Alliance produced a tabletop book last year, and the sales of the $75 book are proof of the national interest in the German-Russian heritage.

John Ibarra of Strasburg, himself an immigrant from Mexico, stressed the importance and historical value of the homestead. He said the state’s purchase will help “keep history alive.”

Strasburg native Albert Wolf, a Bismarck attorney, spoke on behalf of the owners of the site, Evelyn and Edna Schwab of Strasburg. He will work with Assistant Attorney General Edward Erickson, who represents SHSND, to finalize the sale.

Visiting after the board meeting are, left to right, N.D. Parks and Recreation Director Mark Zimmerman, Secretary of State Al Jaeger, Sen. Robert Erbele and Bismarck attorney Albert Wolf. Jaeger made the motion to purchase the homestead, and Zimmerman offered the second.
Visiting during the break after the vote are, left to right, Prof. Tom Isern of Fargo, Tri-County Tourism Alliance President Carmen Rath-Wald of Napoleon and State Sen. Robert Erbele of Lehr.
Secretary of State Al Jaeger makes his historic motion to purchase the Welk Homestead. He said he had given the issue a lot of thought and was satisfied that a purchase agreement, which had earlier been his concern, could be worked out to everyone’s satisfaction. He cited his own German-Russian ancestry and the importance of historical preservation for future generations. He warned that supporters need to be prepared to help get operating funds in the 2015 legislative session.
Nick Smith, left, of the Bismarck Tribune interviews Sen. Erbele.
Gary Satern, original curator of the Welk site, speaks in support of the purchase.
Strasburg native and Bismarck attorney Albert Wolf makes a point to the board.
John Ibarra of Strasburg talked about the importance of historical preservation.
Visiting after the vote are Assistant Attorney General Edward Erickson and Rep. Diane Larson.
Pictured are, left to right, Marion Houn of USDA Rural Development; Carmen Rath-Wald of the Tri-County Tourism Alliance, and Sara Otte Coleman, Director of the Tourism Division. Coleman said the Welk Homestead, as a state historic site, will provide an anchor for tourism promotion in the region.
Visiting in the Heritage Center lobby are, left to right, Lourie Jonas of Wishek, Emmons County Extension Agent Acacia Stuckle of Linton and Michael Miller, Director & Bibliographer of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection (GRHC), The Libraries, North Dakota State University, Fargo.
Visiting after the board meeting are, left to right, N.D. Parks and Recreation Director Mark Zimmerman, Secretary of State Al Jaeger, Sen. Robert Erbele and Bismarck attorney Albert Wolf. Jaeger made the motion to purchase the homestead, and Zimmerman offered the second.
Visiting with Associated Press Reporter James MacPherson, second from right, after the historic vote are Edna Schwab, Evelyn Schwab, and SHSND Executive Director Meryl Paaverud.

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