Bismarck, N.D. • Pop the cork and start the bubble machine: North Dakota has agreed to buy the boyhood home of Lawrence Welk, the maestro of "champagne music" and the one of the state’s most famous sons.
The North Dakota State Historical Society voted 6-5 Friday to buy the property in Strasburg from Welk’s nieces, Evelyn Schwab, 84, and Edna Schwab, 80. The property in the southern part of the state has been listed for sale for more than a year, with an asking price of $125,000. A final sale price hasn’t been negotiated.
"Twenty years ago, we would never have thought of selling it," Evelyn Schwab said. "The time has come now."
The Schwabs 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.
The site drew more than 7,000 people in 1992, but attendance has since slipped to only a few hundred per year, the Schwabs said.
Last year, the Legislature allocated $100,000 for the society’s purchase of the 6-acre homestead, but lawmakers stipulated that repairs must be made first. The purchase agreement is contingent on negotiated repairs being made to the property, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The home on the outskirts of the town of about 400 people, many of whom still converse in German, features a life-size cutout of an accordion-wielding Welk to greet guests. The homestead includes a barn, summer kitchen, granary, buggy house, blacksmith shop and outhouse. The historical society envisions the property as a tourist destination to tout the importance of agriculture and the region’s German-Russian heritage.
The purchase comes two decades after Congress earmarked $500,000 in federal funds to develop a tourist industry in Strasburg. The money included a museum of German-Russian heritage that was intended to draw visitors to the band leader’s birthplace. Lawmakers later withdrew the money when the idea was mocked as a national symbol of wasteful spending.
The National Taxpayers Union said at the time it was "hard to imagine a more inappropriate use of taxpayer funds."
Several people, most of them elderly, packed the Historical Society’s meeting in Bismarck and spoke in favor of the purchase.
"It would be a shame and national embarrassment to let it fall down," said Gary Satern of Bismarck. Satern said he feared if the state did not purchase the property, it would be turned into a hunting lodge with "beer cans in the yard."
Merl Paaverud, director of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, estimated the site would require an annual state appropriation of about $60,000 for maintenance and to pay part-time staff. Repairs and improvements totaling more than $500,000 also are needed, he said.
"We don’t have the funding to operate and maintain it right now," Paaverud said.
Volunteers from the region have pledged to help staff the facility through the summer of 2015, he said. That is when the Legislature next meets.
Welk left Strasburg at age 21 to start a musical career that took him from dance halls in the Dakotas to national television. He became known as the "King of Champagne Music" for his bubbly dance tunes and added to the national lexicon with his heavily German-accented phrases, "Ah-one, an’ ah-two" and "wunnerful, wunnerful."
Board member Kelly Schmidt, who also is the state treasurer, said she was troubled by locking the state into the purchase of the Welk farmstead when so many of the details remained unknown. She also wondered if it might set a precedent, mentioning University of North Dakota alumnus and NBA legend Phil Jackson as an example.
"Heck, maybe we should be buying the dorm room for Phil Jackson."
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