We had to get out of Madison proper today, as it was a UW game day. Evidently, unless you are a Badgers fan trying to get to the stadium, you do not want to be around to watch the frenzy.
Not a problem, as they say so annoyingly these days. We left town early and headed out to celebrate a lovely fall day in three charming towns in rural Wisconsin.
We started in the town of Monroe, which – we will have you know – is the Swiss Cheese Capital of America. The Swiss settlers who founded this area also brought their skills in making limburger, gruyere and something they call “brick” cheese. It seemed only proper to commence our tour at the National Historic Cheesemaking Center, in which they educated us about the cheesemaking process. My first question: Who on earth figured out cheese? Well, the had one answer, which I guess we have to swallow:
The second question was how did they get people to work that hard for food? No matter what you are making cheese-wise, this is a very complex and labor-intensive process. Amazing that we can buy it so reasonably, regardless of the automation now used.
In Monroe, by the 1880’s there were about 75 cheese factories – almost one on every farm. We toured the tiny museum and saw one of those actual factories out back.
One question I would never ask is why people eat the stuff. Cheese-lovers of the world who can’t get to France should consider Wisconsin. (And they would probably be annoyed here if you mentioned France. It never came up in any cheese conversations. Sorry, England – neither did you.)
We were astonished to learn that we were around the corner from the headquarters of The Swiss Colony. Who knew they were still in business? I always thought of them as a kind of budget mail-order gift choice before everything else in the would could be purchased with a few keystrokes. But lo and behold, they are still going strong and even own things like Montgomery Ward. AND, they had an outlet, which we just had to visit. Cheese curds, naturally, were heavily featured.
The town of Monroe is really lovely. As the county seat, it has a lovely courthouse on a central square, which today held a market. We were told at the museum to stop by their food truck for a great grilled cheese sandwich, today made by the Boy Scouts. Not bad, not bad! (P.S. See the guy with the Sturgis tee-shirt? We also went to that town in South Dakota, which is a major biker town, blessedly the week following the annual rally.)
But we just nibbled at the sandwich in order to save ourselves for the local must-visit restaurant, Baumgartner’s – also on the square.
Nothing fancy here, but this is where the local cuisine hits the table, with an intense focus on their Swiss roots. We feasted on a limburger and liverwurst sandwich with onions, and a salami/swiss cheese combination. We had to see what the local star products tasted like! Oh, and then there was a cup of Wisconsin soup, which, I believe, was mostly melted cheese. Great spirit here and tons of people – totally unlike Milwaukee! (In fact, busier that Milwaukee.) And, as often happens, I neglected to shoot the food till it was almost too late.
We then went on to the real center all all things Swiss – the town of New Glarus. This town was actually funded by Switzerland to provide a home for the people they knew they could not support. In fact, for a while, it was considered under Swiss rule. (Gives some context to the name “The Swiss Colony.”)
Just outside of town is the New Glarus Brewery, which makes fabulous highly recognized beer, and don’t the folks in this region know it. The weather made it a perfect day for tasting, touring and just strolling the gardens as the Swiss horns were played. Not exactly the Sonoma Valley scene, but nice.
Luck of the Irish had us there n the town as they were celebrating Oktoberfest. What crowds! We are just not used to this kind of congestion. But we sampled the local baked goods and watched the oompah band play to raves. A great day for the Swiss!
Our last stop was the town of Mineral Point, which actually formed the focus of the Wisconsin Territory. It was there that lead was mined and lots of money was made – once those pesky Indians were removed. The miners were hordes of Cornish immigrants who worked tirelessly to get the lead out. They barely stopped to rest, but did dig holes into the hills to shelter. The theory is that the nickname of the Badger State came from these miners who were said to “live like badgers.”
Traces of the Cornish past survive, in some preserved buildings and in the town itself. The oldest buildings are on Shake Rag Alley, named for the women waving cloths to let their husbands know to come home for lunch. Now it has become an arts center.
Many of the original buildings were torn down and the distinctive stone repurposed for other buildings in the town, which also boasts its own opera house. It opened to vaudeville acts travelling between Chicago and Minneapolis in 1915, and has recently been restored and reopened.
A lovely town, but perhaps only on a glorious fall day. On a gloomy and rainy November late afternoon, we suspect it would be more reminiscent of Haworth, home of the Brontes, with the moors just past the parsonage. But today, it was lovely.