Looking back on years of broadcasting…
In May 1922, the Dakota Radio Apparatus Company was established in Yankton. President of the firm was E.O. Walgren, an accountant and former official of the Schwenk-Barth Brewing Company. E.C. “Al” Madson, a man from Mankato, Minn., with radio experience, applied to the U.S. Department of Commerce for a license to operate a “sending station” in conjunction with the company’s sales activities as a distributor of Crosley radios. Commerce Secretary and future United States President Herbert Hoover approved, and WNAX was born in 1922.
Madson and Walgren teamed with Cecil Bauer to set up their radio equipment on the second floor of the Wagner Block on the west side of Walnut between Third and Fourth streets. Then, with an aerial strung between two pipes on the roof of the building, Madson prepared with 50 watts of power to reach out to the estimated 500 receivers within a 40-mile radius of Yankton.
On Nov. 25, 1922, WNAX broadcasted music from a “talking machine” as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the First National Bank (now First Dakota). On Dec.1, 1922, WNAX broadcasted its first radio concert from 10:30 p.m. to 11:45 p.m. The station received congratulatory messages from the surrounding area throughout the next day. An equal amount of enthusiasm swept over receiving set owners when WNAX broadcast its second concert from the Hess (now Dakota) Theater on Dec. 10 with the municipal band providing music.
Radio buffs were excited, but WNAX in 1922 was developing too quickly for Yankton. Potential advertisers did not invest in the new concept because it was new and untested, and the programming was too unstable. Over the next few years the station went on and off the air, often having to accept a part-time broadcast schedule.
In 1925, John Chandler “Chan” Gurney, D. B. Gurney’s son, began making a reputation for himself as a talented announcer and programmer for the station. At the same time, D. B. began to notice the successful efforts of his major competitor, Field’s Seed and Nursery Company of Shenandoah, Iowa, broadcasting on station KFNF.
Chan was sent to Shenandoah to look over the KTFN set-up, and upon his return home, he recommend that his father purchase WNAX located in Yankton. Madson sold the license to Gurney Seed and Nursery for $2,000 and on February 28, 1926, listeners heard: “This is station WNAX, Voice of the House of Gurney in Yankton.” After a brief period in D. B.’s home, the studio was moved to the third floor of the seed house. WNAX’s live talent and folksy commentary attracted thousands of listeners and sold millions of Gurney seeds and trees.
The Gurney seed house building was one of the area’s first shopping centers, housing hairdressers and barbers, dry goods, groceries, jewelry, and medicine. Everything was available from Gurney and all was promoted by WNAX. Product quality and helpful service did the rest, and soon Gurney became a household name.
At this same time, young musician by the name of Lawrence Welk was looking for a home. On his birthday in 1924 — with enough cash for train fare and three one-dollar bills pinned to the inside of his new suit jacket — he embarked with his accordion on what turned out to be a rocky road to stardom.
During the next three years, he played at wedding dances, with a children’s band called the Jazzy Junior Five in Aberdeen and with drummer Frank Schalk wherever they could find a booking. For a brief time he traveled with Lincoln Bould’s Chicago Band, often unpaid. After that he performed with George T. Kelly’s Peerless Entertainers, a small vaudeville-type troupe for which Lawrence played his accordion, posted handbills, sold candy between acts and acted as a Spanish corpse in a comedy murder sketch. (His German accent was too thick for a speaking part.)
When the Peerless Entertainers folded, Lawrence teamed with drummer Johnny Higgins, saxophonist Howard Kieser and pianist Art Beal to play dance dates in and around Bismarck. But in the late fall of 1927 when an early blizzard struck, the four men decided they could work just as well where it was warmer, and they headed southward through blowing snow in an old touring car. Their destination was New Orleans — but they never made it!
At 4:30 in the morning (exact date uncertain), they pulled up at the Collins Hotel at Third and Douglas in Yankton, too cold and too tired to continue. He couldn’t know it at the time, but that was the genesis of the Lawrence Welk decade-long odyssey in the Mother City — and that also was when the conflicting accounts of his early career began to develop.
For instance, Richard (Hinky Dink) Wildermuth, a Tripp restaurant operator, claimed to have directed Welk to the fledgling Radio Station WNAX. In his autobiography — Wunderful, Wonderful! Written with publicist Bernice McGeehan — Lawrence says he thought of the idea of going to the station when he strolled the streets of Yankton waiting for his companions to wake up at the Collins. (Later, in an anniversary album, it was reported that he and his band played for the “opening-day broadcast” of WNAX. Not true.)
No matter how it came about, he did seek out Chan Gurney, the station manager, who agreed to give the traveling band an audition. According to Welk, the audition turned out to be a live broadcast less than an hour later. Gurney himself said he fed the tired and dusty young musicians in the nursery company’s cafeteria before putting them on the air; but whichever story is right, the quickly-named Lawrence Welk Novelty Orchestra was an immediate hit.
Chan then offered them a one-week contract which Welk accepted, although New Orleans was still the quartet’s ultimate destination. That one-week contract turned into a commitment to stay on, and Yankton began its continuing relationship with the North Dakota accordionist.
Radio became an important factor in his early success as regular broadcasts over WNAX — with interspersed commercials for Master Liquid Hog Tonic and other Gurney products — helped him book dance engagements for his band throughout the listening area.
His band became the Hotsy Totsy Boys and then the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra, the latter being almost a book-length story in itself. The gum proved to be a highly successful — but brief — promotional gimmick, and contests to crown a Miss Honolulu Fruit Gum in various towns (a vote for every wrapper) resulted in soaring gum sales and large crowds wherever the band played. That, of course, was before the Wrigley Company threatened legal action and ballroom managers complained because dancers left their floors covered with wrappers and wads of gum.
Before that, though, a much more significant incident occurred in Yankton. A group of student nurses from Sacred Heart Hospital attended a Welk broadcast in the WNAX studio, and one of the young ladies — Fern Renner, listed in the nursing school directory as Veronica — caught the eye of the 26-year-old maestro. In his attempts to see her, Lawrence even submitted to a tonsil repair operation at the hospital, thinking that she might be assigned to his case. She wasn’t. (Another version has it that he met her when he was confined at Sacred Heart after a gall bladder attack. Also not true, although Fern visited him in his room during an extended recovery period from the tonsil operation.)
When she took a nursing job at St. Paul’s Hospital in Dallas, Texas, after she had completed her training in 1929, the courtship continued by mail, culminating in an invitation from Lawrence for her to visit him in Denver where his band was playing at the Broadmoor Club. That’s when he convinced her to marry him, and the wedding took place in Sacred Heart Cathedral in Sioux City, Iowa, on April 16, 1931. They and their attendants — Dr. and Mrs. Frank Abts of Yankton — were the only people in the church with Fr. Leo McCoy, then nervously conducting his first wedding ceremony.
After that — off and on for almost half a dozen years — the Welk band headquartered in Yankton, broadcasting over WNAX and playing one-nighters throughout the region. To improve traveling and sleeping conditions for his musicians, he acquired a specially designed sleeper bus and hired Morris Knutsen as a full-time driver. By then the names of Leo Fortin, Terry George and Jerry Burke were prominent among his list of band members. The band vehicle — which Welk himself said resembled a cattle carrier — was a regular fixture at the Deep Rock gas station at Fifth and Broadway when it wasn’t on the road.
A few years later, another star was rising in Yankton. Wynn Speece, known as The Neighbor Lady, set out on radio journey that would continue for 64 years. At the height of her fame in the 1940s and ’50s she received over 250,000 letters a year. One listener wrote, “You really saved my neck. I just couldn’t keep my new oil stove clean until I heard on your program how.” But the Neighbor Lady means more than household tips. She’s a human connection.
“I remember one letter as if it were yesterday,” says Speece. “She said, ‘You are the only female voice I hear all winter long.” WNAX reached out to listeners. It sponsored live music shows, farm meetings, cooking get-togethers. The station had a warehouse which sold everything from fuel to food. In 1943 WNAX built a new broadcast tower, which it called the tallest in the U.S. To celebrate, the station threw a party. An estimated 30,000 people came to Yankton on Sept. 4, 1943 for live music, speeches and food.
The highlight was a contest to choose a farm family which best represented the Midwest. The nominees came from Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. The winner was Otto and Marie Baumhoefner of Welcome, Minn. On the stage with her parents was the young Marian Baumhoefner, now Marian Meyer.
“It was a tremendous shock,” says Meyer. “My dad sucked in his breath and my mother put a hand to her forehead and she said ‘Oh my, oh my.’ I can hear her saying this yet.”
The Baumhoefners won a tractor for the honor. They also won a trip to Oregon. There they were part of a christening ceremony for a World War II freight ship, the “SS Midwest Farmer”. Marian’s mother, Marie Baumhoefner, swung the champagne bottle. WNAX recorded the event.
Moments like this from the station’s past were preserved by Ted Kneebone of Aberdeen, S.D. Thirty years ago he was working in a college library in Yankton. He had an interest in preserving old recordings. One day a friend called to say WNAX was throwing out some records.
“He said, ‘There are some LPs and 45s and there’s a big batch of rather large, oversized kinds of discs here,” remembers Kneebone. “And I said, ‘Don’t throw them away, I’m out to get them.’”
The big discs were recordings of WNAX on the air. At the time it seemed like no big deal. But Kneebone’s action became positively momentous in 1983. That December a fire destroyed the station’s main building and its remaining live historic recordings.
WNAX staff regrouped at its transmitter site a few miles away and resumed broadcasting. It was a daunting moment. News Director Jerry Oster says the station, which once counted thousands of music records in its libraries, was left that morning with just two.
“We had a Big Bird album and we had a Charlie Daniels Christmas album that we signed on with,” says Oster. But the station recovered and continues to broadcast from a Yankton studio. Oster says he still feels good about the business.
“Here we are at an AM radio station, in the early part of the 21st century,” says Oster. “Radio’s been pronounced dead half a dozen times. TV was going to kill it, the Internet’s going to kill it. But we’re still here.”
Over the years, a countless number of well known air personalities have called WNAX home at one time or another. Check back often as we will update our website with new video and pictures of the people who have worked at WNAX over the years.