Lawrence Welk's 'Wunnerful' Roots: Dedication of Strasburg Homestead is Sunday

Brue, Mike Brue. "Lawrence Welk's 'Wunnerful' Roots: Dedication of Strasburg Homestead is Sunday." Grand Forks Herald, 4 June 1992, sec. 1C, 2C.

"I had always accepted the fact that I would be a farmer, like my father and my brothers...Now a thought so exciting, so overpowering that I could scarcely bear to think of it, began to inch its way forward into my mind...Maybe, just maybe, I could earn a living as a musician!...Somehow I seemed to see myself standing in front of great crowds of people, playing my accordion. They were smiling and happy - it was an intoxicating vision - and the more I played, the more real that vision became."

STRASBURG, N.D. - A gravel route off U.S. Highway 83 rises gradually westward on the landscape for two miles. A turn north, followed by a short drive and a turn east, leads tourists to the old Christina and Ludwig Welk homestead.

It doesn't look that old.

The site is modest. The driveway, freshly graded, widens into a parking lot suitable for parking the most massive of motor homes. The buildings are a tidy white with handsome blue-green trim, save for the red barn.

Bright paint also masks the many years belonging to some farm equipment, lined neatly along southeast fence. Beyond the fence, the Strasburg skyline breaks the horizon, including the 85-foot tower on the Welk family's parish, Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church.

And one unusual building stands out on the Welk property, between the barn and building market as a buggy house and granary. It is a bandstand, bearing the name of Ludwig Welk's third son.

Before Champagne Ladies and bountiful bubbles, before TV and even radio, before hotel gigs and one-night stands throughout the Midwest, this rural Emmons County locale was home to Lawrence Welk's first "musical family."

The six-acre Welk homestead site has been restored in recent years to resemble, for the most part, its appearance during the more prosperous 1920s. It is under a 99-year lease from Evelyn and Edna Schwab, daughters of the late Michael Welk, Lawrence's younger brother, who took over the property in the 1930s and lived there until 1966. It had been vacant for years.

A local non-profit preservation group, Pioneer Heritage Inc., opened the site for its second summer season of tours on May 15. Nearly 7,000 visitors toured the site in 1991, representing each state, all but one Canadian province (Quebec) and 12 foreign nations, from Egypt to Thailand.

The homestead project - recognizing the area's German from Russia heritage as much as its famed native son - will be formally dedicated Sunday.

"We are very proud that we can claim Lawrence Welk was born here," said Rosemary Schaefbauer, president of Pioneer Heritage, who like many other area natives speaks with a German-tinged accent for which Welk was so recognized. "But we're also trying to save our heritage."

The "King of Champagne Music" never got to see the restored homestead in person. He died May 17, at age 89, in his Santa Monica, Calif., home - a huge financial fortune and lengthy life's distance from his south-central North Dakota agrarian roots.

But Pioneer Heritage did send videotape of the project to Welk's daughter, Shirley Fredericks, the family contact for the group. Her father saw the video, Schaefbauer says: "Shirley would say when he was watching, he'd get tears in his eyes."

The Welk place has been restored entirely with fund-raisers, souvenir sales and private donations, including $100,000 from the philanthropical Welk Foundation. It's a fact restoration backers can't stress enough.

Mixed publicity
The homestead became ensnarled in a national controversy in the past 1-1/2 years. Some members of Congress and President Bush criticized a $500,000 loan application that, they claimed, was pork-barrel spending to restore the Welk home.

In fact, the aid was for low-interest, matching loans to help area businesses related to tourism and for creating a Germans from Russia heritage museum that, at first, was planned on the Welk homestead site. The grant ultimately was denied, even though it met federal criteria, supporters say.

"I wouldn't say it's dead," Schaefbauer said about museum plans. She laughed. "Hey, we're Germans. We don't give up that easily." But nobody expects federal aid to be involved. "Right now we're just trying to focus on what we've got."

On his long-running TV program, Welk talked frequently and fondly of Strasburg and his North Dakota home, where he said he was taught "to work, to share and to live according to God's laws."

Road signs recognize the town of about 600 people as Welk's birthplace. The homestead restoration project started in the late 1980s after "people would stop in town, and they wanted to know, `Where was this place?'" Schaefbauer recalled.

Music over farming
Ludwig Welk played the accordion and Christina taught the children how to dance. But Lawrence wasn't supposed to be a musician.

His was a deeply religious, German-speaking farm family. In 1893, like thousands of other Germans from Russia, Ludwig and Christina arrived in America after leaving the Odessa region in the southern Ukraine, to escape increasing czarist oppression. The pioneer farm - 160 original acres, plus 80 added later - was to be passed down to the four Welk sons.

But young Lawrence felt uncomfortable farming. His musical dreams took root while he was convalescing from a ruptured appendix and resulting peritonitis that nearly took his life in 1914. To pass time, he played the pipe organ and learned to play his father's accordion.

Later, to get his dad to buy him a $400 piano accordion, the slight, shy 17-year-old Welk exchanged four years of profits from playing the accordion at dances and parties in the Strasburg area, many times in Bichler's Pool Hall (later Mattern's and, currently, Horner's Lounge and Blue Room).

On his 21st birthday, Welk bid goodbye to his skeptical father, loving mother and his siblings, and embarked for Aberdeen, S.D. - where he had friends to stay with, and enough travel money to reach - and life away from the farm, as a professional musician.

"So you're going," Ludwig Welk told him, according to "Wunnerful, Wunnerful" (1971), Welk's first best-seller with biographer Bernice McGeehan. "Well, you'll be back. You'll be back just as soon as you get hungry." The man turned to his family. "He'll be back in six weeks, looking for a good meal!"

Young Welk returned 1-1/2 years later, in a new, paid-for car and speaking a bit more English. He came back to Strasburg many more times over the decades; his last visit was about 10 years ago.

His parents moved to town in the 1930s. Welk's father died in 1937, but not before telling his son, "You surprised me...I knew the music was inside you...I just prayed you could have your music and keep your faith."

Welk's mother died in 1940. She and her husband are buried in a cemetery northwest of Saints Peter and Paul Church. Some distinctive iron metal markers found in the cemetery were made by Ludwig, who also was a blacksmith.

The buildings
The Welk homestead mixes original family belongings (including dishes Lawrence bought for his mother in 1926) with items purchased, donated or on loan.

Pioneer Heritage uses mannequins in some buildings, dressed primarily in period garb. Most noticeable is the figure in the barn loft, supposedly playing the accordion; it represents young welk, who often escaped to the barn when his frequent practicing drove family members to distraction. For effect, taped accordion music is played in the barn.

Visitors to the Welk homestead register and begin their tour at the summer kitchen, built to keep the house cool and clean during the busy planting and harvest seasons.

Outside, tourists see a beckhaus - a privy - at the south end of the property; the Welk home never had indoor plumbing.

Next is the two-story house, built in three distinct sections - a tradition of the ancestral Alsatian homeland along the Rhine River. The downstairs rooms are small. They include the parents' bedroom, living room, kitchen and dining room.

In the dining room, eyes focus immediately to a far corner and a slightly-larger-than-life-size cutout of a smiling Lawrence Welk, in full conducting garb. "He looks so alive," Schaefbauer said. "And his eyes just seem to follow you." A pump organ rests in another corner. Nearby, soft strains of Welk versions of songs such as "Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree," "Paloma Blanca" and "Getting to Know You" appear to come from an old phonograph (the source is a nearby, hidden cassette player).

The home interior is cool, even on a hot day. A wall cutaway in the small entryway reveals the reason: Clapboard siding hides a thick wall of sod-like bricks the Welks used to build the house because wood wasn't available.

Actually, the bricks are a mix of native clay and straw, set in the sun to dry. A similar mud mixture was used as mortar, and a clay-lime mixture - "laama" - was smeared on the finished walls. Before the Welks were able to add wood siding, the adobe walls had to be coated with this substance and maintained annually.

An exterior stairwell leads to the attic, first used for storage. Later, as the family grew, the upstairs included a single bedroom for Lawrence Welk and his three brothers. An old accordion - similar to that owned by Ludwig Welk - sits in an old corner chair.

The bandstand was built and dedicated in 1989 as a Strasburg centennial project, and later moved to the Welk homestead.

Other outbuildings, reconstructed at the site of their original foundations, include the blacksmith shop. At the combination granary-buggy house, tourists can view videos about Germans from Russia or about Welk himself on one side, and purchase souvenirs, from T-shirts and plates to video and audio tapes, on the other.

The current barn, moved to the Welk site in the 1950s, has been painted.

Though Welk's older, loyal following gradually dwindles, Schaefbauer believes the Welk homestead to be a viable tourist attraction for decades to come. The Germans from Russia connection is an important part of that draw, she adds.

"I'm 54," Schaefbauer said. "Add 20 years to my age. My age group, they're still going to be coming out here, if they're like me, anyway."

And when visitors leave the homesite, they can imagine the morning of March 11, 1924, when Welk bid farewell to his family and the farm.

He walked to a buggy with a small valise in one hand, his piano accordion in another, train fare in his pocket and three $1 bills pinned to his inside coat pocket. Then he rode down the road leading to Strasburg:

"I was filled with a mixture of emotions - excitement, hope, joy, and a small tinge of sadness. Occasionally, I would turn around and look back toward the farmhouse. All the rest of the family had returned to their chores, but my mother stood out where she could see me as I drove down the road; and whenever I turned around she would withdraw her hands from beneath her white apron and wave both arms in the air. I waved back, until finally I came to a turn in the road...and I could see her no more."

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.

Ludwig and Christina
Welk Farmstead

Birthplace of Lawrence Welk
Where: Northwest of
Strasburg, N.D.
When: Through Sept.
15; by appointment dur-
ing off-season
Time: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission: $2.50 adults;
free to ages 17 and
Information: (701) 336-

A life-size cutout of Lawrence Welk presides over the dining room of his restored boyhood home. The pump organ is similar to one in the original Welk farmhouse.
Welk played many times in this Strasburg dance hall. It's now called Horner's.
An accordion-playing mannequin, representing a young Lawrence Welk, greets visitors to the Welk family farm. Recorded music wafts from the barn.
Lenora Schmidt of Linton, N.D., snaps a picture of Bob and Delia Kallock, Seattle, in front of the Ludwig and Christina Welk house.
The Welk farm lies within view of Strasburg in extreme south-central North Dakota. Pioneer Heritage Inc. has restored the home and buildings.

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