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Historic Cheesemaking Center - A link to the past
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Cheese - it's central to our regional economy and integral to our regional history and culture. Green County's biennial Cheese Days celebration brings a couple hundred thousand people to Monroe to enjoy great food, beer, and ethnic entertainment. It's fitting that our National Historic Cheesemaking Center (NHCC) - motto, "cheese is our culture," - doubles as Green County's official Welcome Center.

The center, staffed by volunteers, houses a unique collection of milking and cheesemaking equipment and historic memorabilia. A recent addition to the center is the restored Imobersteg Farmstead Cheese Factory, equipped exactly as it was a century ago.

The center is a link to the past, in more ways than one. Here's an example.

Last May, I was volunteering as docent one Sunday morning. Virgil and Carol Leopold walked in. "Hey John, there was a guy in here yesterday - looking for an old WWII Army pal who used to be a cheesemaker over by Browntown, but he couldn't remember the guy's name."

Just as we were trying to figure out who that former cheesemaker might be, the visitor and his wife walked in and we greeted them. Rudy Budoch, from Chicago, related the story:

At war's end, Rudy was in Germany and he had this buddy from Browntown - he remembered the name of the town because he thought it was such a weird name for a town.

They were a couple of soldiers who had survived the war and, like all normal guys, were anxious to get home to a normal life - drink some beer, chase women, maybe one day marry one of 'em, raise a family and participate in post-war prosperity that they couldn't anticipate was coming.

But there they were - stuck in Europe in a unit that was assigned to drive generals and civilian dignitaries around - plush duty, as army life goes. But hey, the war was over. These guys just wanted to get back home.

Rudy and his pal finally got out of the army - Rudy to Chicago and Rudy's pal to that Wisconsin town with that "weird" name, where he took up cheesemaking. Rudy got married and on one occasion made the trip from Chicago to Browntown to visit his old Army pal. Rudy's wife was pregnant at the time, and she distinctly remembers the odors of that cheese factory hitting her the wrong way.

Some six decades had now elapsed, and Rudy was making a return journey to Wisconsin to look up his old buddy. But he could not immediately recall the name, and Virgil, Carol, and I were of no help. I called WWII veteran, and veteran cheesemaker, John Bussman, to see if he could recall any WWII vets who made cheese around Browntown. No soap. I called Jim Curran, NHCC president and veteran cheesemaker, and came up empty.

I then called Donna Douglas, NHCC executive director, and past president of the women's auxiliary of the American Legion. She wasn't in so I left her a note.

Rudy thanked Virgil, Carol, and me for our assistance and we continued our conversation. Rudy told us how, as young soldiers, they couldn't have known or had any appreciation of the significant historical event in which they had a role, however minor. They were in Nuremberg, and the generals and civilians they were driving around in Jeeps were participants in the historic Nuremberg Trials. Here they were, ordinary soldiers, party to extraordinary events.

That reminded us of how these things so often happen. Readers may recall my series on the Battle of Okinawa and how Winslow's Jerry Hastings was within 25 yards of the famed war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, when a heavy slug from a burst of Japanese machine gun fire smashed into Pyle's left temple. If Jerry had not been so preoccupied under cover operating his radio, the next burst might have ended Jerry's life.

At that same time, Bussman was with the Army's 77th Division on Okinawa. The Battle for Okinawa was larger in size and scope than the D-Day Normandy landings. But it was overshadowed by V-E Day, the end of the Third Reich, the atomic explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki marking the dawn of a new and dangerous age, and the end of the war itself. Jerry Hastings and John Bussman, ordinary guys - well, maybe not so ordinary - participating in, and witness to, extraordinary events.

And what about that Japanese machine gunner - probably just another ordinary Japanese teenager in the Imperial Japanese Army, defending his homeland against the Allied forces bent on revenge. He had no idea his machine gun burst ended the life of America's most famous and beloved war correspondent. Did he survive the war? If so, I'll bet that he and Jerry could share a cup of saki. Sixty-seven years ago, they were trying to kill each other. But hey, nothing personal - just a couple of teens responding to their respective country's call to arms.

But I digress, bringing us full circle. Our visitor from Chicago eventually found the name of his long lost cheesemaking army buddy - Burnell McGuire, who is no longer with us. Rudy sent us a letter thanking the NHCC for assisting him in his quest.

So, the center is a link to the past, sometimes in unexpected ways. It preserves the history and displays the artifacts of our regional history and culture.

There is an old Swiss folk song, "Guete Sunntig Mitenand," which means "Happy Sunday, everybody." The late Rudy Burkhalter, Swiss immigrant, entertainer, composer, and long-time accordion instructor, put English words to that song - "Come to Cheese Days in Monroe."

Indeed, you will hear it often this weekend, along with another song, "Teach Me How To Yodel," composed by Rudy Burkhalter for Walt Disney Productions, as we celebrate our proud cheesemaking history and culture.

- John Waelti's column appears every Friday in the Times. He can be reached at