Lawrence Welk Birthplace
Strasburg, North Dakota
Lawrence Welk is one of North Dakota's favorite sons, a local boy who made it big. He was born on the outskirts of Strasburg in a sod house and -- though North Dakotans may not like to hear it -- hated the place. He hated farming, hated his parents, and for all we know he hated North Dakota. The sixth of nine children, he essentially sold himself into slavery to his Dad to pay back $400 he borrowed to buy his first accordion. He left home for good on his 21st birthday and never looked back, playing weddings and radio barn dances until, in 1955, he finally debuted on national TV. His parents weren't around to see it; they had been dead for 15 years.
Lawrence's birthplace, officially known as the Ludwig and Christina Welk Farmstead, is nestled among wheat fields north of town, but fairly easy to find. A boom box sits in a window of the farmstead barn, pumping out happy accordion music. All you have to do is turn off Highway 83 and follow your ears.
An Ungrateful Child
The farmstead is very soothing, much like Lawrence Welk's music. A small main house, freshly painted and neat-as-a-pin, stands among a few cottonwood trees flanked by a summer kitchen, a barn, a granary, a windmill, a blacksmith shop, and the Lawrence Welk celebrity outhouse. In the barn, up in the hayloft door, stands a dummy wearing a Beatles moptop wig and holding an accordion. This is supposed to represent young Lawrence. A bandstand, "dedicated to him" in 1989, stands off to one side. Lawrence didn't attend the dedication. His childhood rival played there instead.
In fact, Lawrence never visited at the bandstand and never saw the years of effort that his neighbors and friends put into restoring his birthplace. He often donated money to Strasburg, but specifically requested that none of it go to the farmstead restoration. He was invited many times to view the work in progress, but refused every offer. He died in 1992 in sunny, southern California, the year the restoration was completed. It is not recorded that he cared.
But you'll never suspect that when you visit. A happy, jolly Lawrence spirit fills the farmstead, as if he just stepped away to milk the cows or lay down a few bars of The Beer Barrel Polka and would be right back. In the main house, a life-size cardboard cutout of Mr. Wunnerful -- clad in a very angelic white tux, baton in mid-twirl -- stands in the far corner of the family dining room, beaming approval at entering visitors. Champagne orchestra music from Lawrence's glory days fills every room from unseen speakers. His original accordion (the same one that motivated him to get out of North Dakota) sits in a chair.
The farmstead proudly displays three U.S. maps covered with hundreds of colored pushpins. The pins mark the home towns of every visitor to the Lawrence Welk Birthplace for the past three years. When we visited, the pins averaged over 7,000 annually, and showed that the heaviest concentration of Lawrence Welk fans came from -- no surprise -- North Dakota, then swept south and east in a belt across southwestern Minnesota and Iowa. Big fan clusters could also be seen near San Francisco and Los Angeles.
It was hard for us to believe that several thousand people came to the farmstead every year. The place was deserted. We mentioned that to Edna Schwab, one of Lawrence's nieces, and made the mistake of adding that some of the buildings must get dusty, unused as they are, over the course of a summer. "You don't think they're clean?" she cried, her face horrorstruck. "We always try to keep the place clean." "No, no," we quickly replied. "It's clean. It's very clean."
It's tempting to assume that the emptiness at the Welk Farmstead means something significant: a passing of the torch to a new generation of livelier musicians, a sign that old mega-celebrities do indeed fade away. But maybe we just visited on a slow day.
Update: In 2014 the Farmstead was sold by Welk's relatives to the State Historical Society of North Dakota, which has pledged to give the place a facelift and take over its operation in 2015.