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Dennis: Farmstead has future beyond Welk

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opinion Dickinson, 58602
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

In his State of the Union address in 1992, President George H.W. Bush condemned a federal grant that was bound for North Dakota to build “a Lawrence Welk museum.”

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A Grand Forks Herald editorial responded this way: “Bush’s words were meant to stir up antagonism against excessive and wasteful federal spending. It’s a good target.

Tom Dennis

“But the grant Bush referred to was neither excessive nor wasteful. … What’s more, the money wasn’t intended for a museum honoring Lawrence Welk. Instead, it would have been used to build a museum honoring German settlers who came from Russia and settled much of the Great Plains.”

And that was a worthwhile goal, given that America hosts a great many museums celebrating immigrants’ heritage, the editorial noted. Furthermore, a million descendants of Germans-from-Russia call America home, and a full 43 percent of North Dakotans have German ancestry.

And as it was in 1992, so it is, in some ways, in 2014.

The State Historical Society’s decision to buy Lawrence Welk’s boyhood homestead near Strasburg, also is being criticized as an expensive effort to celebrate a performer of fading appeal.

And the criticism would be valid if that was, in fact, what the society is trying to do. But it’s not. In fact, the criticism misses the key points in much the same way that President Bush did in his State of the Union speech.

For starters, the North Dakota Historical Society is neither spending an extravagant sum nor is committing to spending vast amounts in the future.

Instead, the society’s board voted to buy the property for just $100,000, using money that the Legislature appropriated for that very purpose.

In addition, “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,” Forum News Service reported.

“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.”

The key phrase in that paragraph is “the 2015 Legislature.” It shows that lawmakers remain in control of the process. They’ll have every chance to cut it short in 2015 or beyond, if North Dakotans come to feel that the purchase is not proving its worth.

Second and just as important, the society has no intention of building a “Lawrence Welk museum” or even of centering the entire attraction around the late performer.

Instead, the ultimate idea is to tell the story of Germans from Russia, an immigrant population with a history of astonishing drama and depth. It’s a fact that a great many Germans from Russia settled in the Strasburg region, and that a great many of those settlers lived in homes just like Welk’s.

“That is the story of this farmstead,” as one supporter stated in an email.

It is only a “footnote” that the farmstead is where Welk grew up.

Does that leave plenty of questions about the funding of a Germans from Russia interpretive site? Sure. But so far, North Dakota and its Historical Society are committed only to examining the options and not much more.

The homestead purchase keeps the property in public hands while North Dakotans and their lawmakers decide what to do. Given the site’s potential, that’s a reasonable outcome, and the Historical Board was wise to pursue it.

Dennis is the opinion editor of the Grand Forks Herald, which is part of Forum News Service. Email him at tdennis@gfherald.com.

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