MONROE — While the current Turner Hall building in Monroe has been around since 1938, the community has hailed the location on 17th avenue since the 1860s.
“It used to be the host of almost every activity,” said Sherry Anderegg, longtime historian for both Cheese Days and Turner Hall. “A lot of people met their husbands or wives there.”
For more than 150 years, Turner Hall has treated Monroe, its neighbors and visitors to events, entertainment, good eats and the occasional celebrity sighting — all while trying to maintain the aura of its Swiss background. It’s one of the last — if not, the last — Swiss-origin turnhalle remaining in the United States.
“Turner Hall is a local treasure dedicated to continuing Monroe’s Swiss heritage,” said John Waelti, a former Turner Hall board member.
The building, a Swiss Emmental-style chalet designed by German architect Max Hanisch, features a grand hall, authentic restaurant and bowling alley. A variety of events litter the calendar every week in a typical year, from dances and entertainment to annual events honoring holidays and Swiss traditions.
Décor both inside and outside of the building brings visitors to a land half a world away. The Swiss folk wall paintings, known as Bauernmalerei, were painted by Janeen Babler. Historical artifacts, paintings, photos and memorabilia scatter the walls of the old world-style Ratskeller Restaurant, and a low-light ambience allows guests to relax in their chair, a reminder of an evening in the old country.
The menu of the Ratskeller boasts authentic Swiss dishes, like Kalberwuest, Schnitzel, Schüblig, Käsechüchli, Älplermagronen, Hühnerschnitzel and Bavarian pretzels and Apfelstrudel.
The early days of Turner Hall
The first hall was built in 1868 by Swiss immigrants, which had found the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin similar to that of their homesteads in Glarus, Switzerland. The hall was a gymnastics training center, and in the German language, a gymnast is called a “turner,” and a “turnhalle” is a gymnast’s hall. While the hall allowed the Swiss settlers to maintain many of their traditions, the building soon became the center of community activities.
“The first building was used as more of a community center, and not just a Swiss center, but the Turn und Schwing Club was a very big part of it,” Anderegg said. The Turn und Schwing later changed its name to the Swiss-American Gymnastics Club, but its members are currently inactive.
One local gymnast, Marie Margaret (Blumer) Hoesly Herbert, put Monroe on the gymnastics map. Her father, Fred Blumer, was a Swiss immigrant who moved to Monroe to become a cheesemaker. Also a gymnast, he got his children involved in the sport with the Turn und Schwing club.
Marie toured the Midwest and the country in over 20 years of competition. At the age of 35, she qualified for the 1952 Helsinki Olympic games, finishing sixth for the United States in the all-around. She was an alternate on the 1948 and 1956 U.S. Olympic teams as well.
There was a dance going on and people didn’t believe it was burning, and just kept on dancing. Finally, the smoke started to enter the grand hall and everyone got out. Mary Zimmerman’s father’s band was playing that night. They kept on playing music like in the movie Titanic. They were the last ones out.Sherry Anderegg, Turner Hall historian
Turner Hall and its members also stepped up to help the community in multiple facets. In 1898, Companies H and K met at Turner Hall before shipping off to the Spanish-American War. There were also Civil War reunions in those times, allowing local former soldiers to meet up with their fellow Yankees over drinks and music.
When a devastating hurricane hit Galveston, Texas in 1900, Turner Hall held a fundraiser for Clara Barton and the American Red Cross.
Early 20th century politician William Jennings Bryan, who ran for president three times, visited the old Turner Hall, and there was also once a prohibition rally, which Anderegg said wasn’t well received.
“The Monroe Times reported that the young Swiss men treated them rudely. They didn’t want anyone telling them not to drink booze,” she said.
Destruction and rebuilding
Weekend dances featuring live music were popular year-round, but on Labor Day 1936, the original Turner Hall structure was struck by lightning and caught fire during a dance. Luckily, there were no fatalities.
“There was a dance going on and people didn’t believe it was burning, and just kept on dancing. Finally, the smoke started to enter the grand hall and everyone got out,” Anderegg said. “Mary Zimmerman’s father’s band was playing that night. They kept on playing music like in the movie Titanic. They were the last ones out.”
Wasting no time at all, those in charge of Turner Hall of Monroe, a non-profit Wisconsin Chapter 181 Corporation, began planning a new building. Hanisch was hired and in less than two years the new, modernized building was completed. In 1982 it was listed in both the National and State Registers of Historical Places.
“There was a three-day grand opening in 1938. There were so many people lined up to get inside,” Anderegg said, adding that the line extended almost to the Square.
Inside, in order for patrons to dance, a rope was put up in the middle of the room from the stage to the door. After each song, the rope moved either left or right, and everyone on that side squeezed in against the wall, which would open just enough space for the other half of the room to dance.
“People were hanging out of the windows, I was told,” Anderegg said.
Decades after the fire, Anderegg was eating a Sunday brunch in the Ratskeller Restaurant when a family entered and began asking the waitress information on the building. With her vast knowledge of the hall’s history, Anderegg soon found herself in conversation with the group.
The family was originally from Monroe and involved in the Turn und Schwing club. The father of the family, Emil Preisig, had been a Turn und Schwing instructor. The family reminisced about a cold winter dance in 1936. In those times, families didn’t hire babysitters when they went out, Anderegg said, with children usually falling asleep on coats until their parents tired out. Sometimes the men would head downstairs to the bar for a few extra drinks after the event ended.
On that particular cold winter’s night, Mr. Preisig went downstairs for a few drinks, leaving his family in a frozen car with little heat. Mrs. Preisig shivered and mumbled to her daughters in the frigid vehicle about wishing the building would burn down, presumably so her family could head home that night and warm up.
I would accompany (my parents) to the tavern down stairs where they would have a beer with friends and I would enjoy a bottle of orange pop. That was a real treat for kids in those days.John Waelti
“The cars back then didn’t have much for a heater — if they had a heater at all. Wives and children weren’t allowed in the bars back then, even though Wisconsin was more forward thinking than a lot of other places. Being stuck in that cold car, tired, with children? I don’t blame her at all,” Anderegg laughed.
Months later when the building lay in ashes, Mrs. Preisig placed the blame on her wish, and not the coincidental lightning bolt. Her family told Anderegg she never forgave herself.
Center of the community
The rebuilt Turner Hall, sometimes known as the Turner Opera House, was the place to be for many decades, Anderegg said. Roller skating, basketball games, professional wrestling and boxing all took place in the building.
“Jack Dempsey refereed a couple boxing matches here. He was friends with someone in town, actually,” Anderegg said.
Guests also gathered to watch movies, dance, dine, listen to famous music artists and their bands, like Lawrence Welk, and greet rising politicians, like John F. Kennedy, who campaigned at the location in 1960. Kennedy wasn’t the only politician to swing by the home of the local Turn and Schwing. Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy of “Red Scare” fame once spoke an event at Turner Hall.
Waelti’s earliest memories of Turner Hall date back to the 1940s, when he attended dances and weddings with his parents.
“I would accompany them to the tavern down stairs where they would have a beer with friends and I would enjoy a bottle of orange pop. That was a real treat for kids in those days,” Waelti said.
During the polio epidemic in the 1930s, Turner Hall was home to the first March of Dimes event in Monroe, which took place on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birthday in 1938. Despite it being the latter days of the Great Depression, people came out in droves to donate a dime each to be sent to Washington D.C., Anderegg said.
The University of Wisconsin would come down to teach farmers some of the newest techniques, and world-renowned cheesemakers did the same. The cooking school had the grand hall packed, Anderegg said. There was once even a car show inside the building, with the vehicles entering through the back. The lower-level bowling alley was added in the 1950s.
Music, however, has always been the staple. For many years Rudy Burkhalter, a local accordion legend, gave lessons to children.
“In those days when I was a kid taking accordion lessons from Rudy Burkhalter,” Waelti said, “I never could have dreamed of someday entertaining at the Turner Hall with the Swiss Singers at the annual Swiss fest, and entertaining with talented local accordionists including Del Heins, Henry Blumer, Ruth Marty and Bobbie Edler.”
Anderegg said that “almost every kid in town was in an accordion band,” with Burkhalter and Carol Jansen as the instructors.
Near death experience and current state
Over time, beginning in the 1950s, new buildings in the community chipped away at Turner Hall’s intrigue.
We owe a special debt of gratitude to Deb Krauss Smith and Greg Smith. Without their timely action some years ago, and their continued dedication, Turner Hall could not have survived to carry on our proud Swiss heritage.John Waelti
“Things just gently went away,” Anderegg said.
The high school, then located across the street in what is now the Monroe Middle School, built a gymnasium and auditorium, which took away many sporting events and theater productions. When the new agriculture building went up, UW took its training there. Company H began using a new armory location. When City Hall was built, Turner Hall was no longer used as Monroe’s polling place.
“It used to be that the first 10 voters in an election would get their name in the Monroe Evening Times newspaper, and people would get there very early just for that,” Anderegg said.
Multiple times over the years, Turner Hall’s livelihood was threatened.
Anderegg said it was almost sold to both Company H and the American Legion.
The closest call may have been in 2002. The hall was struggling financially and the board was prepared to let an outside group remodel the building and turn the restaurant into a sports bar. Greg Smith and wife Deb Krauss Smith stepped in to save the home of some of Monroe’s richest history. In the 11th hour — within literally two days of changing hands — the building was saved. Lawyers got involved and a brand-new board was elected, which Anderegg said was the “out” the organization needed to break the deal.
“We were very close to losing it,” Anderegg said. “It was set for the restaurant to be demolished and everything Swiss taken out of it. Greg Smith called the emergency meeting with all the organizations — cheesemakers, Swiss Club, Turn und Schwing; the place was packed. We were able to get it stopped.”
Waelti was more than pleased his friends stepped up, taking charge of saving Turner Hall.
“We owe a special debt of gratitude to Deb Krauss Smith and Greg Smith,” Waelti said. “Without their timely action some years ago, and their continued dedication, Turner Hall could not have survived to carry on our proud Swiss heritage.”
At present, Turner Hall is flourishing — albeit with caveats from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve worked hard to have several events all year long — until this thing (COVID-19) hit. Weddings have had to cancel, and that’s hurt us,” Anderegg said.
The building is home of the Monroe Swiss Swingers, New World Swiss Club and Foreign-Type Cheesemakers Association. In normal years, Turner Hall hosts monthly “Swiss Heritage Series” events, like Squeezebox Night, Stammtisch and Swiss Movie Night, as well as annual events like the Monroe Swiss Singers’ Swissfest, Christkindlmarkt, Christmas tree-lighting ceremony and German Christmas Communion Service. Those events are all canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19, but the plan is to start again in 2021. The bowling alley is also closed due to the virus.
“We all owe a debt of gratitude to Turner Hall’s staff and many volunteers without whom Turner Hall could not function,” Waelti said.