During the late 1830s and into the following decade, the canton of Glarus in Switzerland suffered repeated years of failed crops, and hunger was becoming a major crisis. To help alleviate the suffering, Glarus officials created an emigration society and sent two scouts to the young nation across the Atlantic that was rumored to have an abundance of farmable land for anyone to settle. Once in the U.S. the men traveled west with money and instructions to find and purchase land suitable for a colony in the New World. After exploring the states of Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri, the two scouts went north to the region that would become the country’s 30th state in less than a decade. In the southern part of the future Wisconsin the men purchased 1280 acres next to the Little Sugar River that is rumored to have reminded them of home. While the two were securing the land for the new colony, another 190 pioneers from Glarus were making their way to America. The colony was successful and by 1870 over 1200 Swiss natives were living in and around New Glarus.
To this day the town of New Glarus in southern Wisconsin is steeped in Swiss heritage. Its architecture, food, festivals, and longest standing traditions all legitimize the town’s self-proclaimed title “America’s Little Switzerland” and have drawn tourists from around the region. However, the real boom to New Glarus’ tourist industry came in the early 90s when an entrepreneur named Deborah Carey was out looking for a place to start a brewery. According to legend she passed an abandoned warehouse just off of Highway 69 in New Glarus, immediately dialed the number posted on the large for-sale sign, and the man selling the property agreed to meet her even though it was a Sunday. With a location secured and equipment procured from Germany, she and her husband Daniel, a master brewer, began the New Glarus Brewing Company. Within a decade, the brewery’s popularity exploded and by the time of my visit there in 2016 it was the 23rd largest in the country. In 2006 a larger location was built just south of town, and thousands of people flock to it every year to explore and sample the popular brews it produces. Wisconsin is the state I spent the first twenty-one years of my life in, and when I was deciding what town I would visit for my This is America Too project I wanted to make sure it represented what I felt best epitomized the state. Beer, cheese, and Northern European heritage were the three most characteristic aspects of what I remembered about Wisconsin and New Glarus represents all three to a tee.
I choose to make the trip in early October so my visit would coincide with the peak of the fall color changes in the area. From where I was staying in Kenosha, WI the drive was only a couple of hours. I thought it would be better to double that by taking backroads through small towns, past some of the many lakes in Southern Wisconsin, and to the capitol, Madison, before eventually going south to New Glarus. The drive was gorgeous, and as I passed towns like Delevan, Milton, and Stoughton I wondered why I never took the time to explore this area when I lived there as a youth. I also questioned if I would have had the ability to fully appreciate this region in my early years. As much as I wanted to get out and take a walk around each of the “main streets” I passed on the trip, I pushed on and eventually made my way to New Glarus in about four-and-a-half-hours.
I entered town from the south because I overshot it taking backroads from Madison. Driving in I passed the New Glarus Woods State Park on my left and then the New Glarus Brewery on my right before spotting my hotel. I could only find a limited number of choices for lodging at that time of the year and both were located on the highway that passed by the eastern edge of town. I went with the Swiss-Aire Motel even though I was tempted by the Chalet Landhaus Inn’s claim of “Swiss style lodging.” I decided for my needs it wasn’t worth the extra price tag added. At the Swiss-Aire I was attended to by a very friendly woman named Tracy who I learned helped run the hotel. The owners had also recently opened a liquor store next door called the Bier Haus and after dropping off my stuff I popped over for a look. The location carried a decent number of local craft beers from all over the region and the collection consisted primarily of beer with which I was unfamiliar. I asked the clerk for his advice on a good IPA and he enthusiastically gave me a breakdown of his favorites. Little did I know that the attendant, whose name I later learned was Sam, would end up being one of my interviews. I left with a six pack of the Two Hearted Ale, an IPA from Bell’s Brewery in Michigan, and a smile knowing I was going to like New Glarus.
Back in the room I popped open a beer and sat down to do a bit of research on where to eat. With some locations in mind I grabbed my camera and headed to the closest option that interested me, Puempel’s Olde Tavern. I took a route along the Sugar River Trail that spit me out near my destination in less than five minutes. I walked into the bar and instantly fell in love. Everything about the place seemed authentic: above is a high wooden celling, to the left a long hardwood bar that looks like it had had its fair share of pints served on it, and along the right, old wooden chairs and tables line the wall, which is covered in large faded murals that seemed as old as the location. I sat down and examined the taps that were predominantly products of the New Glarus Brewing Company. I went with the Moon Man No Coast Pale Ale, an easy-drinking session ale with the perfect balance of hops and malt. It became my go-to on the visit. I also asked the amiable bartender for the menu and gave it a glance. It was mostly basic pub food that didn’t catch my eye so I decided after a beer I would explore the town a bit more. While I was finishing my ale, I watched one of the guests who was in town from Madison try and get a dollar attached to the ceiling. The trick was to take a fifty-cent piece, a dollar bill, and a tack, wrap them together to make a projectile weapon of sorts, and toss it hard enough up to stick. It appeared to be more difficult than it sounded and if the thrower tried to instinctively catch a missed bill on its descent they likely got a tack in the palm. I also learned that on occasion the fifty cent pieces randomly fall and land in people’s drinks. Eventually the guest made her bill stick and she was told that twice a year the bar takes half of them down and donates them to charity. It was entertaining to watch and nice to know it was for a positive cause.
When I left Puempel’s I walked a bit, stopping first in the Ott Haus Pub and Grill but the bartender told me they weren’t serving food. Next I went into Toffler’s, another location with basic pub food. At that point I decided I would take what I could get and order a Moon Man and a brat. The location was dead and the bartender didn’t seem very happy to be working. As I waited for my food I chatted with her a bit and learned she didn’t live in town but made the small commute from a few miles outside of it. The brat was tasty but nothing incredible and the lack of atmosphere gave me no reason to stay for a second beer.
With my hunger alleviated I spent a bit of time canvasing the downtown area taking in the unique Swiss architecture, the town’s quaintness, and how the vivid colors of fall accented it all. I took photos as I made my way around the small business district until I found myself at Puempel’s again. It seemed about time for another beer so I went back in and was greeted by the same friendly bartender. This time I learned her name was Harmony and I confessed to her that I felt bad because she was so nice on the first visit but I went somewhere else to eat the same food. She chuckled and asked where I ate. I told her and mentioned that the bartender was not so warm to which she responded it was her close friend working that night. I was a bit embarrassed but she assured me that my impression was probably accurate, but not true. We continued to chat and I explained my project and why I was in town. She insisted I return the next day at noon to meet Herman. She told me he was in his mid-90s, a town legend, and often came in during the afternoon to play the Swiss card game Jass. After a few beers I called it an evening and returned to the room. Leaving Puempel’s I knew it was going to be a place I would be spending more time at but I didn’t fathom how central it would be to my visit there. I went back to the hotel and did a bit of work before turning in early.
The next morning I made some coffee, showered, and headed to the Town Edge restaurant for breakfast. It is located south of the business district but only a short, cold, walk from my hotel. Passing through a residential neighborhood on the way, I was impressed by the size of the homes. It was undeniable that New Glarus was one of the more affluent locations I’d visited since starting the project, and I later learned industries like the brewery and beef-jerky plants kept the community thriving beyond tourism. Inside the Town Edge I was the only patron. The menu was simple comfort food and I ordered a scramble and a coffee. It was nothing fancy, but it was satisfying and well-priced. When I finished I had time to kill before going to search out Herman so I decided I would explore the town’s periphery.
In just over an hour I made it on foot to the far western edge of New Glarus, north a bit, through the cemetery, and finally around the historic park that was closed for the season. The wind and temperature eventually got to me and I decided to head to Puempel’s earlier than Harmony suggested. When I arrived I sat at the corner of the bar between two older gentlemen who were in a three way conversation with the bartender. Like Harmony, my first impression was that the new bartender was very friendly. I ordered a Moon Man and sipped my beer while I took in the ambiance of a small-town tavern at noon on a Thursday. Eventually the man to my right departed and soon Ron on my left started to chat with me. I learned he lived outside of town but was waiting for his wife, who was shopping at her brother’s market nearby. He told me as a child he played basketball for the New Glarus high school team and later had the pleasure of defeating his old coach with a rival team he had managed himself. He also proudly raved about his grandson’s band, Mile 134, who played locally and even opened a few shows in Chicago. He bought me a beer while we chatted and eventually spied his wife summoning him from outside, so he said his goodbyes and left.
About thirty minutes had passed since I arrived and the bar was mostly empty. Soon I began to talk with the bartender Jodie and explained my project and that I was there in hopes of running into Herman. She told me she too had a project that she explained she first saw on an episode of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert which featured the folk music duo Anna & Elizabeth. During the episode the two had brought out a crankie. Jodie described it as an old form of entertainment consisting of a simple wooden frame about 3’x3’, two spools with handles, a back light, and a long cloth. The spools were attached to the box, the cloth was decorated with darker cutouts and attached to the spools, behind the box was the light, and when the left spool was cranked from behind the cloth moved along and provided visuals to the tale being told. The point of her story was that it was the ninety-six year old Herman who recently built the box for her and she showed me pictures of it. While Jodie was gushing about how lovely Herman was, he pulled up in front of the bar.
He came in with his walker and placed it next to the door before sitting down two stools from me. Jodie greeted him and brought him a Diet Coke. They chatted a bit and she told him that I was working on a project and wanted to meet him. I introduced myself, explained the project, and asked if he could help. He cheerfully agreed to meet with me and we decided to return to Puempel’s around ten the following morning. We talked more and he told me stories about New Glarus, Puempel’s, and the popularity of both. One of my favorites was about a reporter from the NY Times who was there doing a story on the town. At one point the journalist was in Puempel’s while Herman and friends were playing the Swiss-German card game Jass that is played with only thirty-six cards. When the reporter questioned Herman as to why the game didn’t use the fifty-two cards of a standard deck he retorted, “the Swiss don’t play with a full-deck.” The quote was printed in the Times and he joked that it didn’t make him so popular with his Swiss friends and family. While I was finishing my last beer the owner of Puempel’s, Chuck Bigler, came over to greet Herman. I took advantage of the moment, introduced myself, and explained my project. When I asked if he would be interested in meeting with me he said yes and we made plans for the early afternoon a couple days later. I finished my beer, said my goodbyes to Herman, Jodie, and Chuck, and left feeling my day was already a success.
Stepping back outside into the sun I noticed the weather was warming. I stopped back at the room and then took a walk along the Sugar River State Trail. The trail is an old railroad bed that runs twenty-four miles through the countryside from New Glarus to Brodhead, WI passing though the towns of Monticello and Albany. I walked south along the dirt path, over rustic bridges, and past picturesque farms made up of everything one would expect in a Wisconsin farm: the classic barn, lazy cows, horses, goats, and of course fields of corn. In the distance to the right was the New Glarus State Forest colored with greens, oranges, yellows, and reds. I walked for couple of miles lost in my thoughts and the peacefulness of my surroundings before finally turning back. When I reached town again I stopped at the Sugar River Pizza Co. just off the trail for lunch. After a fairly basic pizza I returned to the room and rewarded myself for the day’s accomplishments with a nap.
When I woke a bit later I debated if I wanted to stay in for the evening or go out. I finally talked myself into heading to one of the bars in town because the Green Bay Packers were playing the Chicago Bears in a classic NFL rivalry. First, I am an avid Packers fan having been raised in Wisconsin, second I was nearly equal distance from both Chicago and Green Bay so I figured I might find fans on both sides out, which always makes things more interesting. I chose a bar called The Sportsman Bar & Grille because I figured it catered to the kind of football-watching folks I wanted to see the game with. I arrived just before it started and the place was mostly empty. The location had a lot of character and reminded me of a classic Wisconsin dive. Upon entering, a long bar sits to the left, and to the right tables were lined up all the way to the back where there is another larger room with what looks like a small library. The walls are all different shades of wood paneling and behind the bar the paneling looks straight out of the 70s. I took a stool in front of a small T.V. and ordered a Moon Man. In addition to the football game, the Chicago Cubs were playing the L.A. Dodgers in the MLB national league finals. One thing unique about growing up in southern Wisconsin is that one is exposed to both Milwaukee and Chicago sports culture. I personally despised the Bears, but the Cubs were the baseball team I grew up following. As the games started the place began to fill up. I noticed a big group come in together and soon they occupied four tables and began playing cards. I learned there was a Euchre league in the region and that night The Sportsman was the location for the competition. Like the card game Jass, Euchre is another European game played with a limited deck and it’s apparently very popular in Wisconsin. Between the card players and those there for the games, it ended up becoming quite lively. In the end a few Bears fans did show up to watch their team lose, and the Cubs won making it a good night for me. When the football game finished I closed out my tab and made my way back to the room for the night, happy I chose to go out.
The next morning I had my breakfast and coffee at the hotel before heading out to meet Herman. Just as I got to Puempel’s he was pulling up in his car and told me from the looks of it the place was closed. I didn’t question him and we decided to go back to his place for the interview. As he drove me the short distance to his home I thought about the fact that I was the passenger in the car of a ninety-six year old man, unquestionably the oldest driver I had ever ridden next to. At his house I met the very friendly woman who assisted him with weekly housekeeping. I took a seat at his dining room table and he went off to search for articles and memorabilia that would help him tell his family story. After he showed me pictures and a few articles on New Glarus we started the interview. We chatted for over an hour and he told me about how his family came from Switzerland and started the first cheese factories in the region. With clarity he talked about his growing up in the area, the Great Depression, World War II, and what kept him busy over the years. His energy was infectious and there was no doubt he was delighted to be sharing his stories. Finally we finished up and he offered to drive me back to the town center where he would be going to The Sportsman for lunch before making his daily rounds in town. I thanked him as I stepped out of the car and made my way back to my hotel.
One of the local tourist attractions that I had planned to visit even before I arrived in town was the New Glarus Brewing Company. I did research on brewery tours and learned there was a guided tour every Friday, but bookings for it filled up months in advance. The remaining option was a free self-guided tour and I figured with the rest of my afternoon free I would go check it out. First I stopped at the older location on the opposite side of highway from the downtown area which I learned still produces seasonal beers, but as small as it is I couldn’t imagine any real volume being produced there. Next I drove to the newer plant just minutes south. I turned left at the visitor entrance and made my way up a winding road to the parking lot. The new plant sits perched up on a hill and is much larger than the original, but nothing about it gave me the impression of industry which is so common with large breweries. It looked more like a Swiss theme-park with its distinct architecture, bright colors, and well-manicured grounds that act as an extended beer-garden overlooking New Glarus and the surrounding countryside. I walked around and took some photos before going inside to see about the tour.
Like the exterior, the inside was very new-looking and shiny. There was no doubt the location was only a decade old. I stepped into the gift shop first and asked about the tour. I thought it was relatively busy for being the start of the off-season and imagined it probably got much more congested in the summer. The free tour is not really a tour but just a chance to watch the action of the factory floor behind a glass partition. There is a bit of literature on Deborah Carey and the success of the company, but nothing that shed light on its roots or their brewing process. I have had the chance to visit a fair number of breweries and I was a little disappointed with what New Glarus Brewing Company had to offer for someone wanting to learn more about it. My guess was that the free tour was set up to appease the larger masses that passed through there and the private tour was more for those interested in the specifics. However, I felt a few placards with details would have gone a long way. Before leaving I stopped into the bustling tasting room and quickly stepped back out uninterested in battling for a sip of the brews I had access to in town. The location is gorgeous and I didn’t leave any less impressed with what the company was doing or the beer they brew, but I didn’t leave more impressed either.
As I got into the car I noticed it was still early so I chose to take a short sixteen-mile drive south to Monroe. Known as the “Swiss Cheese Capitol of the U.S.A,” Monroe also shares a similar heritage with New Glarus but with nearly 11,000 people is a bit larger. It’s the county seat of Green County and when I was talking to Herman earlier he had mentioned he had lived there at one point. Entering town I was struck by how an extra 8,000 people could make a place seem so much bigger. I parked downtown and took a walk around the historic square where the Green County courthouse is located. The unique two-story, red brick-and-limestone building of Romanesque architecture, with a 120’ clock tower looming over it, is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. It alone made the trip worth it. After strolling around the main business district a bit I wandered south to see what else the town had to offer.
While I was walking I saw what looked to me like giant beer fermentation tanks and as I got closer I realized it was the Minhas Craft Brewery. I made my way around the basic, industrial-looking building that, to me, was much more representative of how a brewery should look. I found an entrance to the gift shop that also housed a beer museum and restaurant. The museum is made up of a few rooms that display beer paraphernalia and propaganda from around the country and world. The collection is impressive and includes items that date back to the 19th century. As I was leaving I was invited to sit down and have a free pint by a woman tending a small bar on the premises. I’m not one to pass up free beer so I sat and struck up a conversation with her and two other guests visiting form the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I learned the brewery originally opened in 1845, is the second oldest in the U.S., and the oldest in the Midwest. It has gone through several owners over its 170 plus years of operation and before Minhas, it was the Joseph Huber Brewing Company. The current owners also have a location in Canada, a distillery on site, and produce a dizzying array of brews that are distributed world-wide. As I sat and listened I thought to myself how fortunate I was to stumble into the place and also how much more interesting and welcoming it was than the New Glarus brewery. My thoughts were validated when the couple from Michigan remarked that they also had enjoyed the visit to Minhas over New Glarus Brewing Company. As I was finishing my beer, a guided tour had ended and the room filled with people looking for free beer. I made my escape and headed back to the car.
On the drive back I stopped in the town of Monticello located five miles south of New Glarus. It’s half the size of New Glarus and the main street is just a few blocks long, comprised of various buildings, many of which were closed or empty. I parked and took a walk up and down the very deserted business district before stopping at a bar called Kooler to see if there was anyone in the town. Inside I was coldly greeted by the woman bartending who got me a Miller High Life and then went back to talking with two other patrons. I didn’t get the vibe that I was very welcomed so I sucked down the beer and moved on.
Before finally returning to the hotel, I made one last excursion to the New Glarus State Forest. Inside the park they wanted me to pay a twelve dollar fee for my car so I parked it just north of the forest and walked in for free. I strolled along one of the marked trails that took me on a loop into the forest and back out through a prairie that has some literature posted on the local flora and fauna. Feeling adventured-out I returned to my room to do some research on where I would eat that night.
Since I had been in town I hadn’t taken advantage of the Swiss cuisine a few of the nicer restaurants offered and felt it was necessary to do so. I narrowed it down to either the New Glarus Hotel Restaurant or the Glarner Stube, and figured I would stop into Puempel’s for a beer beforehand to get some advice. One other thing I had wanted to do was take photos of the cow statues which are set in front of random locations around town, so I took my camera with me. After roaming a bit trying to locate the cows, I made my way to Puempel’s. It was busy and I took the closest open seat at the bar next to a gentleman enjoying some cheese. Harmony greeted me and I ordered a Moon Man. She asked if I met Herman and I told her about our meeting that day. She motioned toward the guy with the cheese and said I should meet him too. Minutes later he offered me a piece of what I believe was a Gruyere from Switzerland. I gladly accepted and was impressed by its bold flavor. He then let me try some cranberry stilton and I was surprised by how the cranberry overpowered the powerful blue cheese flavor, yet it was still balanced. He started to tell me about his career as a master cheese maker, how he had a factory in Monticello, and a shop there in New Glarus. I learned his name is Bruce and I listened intently as he went into detail about what it meant to be a master cheese maker in Wisconsin and how it was much more rigorous than any other state. At one point I stopped him to explain my project and ask him if he would be interested in sitting down with me for it. Without hesitation he agreed and we went back to talking about cheese. Soon another regular of Puempel’s came in and sat next to Bruce. It was Sam who I met on my first day at the Bier Haus next to the hotel. We officially introduced ourselves and I learned he lived upstairs from the bar. The three of us had a shot of Jameson and talked like we were old friends. At one point Chuck came over to confirm our meeting and ask for my card to give to a couple he was talking up at the end of the bar. It was my third day in town and I already felt like Puempel’s was my long-time neighborhood bar. Eventually Bruce left but not before I got his number and set a time to meet the next day. Before leaving myself, I also asked Sam if he wanted to meet with me the following day and he agreed, so we exchange numbers. Finally, I got an opinion on where I should dine that evening and was told to try the Glarner Stube first but if the wait was too long, the New Glarus Hotel Restaurant was also a good option.
I first made my way to Glarner Stube but just as I was warned, it was packed. I didn’t even make an attempt to find out the wait time and instead walked over to my second choice. At the New Glarus Hotel I was greeted by a young woman in what I assumed was traditional Swiss garb. She had a table ready for me right away and we passed through a banquet hall with a stage, a dance floor, and large communal tables filled with mostly elderly diners. I was seated past the hall and up a few stairs where a number of booths lined the back wall. The place made me feel like I was stepping back into time and I spent a few minutes taking it all in before perusing the menu. It included a number of typical American dishes and Swiss specialties. I was interested in the latter and was torn between the Jägerschnitzel and the Pork Geschnetzlets. When the waitress came to greet me I ordered a beer and asked her recommendation. She told me to go with the Jägerschnitzel, a pork chop dipped in a parmesan batter, fried in a skillet, topped with mushrooms, onions, and bacon, and set over spätzle. I was not disappointed in the choice. The chop was juicy and the spätzle was perfect, firm but not undercooked. By the time I finished the band was playing in the main hall so I went over to watch the older couples dancing to the traditional Swiss tunes. Finally, I departed with a full belly and decided to make my way back to the hotel for the night knowing I had a busy day ahead of me.
The following morning I had time to kill so I took a trip to Belleville, a town the same size as New Glarus located about seven miles northeast of it. Driving in I noticed it didn’t have the same charm and was much quieter than New Glarus. I parked in the empty business district comprised of just a couple of streets and went for a walk. There are a few historic buildings, a rustic bridge over the river that runs through town, and a small lake where the river is dammed up; but the most interesting thing I saw on my walk was a sign in town that announced the “UFO Day” that was to take place the following weekend. According to the sign there was a parade, live music, and other activities celebrating UFOs. I was a bit disappointed I was a week too early.
Back in New Glarus I dropped off the car and went to Puempel’s a little early to eat something before the day of interviews began. It was quite busy when I arrived and I luckily found a spot at the bar. I watched Harmony and another bartender, whose name I didn’t catch, running around tending to the patrons. After a bit I was greeted and order a beer and a sandwich. While I waited sipping my beer, Chuck came in and started to help out the ladies. He greeted me and warned me our meeting might be delayed a bit, to which I replied I was in no rush. My food came, I had another beer, and at some point Jodie came in with her husband and we talked a bit about my meeting with Herman. Finally things died down a little and Chuck suggested we go next door to his wife’s salon where it was a bit quieter.
The salon was closed for the day and made the perfect location for an interview. We sat and chatted for an hour and I learned so much about Chuck and the bar. He told me about the original owners, Joe and Bertha Puempel, who started it in the late 19th century, how their semi-legally adopted son Otto took it over in 1935, and the story of how he and his wife eventually bought it in 1993. Chuck was born and raised in town and bar ownership has been a family tradition since his grandpa, and later his uncle, had once owned a bar in town older than Puempel’s. But Chuck explained it’s more of a hobby for him, and his full-time gig was as a car salesman at the dealership in town. He had a number of great stories. One of my favorites was how as a child he and his brother would have to spend time at their uncle’s bar. In it there was a Hamm’s beer sign that had a light-up picture of a lake with an island in the middle. To keep the kids occupied his uncle told them that every so often a man in a canoe would row out and the boys needed to sit and watch for it so they could let him know when it happened. Only later when he actually got the sign, which is now in Puempel’s, did he realize the truth of his uncle’s clever ruse.
After we finished we returned to Puempel’s and he gave me a mini-tour telling me about all the original items in the place such as the ice box, chairs and tables, and of course the murals on the walls. He explained they were painted in the early 20th century by a guest at the boarding house the Puempels ran upstairs. The young man didn’t have the money to pay for his stay so in exchange he painted four murals duplicating postcards. One of the murals was rumored to be of Bertha Puempel’s hometown in Switzerland. By the time we were done I was more in love with the bar than ever and very appreciative of the time Chuck took for both the interview and tour. I also realized that Puempel’s was more than just an old pub in New Glarus, it was a piece of the town’s history and I felt honored to get a chance to learn so much about it.
I contacted Bruce right before the tour and just as it was ending he was arriving. Chuck knew we were meeting and he offered to let us use the salon as well. We grabbed beers and strolled next door to sit down. There Bruce told me how he ended up in Wisconsin as a young boy because his father, a university pastor, had moved there from Texas to teach in Madison. Eventually his father retired in Monticello, where Bruce got his first job in a cheese factory. The story was that in his teens his car had broken down outside of town and Bruce stopped at the closest house for help. The man who answered asked if he was the preacher’s son and then offered him a job. While still in school he would go to the factory in the early mornings before classes and again after. It was the start of a long career in cheese production in which he has become one of the most accomplished in the state, and for that matter the country. He holds eleven master cheese titles, and of the sixty other master cheese makers in Wisconsin, the next closest has only six. He also sits on the board that judges cheeses and its makers, and has even become a bit famous in the culinary world for his success. I felt honored for getting to sit down with him and was impressed by his humbleness in spite of all he has accomplished. When we finished we stopped back over at Puempel’s for one last beer. There I tried to close my tab with Chuck but he insisted it was on him and again I thought to myself how much I felt a part of that small family. Before leaving to finish up my last interview of the day, Bruce invited me to visit his factory the following morning and we set a time to do so.
Sam and I agreed to meet at the Bier Haus where he was working that day and I arrived just as he was finishing his shift. I grabbed a six pack and waited for him outside. When he made it out we chose to talk in my room since it was close. At the motel he told me about his family and how their presence in the area went back several generations. We talked about him growing up in a small town and the problems that arise when everyone knows everyone. He explained he left town to work with an uncle in rural Pennsylvania, and lived in Milwaukee for a bit, but ultimately knew that New Glarus was his home and he wasn’t going anywhere. We spent an hour talking and I found it exciting to hear the perspective of someone younger living in a small town. We continued to chat even after I turned off the microphone but finally he had to go meet his girlfriend back a Puempel’s and we said goodbye. I contemplated for a second going back out but the day had exhausted me and bed sounded much nicer.
In the morning I woke early and headed to Monticello to visit Bruce’s cheese plant, Edelweiss Creamery. When I arrived he greeted me outside and told me that he had been there working all morning. We went in and I put on some protective gear for sanitary reasons. The plant was small but Bruce was in the process of expanding it. I couldn’t remember ever being in a cheese processing plant and I thought it smelled a bit like sour milk, but not too pungent. We went up to his office where he showed me blue prints for the expansion which he would be starting the following year. He also pointed out his large number of titles and awards that lined two walls. After, he walked me all the way through the cheese making process both physically and verbally, finishing, of course, with some end products. There is something beautiful about a two-hundred-plus pound wheel of Swiss. To top off what was already a great experience he gave me eight good size samples of his cheese to take home. I was grateful that he took the time to show me around and even after so many years I could tell he still carries a passion for making cheese. I left thinking how lucky I was to meet him and learn so much about something that is so important to Wisconsin heritage.
I went back to the room to pack up but before driving home I decided to make one last excursion. Just over twenty miles northwest of New Glarus is the National Natural Landmark, Cave of the Mounds. The limestone cave is promoted as the “Jewel Box” of American caves for its beauty. The story goes that the land above it had been claimed and occupied since the late 1820s, yet it wasn’t until over a century later, in 1939, that the cave was discovered by limestone miners blasting in the area. Within a year the cave was opened to the public and in 1987 it was designated a natural landmark by the U.S. Department of Interior and the National Parks Service. Today it is opened year round and one can take a tour of the natural wonder for a small fee. The tour was informative and at that time of the year there were not too many people on it. For me there is something exciting about caves, that feeling of exploration and sense of awe at what Mother Nature has created. I wouldn’t say I have been in a significant number of them, but I have been to a few. By far Cave of the Mounds was the most stunning I have seen. The limestone structures produced over the course of a million years through water erosion were alien yet beautiful and seemingly perfect. I almost felt at times like I was in some type of amusement park whose creators were under the influence of psychedelics when they built it.
When the tour finished up, I finally made my way back to Kenosha. On the much shorter drive back I recounted everything I had experienced over the previous five days. Every town I visited has made a deep impression on me in a different way and had a unique charm. For me New Glarus was a chance to reconnect with the state where I grew up. The town and region did not fail to provide the stunning farm landscape, European heritage, tasty beer, and amazing cheese that I associated with my home state. Yet beyond those expectations, New Glarus offered that Wisconsin friendliness, the camaraderie found at the corner pub, and that willingness of strangers to give you a hand or just sit and chat. In every way New Glarus was the Wisconsin I have always held in my mind. I left feeling that I couldn’t have chosen a better place to represent the state with my project but I had a feeling that I might have felt the same if had visited any number of great small towns that dot it.