Our biennial Green County Cheese Days celebration is here once again as we welcome over 150,000 visitors to Monroe. I have heard skeptics doubting this small city can host such numbers. They obviously have not been here to enjoy the great food, entertainment, historic places to visit, a real cheese making demonstration and the most spectacular parade in the Midwest.
This biennial event is no sooner completed before energetic Tourism Director Noreen Rueckert, the board and a band of capable volunteers begin planning for the next one to be held in 2020. It will be here before we know it.
The story has been told many times, beginning with the trek of two citizens from Switzerland’s mid-19th century poverty-stricken Canton Glarus to find economic opportunity in the New World. Nicolas Duerst and Fridolin Streiff found the lush hills and valleys of northern Green County to be a promising site for settlement. With loans from the Canton Glarus Emigration Society to purchase land, several families from Canton Glarus arrived in 1845 at the site that was to become the Village of New Glarus.
During that era, wheat was this region’s primary agricultural crop. After several winters in the new colony, cattle were purchased from Ohio, and driven to the site. Women made cheese from the surplus milk. A couple of Swiss immigrants, Adam Blumer and Rudolph Benkert, are believed to be the first male cheesemakers, making Limburger cheese in farmstead factories.
Nic Gerber, a Swiss immigrant first settling in New York, came to Green County and established the first commercial cheese factory in 1868. As wheat succumbed to invasive organisms, it was replaced by dairy farming and cheesemaking. In addition to Limburger, cheesemakers made what is now known as “Swiss Cheese.” What we know as “Swiss Cheese” is fashioned after “Emmenthaler Cheese” that originated in Switzerland’s Emme Valley of Canton Bern.
During the latter decades of the 20th century, many immigrants from Switzerland’s German-speaking cantons arrived in Green County, including my four grandparents from Cantons Bern, Glarus and Aargau. Dairy farming surged, and neighborhood factories sprang up all over southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois to make good use of the milk.
In 1873, some Yankee merchants in Monroe complained about the smell of wagon loads of Limburger going through town to the railroad. It took another Yankee merchant, Arabut Ludlow, to set them straight. Cheese was the stuff of prosperous commerce, and for the economic benefit of them all. The griping stopped. Transport through town would continue and the local cheese industry continued to grow.
In 1913, several Monroe businessmen traveled to Forreston, Illinois, to visit its Sauerkraut Festival. That sparked the idea for the first Cheese Day festival held in 1914, followed by single day celebrations in 1915, 1916 and 1917. The 1917 celebration was dampened by snow, rain and World War I.
The next Cheese Day celebration was not held until 1923, followed by another in 1928. The Great Depression interrupted what was intended to be a five-year cycle. But a festival was held in 1935, and another in 1940. WWII again interrupted the cycle. The next cheese festivals were held in 1950 and 1955. But not another was held until 1965, 1967 and 1970. Since then, it has been held every two years, and is now a three-day event.
There is much to see and do during this event. Visitors are encouraged to visit Turner Hall, a magnificent structure fashioned as a Swiss Emmenthal-style chalet. Turner, German for “gymnast,” halls were common to central Europe, mainly Germany. They functioned as “fitness centers” and community gathering places.
Monroe’s original Turner Hall, established in 1868, was destroyed by fire in 1936. Today’s Turner Hall, completed in 1938, is believed to be the only remaining Swiss-oriented Turner Hall. Celebrities who have spoken or performed there include Susan B. Anthony; Jack Dempsey; Local Olympian Marie Blumer Hoesly; Lawrence Welk; Polka King, Frankie Yankovic; and John F. Kennedy, campaigning during his 1960 presidential primary race with Hubert Humphrey.
On Saturday, Swiss Heritage exhibits will be featured in Turner Hall’s grand hall. Outstanding Swiss cuisine is available in the downstairs Ratskeller. There is outdoor seating available.
The National Historic Cheesemaking Center, on Monroe’s south side, doubles as Green County’s Welcome Center. The structure was once the railroad depot of the old “Milwaukee Road.” When it was scheduled to be demolished in 1989, some visionary citizens arranged to have it moved to its present location and converted to a museum for cheesemaking equipment.
An interesting feature of this museum is the restored Imobersteg Factory that was originally a family operation on a northern Illinois dairy farm. This small factory was operated by Swiss Immigrants Alfred and Anna Imobersteg. The factory ceased operation in 1917 and was idle for decades. In 2010, it was rescued from abandonment, moved to the NHCC campus and refurbished, retaining its original equipment. Every June, local cheesemakers hold a public demonstration, making a wheel of Swiss cheese exactly as it was made a century ago. The usual fees for visiting the museum are waived for the weekend. Visitors are cordially invited to visit this interesting site that, in the words of the late cheesemaker John Bussman, commemorates “An era that was, but will never be again.”
The tremendous effort put in by Rueckert, the board, the army of volunteers and the generous sponsorship of our local businesses and merchants come to fruition this weekend. The people of Green County welcome the thousands of visitors to partake of this homage to our collective heritage.
— John Waelti of Monroe can be reached at email@example.com. His column appears Saturdays in the Monroe Times.