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Watch master cheesemakers at work
John Waelti

June is “Dairy Month,” and in Wisconsin it’s about cheese. 

Here in Green County, “America’s Little Switzerland,” it’s about Swiss cheese. Swiss cheese is the American version of Emmenthal cheese, which originated in the Emme Valley of Canton Bern, Switzerland. Actually, the variety of cheeses made around here is impressive and includes Gruyere, feta, and Limburger, the latter made in America’s only factory still making that aromatic product.

It’s those wedges of Swiss cheese, that golden product with the nutty flavor and holes, that symbolize Wisconsin and the cheese industry. It made Monroe the “Swiss Cheese Capital of the USA.” Most of it is now made in block form. It was originally made in large wheels, and that’s the way many of us think of it. Saturday is a golden opportunity to watch a wheel of Swiss cheese being made the old-fashioned way at Monroe’s National Historic Cheesemaking Center. 

This interesting story is never too old to review.

In the 19th century, Switzerland was Europe’s poorest nation. Canton — meaning state — Glarus was particularly hard hit; its citizens having limited economic opportunity. A party of Glarner immigrants, led by Nicolas Duerst and Fridolin Streiff, settled in northern Green County. Earlier European settlers of the southern part of Green County were Yankees from the east. Monroe was a small, thriving community.

Wheat was the dominant agricultural crop around here during the mid-19th century. The lush hills and flowing streams of Green County were seen to be ideal for dairy cattle. Some early Swiss settlers purchased Brown Swiss dairy cows from Ohio and drove them to Green County. The first Wisconsin cheesemakers were farm wives who began making cheese for home consumption. 

When wheat crops failed in this area due to disease, farmers turned to increasing dairy production. Swiss immigrant Nicolas Gerber, who moved here from New York, is credited with starting the first commercial cheese factory in 1868. He made Limburger. Dairy farming and cheesemaking began to flourish. With this, combined with a lack of economic opportunity in Switzerland, immigration increased dramatically from the German-speaking cantons of Switzerland. These included my four grandparents from the cantons of Glarus, Bern and Aargau during the 1880s.

The growth of the cheese industry was not without some issues. 

During the 1870s, Monroe passed an ordinance prohibiting transportation of Limburger through town to the railroad. Yankee merchant Arabut Ludlow put a stop to this myopia. He called a bunch of farmers to his farm — bordering land that would in 1902 become the Waelti farm — and loaded a bunch of wagons with Limburger. To the accompaniment of a brass band, he paraded the entourage to the courthouse square. Ludlow announced that cheese was a valuable commercial enterprise and was here to stay. His words were prophetic. 

Green County’s biennial Cheese Days celebration, set to be held once again this September, originated in 1914. The creation of it was the result of some Monroe citizens traveling to “Sauerkraut Day” in Forreston, Illinois. They figured Monroe could have a “Cheese Day” celebration as well. The festival was successful but was interrupted during World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. It has evolved into a three-day celebration regularly held every two years, drawing over 100,000 people and featuring the largest parade in the entire Midwest.

An amusing incident contributed to the revival of Cheese Days after it faltered during the Great Depression. Some Limburger cheese was sent to a patient in Iowa as a palliative for an illness. A recalcitrant postmaster in Independence, Iowa, refused to allow Limburger through his portals. This infuriated Monroe’s postmaster who declared “Limburger War.” Sometimes it takes an incident like this to arouse interest. The result was renewed interest in Cheese Days, depression or no.

During the 1960s, local cheesemakers, including the late John Bussman and Larry Lindgren, were concerned that contributions of early cheesemakers to economic and social development of this area and early tools of the cheesemaking trade would be lost. By the early 1970s another group, including Walter Donovan, Ed Rufenacht, and Doran Zwygart, had attempted to establish a “Cheese Hall of Fame.” But funding was not available.

Lindgren and Bussman were determined to commemorate, in Bussman’s words, “the era that was that will never be again.”

A confluence of support by several local organizations, a diligent effort of visionary citizens and the abandoned Milwaukee Road Depot led to establishment of the current historic cheesemaking center. The old depot, built in 1881, was relocated to its present site in April 1993 and contains an impressive display of equipment once used on dairy farms and cheese factories in the process of converting milk to cheese. 

The NHCC doubles as Green County’s Welcome Center. Visitors in 2017 represented 45 states and 19 foreign countries. Over half of the states are represented in 2018 so far.

Back in 1902, Alfred and Anna Imobersteg came to the United States from Canton Bern and farmed across the line in northern Illinois. They made Swiss, Limburger and brick cheese in a small building that housed a copper kettle. They stopped making cheese in 1917, and the unused equipment remained over the years.

In spring 2009, a neighbor alerted NHCC’s board of the site. Arnold Imobersteg offered the building and its contents to NHCC. With the efforts of dedicated citizens, the building was moved to the NHCC campus and restored to its original form in 2010.

In this relocated factory, several of our local master cheesemakers and retired cheesemakers will receive an allotment of milk Saturday and convert it to a genuine 90-pound wheel of Swiss cheese, just as it was done at the beginning of the 20th century.

Just as Tom Sawyer’s pals took their turn at painting his fence, visitors will be invited to take their turn stirring the kettle, helping to make a wheel of real Swiss cheese.

Don’t miss this rare opportunity.

— John Waelti of Monroe can be reached at His column appears Fridays in the Monroe Times.