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Martha Bernet: Swiss songbird keeps the melodies flowing
Martha Bernet (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)

Moments in Time

Moments in Time is a weekly series featuring recollections of area residents. To suggest someone to feature in Moments in Time, please contact Mary Jane Grenzow, editor, at

MONROE - Knowing she'd be visited for an interview on an ice-cold winter morning, 88-year-old Martha Bernet checked her front door to make sure it wasn't frozen shut.

It was, but it was nothing a large rubber hammer couldn't correct.

Yes, Monroe's human hurricane of activity and accomplishment seems to be still at full strength.

Known for her yodeling and accordion playing, she even climbed the stage - with a little help - as part of Cheese Days' 100-year celebration last September. This, despite being just three years removed from major back surgery.

But as far as the air waves are concerned, she's far from done. On May 11, she'll be serving as host of her Swiss music broadcast on WEKZ for the beginning of her 60th year.

Only the ongoing advances in technology may stop her from doing her show, which she tapes in advance monthly, and serves as a DJ, speaking in both Swiss and English.

"Once it goes all digital, I'll be gone," Bernet said. "I started with 78s, then 45s, then 33s, then CDs. The CDs allowed me to stockpile songs and they're all mine, so I know them well. A few years ago, some movie-makers from Switzerland visited New Glarus and gave me 40 Swiss CDs. Now, I can go eight months without repeating a song."

Stepping away from the microphone may not be as easy as she thinks. When new owners bought the station years ago, she tried to do just that, but they wouldn't let her.

"They told me I was their calling card," Bernet said.

Indeed, her Swiss accent is intoxicating. She came to Green County from Leissten, Switzerland as a married woman in 1947 so her dialect was firmly set, but she found that the makeup of her new neighbors made it hard to become "Americanized."

"So many other people here had Swiss roots. In every store, someone could speak it, so that is why I could not lose my accent," Bernet said. "Back then, 70 percent of the Monroe phone book had Swiss names. Today, you have to look for them."


Switzerland may be a neutral country, but the outbreak of World War II certainly impacted its residents. Bernet was just 12 at the time.

"I didn't understand much about it in the beginning," she said. "All I knew is we had these food-ration cards and we got very little to eat.

"We only ate meat on Sunday. For a month, we got one pound of meat per person, one pound of sugar, one pound of flour. And only two eggs.

"My family had two big gardens, so we had fruits and vegetables, but I don't know how my mother cooked for us without oil and butter. Without those things, you'd eat a meal and two hours later you'd be hungry again."

The one thing that eased the pain was the power of song.

"There wasn't a day that went by that we didn't sing," Bernet said of her family.

It would be the war, however, that kept her future husband, Werner, from returning to Monticello where his family had immigrated in 1927 to become cheesemakers. His family had returned to its native Switzerland for a year so the father could regain his health but the breakout of the war kept them put longer than expected. That's when Martha and Werner met.

However, there was a catch:

"He told me he would not date me if I didn't want to go to America," Bernet said. "He said he wanted to go back and make cheese again."

She agreed, and she'll never forget her father's last words as she boarded the train shortly after the war's end.

"He said, "Keep on singing and you'll be OK,'" Bernet said.

So it was off to Monticello, where the young couple worked in the family business. In 1956, they bought an existing business from a relative - the Cheese and Sausage Shop in Monroe - and renamed it Bernet's. It began a 28-year run of success.


On the side, Bernet was discovering her love of music had the makings of something special. She started the Swiss Club in 1950, helping to build it to 400 members strong, and she'd play accordion at gatherings. Little did she know she was onto something more.

"People would ask me to perform," she said, "but I knew I wasn't all that good. But they just thought it was great."

Another chance encounter of a musical nature came when she met fellow songbird Betty Vetterli, who happened to live on her same block.

"In the summer we'd both be singing with the windows open, and a neighbor once begged us to at least sing the same song," Bernet said. "That's how we started to perform together."

Next thing they knew they were getting gigs. A pizza parlor in Nebraska even flew them out for a performance.

Cheese Days in Monroe was a natural stage for them, as was a celebration by the same name in Sugar Creek, Ohio.

The radio show kicked off in 1956, and she even took a turn with the traveling Edelweiss and Betty show when Vetterli was unavailable.

"I had to learn 30 songs in six weeks," Bernet said. "And I had to sing tenor, alto and soprano."

In 1965, Bernet and the late Rudy Burkhalter teamed up to first perform Monroe's Cheese Days song, and they'd record it as a single in 1967.

On the home front, Bernet was equally active. In 1971, she was named the Monroe Jaycees' outstanding senior citizen - "it sounded funny, because I was only 44," Bernet said - and she would even receive a lifetime membership for the city's chamber of commerce.

For Cheese Days, she served as entertainment chairwoman for too many years to count.

"I stayed active in town and always tried to promote Monroe whenever I could," Bernet said. "Cheese Days was my baby."

(Martha and Werner were named king and queen of the 1980 event, and in 2012 Martha was a co-grand marshal.)

Bernet and Vetterli, meanwhile, would stay on the performance circuit all the way through 2006.

"When I hit 75, I worried if people were saying, "Is that woman ever going to quit?'" Bernet said.

To the delight of many, she still had last year's Cheese Days performance in her.

"For the 100-year anniversary, I knew I had to do it if I could," said Bernet, whose daughter and her daughter's husband made the trip down from Canada to make sure she'd safely get on stage. "It was wonderful."