Lawrence Welk was, in some ways, North Dakota’s first celebrity. The famous bandleader was born on his German-speaking family’s homestead near Strasburg in 1903, but his dreams of music led him away from North Dakota. Welk worked and played local dances for four years to repay his father $400 for his first accordion. He left North Dakota at age 21 and pursued professional music, growing in popularity as his career progressed, playing dances, ballrooms and resorts, then to television and the long-running “Lawrence Welk Show.”
Welk didn’t forget his North Dakota roots. He returned in 1961 to celebrate the centennial of Dakota Territory. He spent his first night as a guest of Governor Bill Guy at the North Dakota governor’s mansion in Bismarck after being feted as “honorary Dakota Territory Governor” in Manchester, South Dakota. That event was part of the Centennial Gold Rush celebration that drew 100,000 people to the tiny town.
The next day, this date in 1961, Governor Guy commissioned Welk as the first honorary colonel of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Welk received a leather scroll for membership of the new organization. Welk and Guy participated in the Ward County Diamond Jubilee parade, which attracted 20,000 spectators in Minot.
Later that day, he performed near Mandan during intermission for an outdoor play that drew an overflow crowd. Welk, along with a state lawmaker and a tenor from his orchestra, gave a short performance that included singing, waltzing, polka dancing and of course the accordion. Strasburg cheese circulated in recognition of Strasburg Day and Welk’s hometown.
The next day, Welk visited Strasburg for a banquet and family reunion. More than 400 people crammed the venue to rub elbows with the music man, who also danced and sang. Welk and his family also visited the old homestead that day. He received many thankyous from locals for helping fund the new swimming pool, gifting an organ for Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, and a loudspeaker for the local civic club. Welk left Strasburg the next day to return to California to tape his television show.
Welk retired in 1982 at age 79. Reruns of his show are still on the air today.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
The Bismarck Tribune. 1961, Aug. 28. Page 16.
The Bismarck Tribune. 1961, Aug. 29. Page 1.
The Bismarck Tribune. 1961, Aug. 30. Page 1.