Lawrence Welk has a place in the U.S. cultural history of the 1950s and 1960s, but building a tourist attraction around his legacy is an exercise in futility.
The State Historical Society of North Dakota is considering buying the boyhood home of Lawrence Welk, though some worry the farmstead may not draw many tourists because most of the famed champagne music bandleader’s fans have died or will do so soon.
So the organization proposes to use Welk’s home in the tiny town of Strasburg to also highlight the importance of agriculture and the region’s German-Russian heritage.
“Even with the Welk legacy aside, it’s history worth preserving,” said Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Lehr, who successfully fought this year to include funding for the bandleader’s birthplace in the historical society’s budget.
The idea comes two decades after Congress earmarked $500,000 to develop a tourist industry in Strasburg, including a museum of German-Russian heritage to draw visitors to Welk’s birthplace. Embarrassed lawmakers later withdrew the money when the idea was mocked nationally as a symbol of wasteful spending.
Merl Paaverud, director of the historical society, said the agency’s board meets July 12 and may decide whether to spend $100,000 on the six-acre parcel that includes the home where Welk and his seven siblings were born. The property is still owned by Welk’s extended family and includes a barn, summer kitchen, granary, buggy house, blacksmith shop and outhouse.
The home, about 75 miles southeast of Bismarck, has been on the market since last fall.
“It’s not a done deal,” Paaverud said. “We’ll be taking input from people, locals and interested parties.”
Sen. Joe Miller, R-Park River, said he’s a fan of the North Dakota-born bandleader — but he doesn’t think the state should foot the bill for Welk’s birthplace.
“It’s just less money we could put toward tax relief, roads or whatever,” Miller said.
North Dakota’s newfound oil wealth has placed unprecedented demands on lawmakers for spending, from the mandatory to the absurd, Miller said.
“Just because people think we have lots of money people think they can come at us with ridiculous requests,” he said.
Welk’s nieces, Evelyn Schwab, 84, and Edna Schwab, 80, have given tours of the farmstead since it was restored with private funds in the early 1990s. Welk donated about $140,000 for the restoration before his death in 1992 at age 89, Evelyn Schwab said.
Though Welk returned home often, “He never lived to see the place restored,” she said. “That was the sad part.”
Not a fan of farm life, Welk left North Dakota when he was 21 after performing at barn dances and other community events. His big break came when ABC picked up his eponymous television show in 1955. The show, famous for its bubble machine and Welk’s phrases “Ah-one, an’ ah-two” and “wunnerful, wunnerful” in his German accent, ran until 1971 and is still shown in reruns.
The Schwabs said Welk’s farmstead drew more than 7,000 people in 1992 but attendance has slipped to about 500 last year.
“For the first few years, we were swamped with people but as the years go by attendance has dropped — younger kids have their own types of music now,” Evelyn Schwab said. “If it wasn’t for reruns, it would have died out a long time ago.”
The Schwab sisters and Sen. Erbele, whose district includes Strasburg, said the state’s purchase of the farmstead would preserve Welk’s musical legacy and bring in much-needed tourism dollars.
“We think $100,000 is a drop in the bucket for the state,” Evelyn Schwab said. “It would help with economic development because we’re not benefiting from the big (oil) boom out west.”
Visitors still trickle in to see Welk’s home but many are at least as old as the 80-something Schwab sisters. Fans from Canada and Alaska visited this week, along with an elderly Iowa woman who’d always wanted to see where Welk grew up.
“She cried when she arrived and said, ‘I cannot believe I’m here,'” Edna Schwab said.
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Photo credit: In this Oct. 10, 2002, file photo Edna Schwab walks toward the front door of the Lawrence Welk farm house in Strasburg, N.D., where Welk taught himself to play accordion. Will Kincaid / Associated Press