It's about more than an old house

"It's about more than an old house." The Forum, Fargo, North Dakota, 14 January 2014, page A4

Critics of the North Dakota Historical Society's decision to purchase the Lawrence Welk homestead near Strasburg in Emmons County miss the point. It's not merely about preserving a few run-down buildings. It's about honoring a time and people in North Dakota history who are foundational to the state's heritage. It's about investing a relatively small amount of money to showcase a way of life that evolved from simple Old World values into today's thriving farm and ranch communities.

The boyhood home of "champagne music" master Lawrence Welk is an appropriate focus and symbol of that rich history. Indeed, Welk's impact on 20th-century show business alone would justify preserving his boyhood home. And like his music or not, there is no denying its lasting appeal and popularity. His old television show, which is a regular in reruns on public television, is the longest-running TV program of its kind. His music archives are preserved at North Dakota State University, which also is home to one of the nation's important repositories of research and documents about the Germans from Russia in North Dakota.

The heritage and history the homestead represents justify the historical board's decision to buy the property, with caveats. The 2013 Legislature appropriated $100,000 for the purchase but did not OK money for operation, which could cost about $70,000 a year. A local heritage group will operate the site through 2015, when it is hoped lawmakers will approve funding for long-term operation. The homestead also needs repairs, which must be done as a condition of the purchase.

The purchase and conditions make sense. But what seems to be missing in saving the site and honoring the 19th-century settlers who came to the area is participation by Welk family members. Most of them live in California and continue to benefit from the musical success of Lawrence Welk and associated enterprises. The effort would be more complete if Welk descendants contributed.

But finance details aside, honoring the history is the right thing for the state Historical Society to do. The Germans from Russia who left the steppes of Russia for new lives on the Northern Plains brought with them a wealth of traditions that endure to this day. The communities of the region - Napoleon, Strasburg, Linton and others - represent the state's largest ethnic group, and the Welk home is an important linchpin of their history.

It's small-minded and short-sighted to view the purchase of the old home only in dollar terms. If that were the only criterion for preserving North Dakota's rural historic places, none would be saved; the history they embody would be dishonored.

Do North Dakotans want all their history showcased only at the Heritage Center in Bismarck? Not likely. Must every worthy historical site be judged primarily on the traffic is generates? Of course not. The Welk homestead purchase confirms an enlightened understanding that North Dakota history is a grand tapestry of people, places and traditions. It must be cared for or it will fray and disappear.

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