N.D. Historical Society votes 6-5 to buy Welk’s homestead as tourist site
BISMARCK – Ah-one, an-ah-two, and … the third time was the charm for supporters of turning Lawrence Welk’s boyhood home into a state-run tourist attraction.
The state Historical Board voted 6-5 Friday to spend $100,000 to buy the Welk homestead, putting the onus on state lawmakers to fund the site’s day-to-day operation.
The Legislature approved $100,000 last spring for the state Historical Society to buy the site near the south-central North Dakota city of Strasburg where Welk was born.
But lawmakers did not include money to operate the site, which is owned by Welk’s two nieces, Evelyn and Edna Schwab, who give tours of the homestead.
Welk, born in 1903, left the family farm at age 21 to pursue a music career that saw him advance from a big-band leader to weekly host of “The Lawrence Welk Show,” featuring his distinct “champagne music.” The show aired on ABC from 1955 until 1971 and continues to run in syndication.
Board members voted to buy the 6-acre homestead on the condition that the Tri-County Tourism Alliance will operate the site until June 30, 2015, which it has verbally committed to doing, Historical Society Director Merl Paveruud said.
The Historical Society will then take over operation of the site on July 1, 2015 — that is, assuming the 2015 Legislature approves operating funds. The state estimates operating costs at about $69,000 per year.
Friday’s vote to buy the property also reflected lawmakers’ requirement that the homestead be repaired before the state buys it. An assessment last year by the Historical Society pegged the cost of needed repairs at $488,000 to $578,000.
How much of that repair work must be done before the purchase moves forward has yet to be determined, Paveruud said.
The property about 75 miles southeast of Bismarck has been on the market for about two and a half years.
The Schwab sisters said they enjoyed giving tours of the site, but the time had come to sell it.
“I have a very good feeling that if the state takes over, it will be a great asset to the state and to the community,” Evelyn Schwab said after the board’s vote.
Secretary of State Al Jaeger, who like Welk is a descendant of Germans from Russia, made the motion to purchase the property, saying that while the site is Welk’s boyhood home, “it represents, I think, far more than that.”
State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt voted against the purchase, saying she supported buying the homestead but wanted operating funds secured before the sale closed.
Erbele said when lawmakers approved $100,000 in the Historical Society budget to buy the homestead “we knew full well that when you buy something, you’re going to have to operate it,” he said.
If the Legislature doesn’t approve operating funds, the board would have the option of transferring ownership of the homestead to the local tourism group, Paaverud said.
Schmidt also raised concerns about the purchase setting a precedent.
“Everything is special to someone. And if we are asked and called to be purchasing projects across the state, I mean, heck, maybe we should be buying the dorm room for Phil Jackson,” she said, referring to the Williston high school graduate and University of North Dakota alum who went on to become one of the NBA’s most successful coaches.
The board, which had tabled action on the homestead purchase twice before, heard impassioned pleas from supporters of the site.
State Sen. Robert Erbele, a Republican and rancher from Lehr about 55 miles northeast of Strasburg, said the homestead would be the state’s only historical site to showcase what life was like for 19th century homesteaders, while also sharing the heritage of North Dakota’s largest ethnic group, Germans from Russia.
“It’s really the American story and the American dream,” he said.
In 1961, Welk became the first recipient of the state’s Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, which referred to him as “North Dakota’s most famous ‘favorite son.’ “ He died in 1992 at the age of 89.
The sale also includes personal property appraised at nearly $50,000, including two accordions, several mannequins and a shotgun.
North Dakota State University history professor Tom Isern offered about $20,000 worth of labor from himself and graduate-student volunteers to help restore the buildings. He said the Welk homestead will allow visitors to know how history happened not just in an intellectual way, “but know it in their bones.”
Gary Satern, who oversaw a $147,000 restoration of the homestead that began in 1989 and was funded by the Welk family, said the place “was falling down” when he arrived.
“There was a cow inside the house,” he said.
In 1992, Congress approved a plan to spend $500,000 on economic development in Strasburg, including developing a museum at the homestead to celebrate the state’s strong ancestry of Germans from Russia. Critics mocked the project as a waste of taxpayer money, and lawmakers ultimately overturned the funding.
Satern noted the site is on the National Register of Historic Places, and he said the condition of the buildings — which include a barn, summer kitchen, granary and blacksmith shop — is “not that bad.”
“It would be a shame and a national embarrassment to let it fall down,” he said.