Goldade, Bill. "Welk's Home." North Dakota Horizons, 1992.
From inside the faded red barn, the sound of a lone accordion wafts through the farmyard. The wooden screen door on the freshly painted white "summer kitchen" slaps its frame smartly behind another group of people escaping the August afternoon sun. A smiling volunteer, herself with a bit of German accent, greets the tourists with a resounding: "Hi! Welcome to Lawrence Welk's birthplace. We'll be starting another tour in a few minutes. Please sign our guest book."
Lawrence Welk, America's "Champagne Music" man, now 88 and happily retired in Santa Monica, Calif., had vivid memories about the humble farmstead, the many friends, and the loving family he left behind in Strasburg, North Dakota on March 11, 1924 - his 21st birthday. Today, people from around the world are touring the farm of Ludwig and Christina Welk, now restored (except for the barn) as it was in the 1920s.
Since opening in May, 1991, under the direction of Welk Heritage Inc. (recently renamed Pioneer Heritage), nearly 6,400 tourists have taken the sentimental journey back to the simple, rugged 1920s life-style that prepared an ambitious Lawrence Welk for his climb to the top of the musical world and a television program that has entertained millions of fans for 31 of the past 36 years. Thus far, people from every state in the union, every Canadian province, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Egypt and Singapore have toured Welk's humble home.
The farm's restoration does more than celebrate the success of North Dakota's most famous "favorite son." It also recognizes and preserves the heritage of thousands of Germans-from-Russia who emigrated to the Great Plains of North America from Russia's Black Sea and lower Volga River regions between the 1870s and early 1890s.
Sharon Eiseman, executive director of Pioneer Heritage, says the restoration has sparked an interest among many German-Russians to learn more about their ancestors and what brought them halfway around the world to begin a new life.
"The Germans-from-Russia is a very important part of Pioneer Heritage because Ludwig and Christina were of German-Russia heritage. It's a heritage that not too many people have heard much about. We also wanted to put a lot of emphasis on the farmstead and the architecture of the house. The Welk story is a much bigger story to tell with the German-Russian heritage tied into it," said Eiseman.
"We went to the Germans-from-Russia Heritage Society three years ago and asked for their support, and they have given us an enormous amount of information about the German-Russia heritage, including a video that tells about the hardships endured by the German-Russians through the years in Germany, Russia and then here in America."
The Germans-from-Russia Heritage Society, established in 1971, is an international organization based in Bismarck with 1,900 members in 26 chapters: 13 in North Dakota, five in Canada, with the remainder in South Dakota, Montana and Washington.
Clarence Bauman of Bismarck has served as the organization's president and in 1987, he worked closely with Marcella (Mrs. Mike) Volk of Strasburg, and Katie (Mrs. Felix) Wald of Hague, in establishing the Strasburg chapter, named Swartzmeer Stammhalter Verein (Black Sea Rootkeepers Society). For Bauman, who has been instrumental in organizing six other Germans-from-Russia chapters, gathering historical data and preserving sites before they disappear are major challenges.
"We had a real fear that if we didn't help them in preserving the site, it may just disappear," he said.
Based upon what visitors to the homestead are saying now, the joint effort to save the site came at a critical time.
Rosemary Schaefbauer, president of Pioneer Heritage, and one of the attraction's 33 volunteer guides, beams as she recalls remarks made by fans of the ban leader.
"People who had been here before said it's about time we did something to restore Lawrence Welk's birthplace. They had been here previous years. The weeds were so tall and the house was bad, I mean you couldn't even hardly go in. They're just really happy. They like Lawrence Welk so much; they're happy we're doing something to restore it. Now people can see where Lawrence was born and what a humble life he lived."
One thing people are surprised to see is that two of the site's volunteers know the farms as if they grew up there - they did, back when their last name was Welk. Sisters Evelyn and Edna (married to brothers Larry and Jimmy Schwab of Strasburg) are Lawrence Welk's nieces, a fact that Evelyn says has caused more than one ardent Welk fan to exclaim, "Oh, I can't believe it!"
Herry VanderPol, Mount Vernon, Wash., a close friend of the Welk family who has visited the homestead several times, remembers how the empty farmstead was slowly decaying.
"The last time we were here, we couldn't hardly walk up the steps (the outdoor staircase leading to the home's second - story bedroom); it was almost ready to fall down and the weeds were about a foot-and-a-half high. It was evident that there was no one taking care of it."
Years earlier, VanderPol and his family were given the opportunity to buy the farm site from Lawrence's brother, Mike, who lived there until 1966, when he retired in Strasburg.
"The time we were here before that, Mike Welk was (living) here. Of course, he was getting pretty old, he couldn't maintain things anymore. He wanted to sell us the eight acres (the homestead site) of the farm. We kind of thought about it; we felt, way out there in Washington, what are we going to do with Lawrence Welk's farm?"
Less than 18 months ago, no one knew what to do with the farm where Lawrence Welk first learned to play the accordion - in the house, in the barn, wherever he could; often to the dismay of family members. The homestead where Ludwig and Christina Welk raised eight children (another died in Russia) was crumbling away after setting empty for over twenty years. Plans to restore it were five years in the making. Among a group of Strasburg residents who were brainstorming ideas for a North Dakota Centennial project, Mylo Zacker suggested they restore the Welk farmstead.
After many conversations, a series of committees which officially became Pioneer Heritage Inc., began working closely with Shirley Fredricks, Welk's oldest daughter and executive director of the Lawrence Welk Foundation in Santa Monica. The Welk Foundation supported the project, financing a feasibility study that laid the groundwork for the restoration.
The house has been beautifully redone, complete with some of the original furnishings used by the Welk family. Other pieces are on loan from the Yegen Estate (a prominent Bismarck dairy family) and from individuals in the surrounding area. While the farmhouse received much attention, other buildings were not neglected. The restored "summer kitchen" (used to prepare meals during hot weather, allowing the house to stay cool) serves as the tour's starting point. The blacksmith shop, where Ludwig Welk practiced the trade he learned from his father in Russia, (including crafting wrought-iron crosses used as grave makers) was completely rebuilt based on old photos and what remained of its foundation. What used to be a buggy house now serves as a souvenir room where audiotapes of Welk's band and a cookbook featuring favorite recipes of the Welk family are strong sellers. In another part of the same building, the granary is utilized as a theater to view "At Home on the Prairies," the video that chronicles the Germans-from-Russia experience from 1763 through the 1950s.
The restoration of the barn will have to wait until adequate funding - estimated to be $60,000 - is raised. Like the barn, all of the monies used in restoring the farm are from private sources. The failed (and highly publicized) federal grant that would have allocated monies to establish a Germans-from-Russia museum in Strasburg mistakenly led many people to believe that the Welk homestead restoration was federally funded. It wasn't.
Volunteer tour guides Ervin and Lucille Hirning from nearby Hague, enjoy the sense of comradery they experience with other volunteers and especially the casual, neighborly atmosphere that surrounds every individual tour - of which no two are exactly alike. Visitors are encouraged to ask about the Welk family and pioneer life in general. Lucille says that for many visitors who grew up in the first half of this century, touring the house with its 1920s furnishings and appliances, walking around the restored farmstead complete with old farm implements, and watching the Germans-from-Russia video stirs their own memories of a simpler time and place they called home.
"A lot of older folks will start to talk about their younger years and how much everything has changed."
Visitors at the site bring more than just a hunger to experience another era. They bring their appetites (and those of their vehicles) to Strasburg's Main Street as well.
Al and Katie Kramer, owners of Pin Palace Lanes & Cafe since 1966, are pleased to see more hungry people come to their restaurant. Al estimates that tourist business has "increased 15 to 20 percent over last year," adding that it benefits other businesses too. "They come here to eat, fill gas, and we sell some souvenirs. I see a future in the town of Strasburg (concerning tourism). We should have done this 25 years ago."
Rosemary Schaefbauer echoes Kramer's thoughts.
"Hey, the whole town has everything to gain. It's too bad this wasn't started about 20 years ago."
The Pioneer Heritage board of directors is thrilled with the success of its first season and is gearing up for the site's official dedication in 1992.
Besides a dedication ceremony, Eiseman says plans to schedule several activities on a monthly or a bimonthly basis are being considered.
"We're looking at possible events like Sodbuster Days, Western Days (in conjunction with the annual rodeo), an ethnic festival (featuring all types of ethnic foods and arts and crafts show) and other types of events to relive the heritage of the early 1900s."
Eiseman adds that "There's more than just German-Russian heritage in the region. We have Dutch settlements here too."
In 1992, the Welk homestead is scheduled to open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week starting May 15 through September 15, with off-season group tours available by appointment.
Whether you're a fan of Lawrence or want to experience the German-Russian heritage that shaped the lives of thousands of families like Ludwig and Christina Welk's, the $2.50 per person admission is an inexpensive and fun way to travel 70 years back in time.
Reprinted with permission of North Dakota Horizons.