By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Chalet's fate in question
Times photo: Anthony Wahl Pete Etter gives a tour of The Chalet of Golden Fleece Museum to a group earlier this week in New Glarus. With funds not matching the cost of maintaining the building, the village of New Glarus is considering selling the home and the collections within.
NEW GLARUS - The Chalet of the Golden Fleece Museum, once the largest tourist-drawing attraction in New Glarus, is in financial trouble today, and its future depends heavily on a public hearing for community input in September.

The Parks and Recreation Committee will also discuss the funding at its meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10.

The number of requests for tours of the Swiss Bernese mountain chalet and its eclectic collection of rare and unusual European items has dwindled to a handful this summer, said Pete Etter, who heads the volunteer guides for the Chalet. He, Katie Elmer, Shirley Lueschow, and Denise Anton Wright volunteer to guide visitors through the house. They have given barely a half dozen tours this year. Last year, they did 17.

"It used to be open full-time," Etter said. "But as attendance went down, we have had to close." Tours are still available by appointment - a one-hour tour costs about $8 for adults - and area hotels occasionally call Etter to open for tour buses.

Etter is waiting for the village board decision, because the historical society board has already determined it cannot take on the financial burden of the museum.

Maintaining the property costs about $15,000 to $18,000 a year, according to Etter and Nic Owen, village administrator.

The village levied tax money to fund the operation of the property for 50 years after its owner, Edwin Barlow, relinquished his use of the home in 1954. He had deeded the house and the collection to the village eight years earlier.

According to the New Glarus Village clerk office, the village entered into an agreement with the Swiss Historical Village in 2004 to provide guides for tours of the Chalet, which are organized by Etter. As part of this agreement, a separate account is maintained to collect tour revenue and to pay the tour guides.

In 2005, the village began funding maintenance of the building from the Chalet's fund balance. This fund balance ran out last year.

The village funded the maintenance for 2011 from the general fund balance, with the intent to find a long-term funding and operation plan.

Owen said the village has discussed several ideas for supporting the Chalet - levying taxes again; partnering with another organization; moving the Chalet to another location; and selling the house and its collection. Last year, the village considered using room tax funds, but the Tourism Commission rejected the idea.

Etter's interest in keeping the Chalet open and running is based on his belief that heritage is important and his long involvement in the community as the school superintendent.

New Glarus is a community that has actively preserved its heritage, he said.

"They live it, eat it, breathe it," he said. "If you live in New Glarus, you will become Swiss, and you will enjoy it."

But the Chalet of the Golden Fleece Museum is an icon of all American immigrants, not just of the Swiss to New Glarus, said Etter, a German-born immigrant himself.

"This is ethnic America," he said.

While Barlow's surname is of English origin, "his mother's maiden name was very Swiss - Streiff," Etter said,

Barlow, son of Warren Barlow of Fairfield, Conn., and Madelena Streiff of the New Glarus area, was widely known for his efforts to perpetuate Swiss culture and art in this country. The Chalet, designed by Swiss architect Jacob Reider, was built in 1937.

A year later, Barlow founded the Wilhelm Tell Drama, after seeing the play performed in Interlake and Altdorf, Switzerland. It has become one of New Glarus' most popular festivals.

When Barlow turned over his house to the community in January 1954, under a conditional agreement as a memorial to his foster mother, Clara Bosworth Mather, he also turned over his extensive and valuable collection of European art objects and antiques.

Three full floors inside hold Barlow's collection of painted furniture; antique silver, pewter, glassware, china, coins and stamps; original artwork; fiber arts, Swiss scissors cuttings, and Swiss woodcarvings; and Swiss dolls.

The collection includes a jeweled watch once owned by King Louis XVI; 2,000-year-old Etruscan earrings; Gregorian chants on parchment - one of the world's oldest forms of written music - dating from 1485; 17th century Bolivian silvered gourd jewelry cases; a 300-year-old Swiss slate and wood inlaid table; and a Swiss porcelain tile stove made in 1760.

Barlow died in 1957. His ashes were interned at the Swiss United Church of Christ's cemetery in New Glarus.