Three cheers for the State Historical Society of North Dakota for voting to buy the Lawrence Welk homestead at Strasburg. The vote of the SHSND advisory board on Jan. 10 was ah-six-a to ah-five. Lawrence Welk is as much a part of our heritage as Sitting Bull or Custer or Lewis and Clark, none of whom knew they were North Dakotans. Welk never forgot for a moment. If Bobby and Cissy had danced on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Meriwether Lewis would have cheered up and written his book after all.
I’m saddened to hear the naysayers on the editorial pages, blogs, and radio talk shows sneer at Lawrence Welk’s greatness, or say that era of our history is “past and good riddance,” or that Lawrence Welk is a cornpone source of cultural embarrassment to North Dakota, or that “we cannot afford to be spending our hard-earned tax dollars on something of so little importance.” Hard earned?
Remember, the North Dakota tourism theme is “Legendary.” The Lawrence Welk Show ran on national commercial television (ABC) for 27.5 years, 1,065 episodes, some of them in living Technicolor. Add to that syndication and three decades of public television reruns, and you have one of the handful of most popular and most important programs in the history of television. Creator and host? A rural North Dakotan who followed his dream and ventured off of a hardscrabble farm into national prominence--and yet never forgot where he came from.
I know the Welk homestead is “lightly visited,” to put it mildly. The place where the Champagne Music Master was born and where he first played the accordion is visited by only a few hundred folks per year. Hard to think there will be much of a turnaround even under the superb management and better interpretation of the State Historical Society. But that’s not the point. I know the Welk farm is out of the way, that you don’t just happen upon it on your trip to Minneapolis or Denver or Big Sky. You have to want to go there, and when you get there, out there in the middle of nowhere, there is not very much to see. Maybe that IS the point. Welk should be a hero to every dreamy North Dakota kid who wants to start a band in his garage, every fifth grade doodler who dreams of being Michelangelo, every shy farm girl who dreams of being a Rockette or performing with the Berlin Philharmonic.
At a time when North Dakota is undergoing a massive industrial, social, and economic transformation, letting its rich ethnic heritages blink out without so much as a fare thee well, it is in our interest as a people to remember who we are, where we came from, and how hard our forefathers worked to prove up this state.
Lawrence Welk was born on March 11, 1903. North Dakota had been a state for just 13 years. He was the sixth of eight children born to Ludwig and Christiana Welk, who had immigrated to America in 1892 from north of Odessa in today’s Ukraine. During their first winter on the Great Plains the Welks lived under an upturned wagon covered with blocks of sod. Think of that! By this standard the family of Laura Ingalls Wilder were aristocrats. No running water. No electricity. A primitive outhouse. Not a tree in 30 miles. Buffalo chips for fuel. No radio, no telephone, no link of any sort to the world beyond the wind-blasted prairie.
Welk’s rags-to-riches story has a mythical, almost Biblical quality to it. When he was scarcely more than a boy, he somehow convinced his father Ludwig to allow him to order a mail-order accordion for $400. That’s a lot of money today. It was a small fortune in 1910 or 1915 dollars. He promised his father he would toil on the farm until he was 21 to pay him back for the accordion, and that any money he earned off the farm laboring for neighbors would be contributed to the family’s needs. He fulfilled his commitment.
After touring the home counties and then the Dakotas with bands directed by others, Welk plucked together a couple of starter bands —the Hotsy Totsy Boys and later the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra — and for several decades traveled all across America performing in bandstands, gymnasiums, municipal auditoriums, and ballrooms. In 1951, he settled in Los Angeles and, well, you know the rest.
Full disclosure. I’m not particularly a Lawrence Welk fan. I don’t plan my Sunday evenings around Lawrence Welk Show (LWS) rebroadcasts on Prairie Public Television. But I am in love with the heritage of North Dakota, and a huge fan of what Welk represents in the history and culture of this state. There was a time when Welk was our greatest national figure (perhaps our only national figure), when every North Dakotan — whether you liked his music or not — felt pride that someone from this windswept and isolated prairie state had risen to such national prominence. We also recognized that Lawrence Welk had not (like Angie Dickinson, for example) done everything in his power to abandon and repudiate his North Dakota roots. We knew that he was proud of his Germans-from-Russia heritage, proud to be a North Dakotan, unwilling to take voice lessons to homogenize his accent into American Midwestern bland.
He came back to North Dakota frequently. He performed at the Medora Musical. In many ways, he inspired the Medora Musical, and for a time there was a considerable revolving door between the talent his friend Harold Schafer was featuring at the Burning Hills Amphitheater and the cast of the LWS. Harold and Sheila Schafer discovered Tom Netherton. Sheila remembers the moment on the Apple Creek Country Club (at that time the “Pebble Beach” of North Dakota) when she forced Welk to pause long enough on the tee box of the fifth hole to listen to Netherton audition. Welk signed Netherton on the spot. Legendary.
At one time, tens of thousands of North Dakotans played the accordion. Invented in the 1820s-40s in Germany and Russia, it’s versatile, capable of producing beautiful music, but (more to the point) portable and powered without electricity. That makes it a perfect instrument for the American frontier. Imagine how dreary the history of the Great Plains would have been without the accordion. It is to German and German-Russian culture what the fiddle was to Virginia and Kentucky in the age of Jefferson. Not long ago I asked the great troubadour Chuck Suchy how many people now play the accordion in North Dakota. “A couple of hundred, just maybe a few thousand still,” he said, “but not for much longer.”
Some people have been suggesting that the Welk home be moved to Buckstop Junction at Bismarck or Bonanzaville at West Fargo, as a cost-effectiveness gesture, so that more people will have the opportunity to see the home where he grew up. But that defeats the purpose altogether. At Bonanzaville the Welk house is just a modest clapboard house ripped from its context. Out there on the godforsaken prairie in the Sauerkraut Triangle, it’s a lonely but important shrine. It is worth a long day’s pilgrimage.
I hope the Historical Society will stabilize it, conserve it as it is, and not put up a modern interpretive center. I hope they erect some thoughtful out-of-the-way interpretive signage, but mostly just maintain the Welk homestead as a symbol of what we once were, and all the great possibilities that grew from all those humble beginnings.
(Clay Jenkinson is the Theodore Roosevelt Center scholar at Dickinson State University, as well as Distinguished Scholar of the Humanities at Bismarck State College and director of the Dakota Institute. Clay can be reached at Jeffysage@aol.com or through his website, Jeffersonhour.org.)