Even with a diverse population, New Glarus holds fast to its Swiss heritage. (Karla Nagy photo)

New Glarus: America’s Little Switzerland

Talk about love of ancestry. The folks in this small Wisconsin town know exactly where they came from, and where they’re headed. Explore how you can be part of the fun this season.

Even with a diverse population, New Glarus holds fast to its Swiss heritage. (Karla Nagy photo)
Even with a diverse population, New Glarus holds fast to its Swiss heritage. (Karla Nagy photo)

Driving north along Wisconsin 69 in Green County, the scenery is trademark Dairy State: meandering roads that rise and fall through a countryside dotted by farmsteads with cows, natural woodlands and fields of crops. Bucolic and pastoral, as expected – that is, until you reach New Glarus.

Settled in 1845 by Swiss immigrants, residents here continue to honor that heritage, with Swiss-themed stores, food, festivals and entertainment. Far more than an interesting stop on the way to somewhere else, this tiny village of about 2,100 is a world-renowned destination. Known as “America’s Little Switzerland,” it annually attracts tens of thousands of tourists from across the country and around the globe.

Local attractions include the Chalet of the Golden Fleece, filled with art treasures and historical artifacts from around the world; the New Glarus Brewing Co., with its $21 million hilltop “castle” brewery and award-winning craft beers; and the Swiss Center of North America. However, those aren’t necessarily the top draws.

“I’d say our No. 1 attraction is the downtown,” says Susie Weiss, executive director, New Glarus Chamber of Commerce.

Little wonder. The architecture in the picturesque downtown reflects the town’s roots. Buildings are decorated with traditional Swiss flags, crests and symbols, and many are built with gable roofs and decorative bargeboard, wide eaves supported by wooden brackets, and porches and balconies overflowing with flowers in summer. “Swiss tourists say we look more like Switzerland than Switzerland,” says Kaye Gmur, president of the Wilhelm Tell Guild Board of Directors and organizer of the Wilhelm Tell Festival.
Taste New Glarus

“We have fantastic food, whether it’s a restaurant or a bar, and they all serve great beer from the New Glarus Brewery,” says Paul Fredrickson, a local insurance agent, Chamber board member and community leader. “If one restaurant is full, you can always find another a few doors down.”

Such as the New Glarus Hotel Restaurant, 100 Sixth Ave., built as a boarding house in 1854, and today run by Swiss-born Hans Lenzlinger. Trained as a chef in Switzerland, he came to the U.S. and honed his culinary skills in Chicago, before buying the New Glarus landmark in 1975. The charming interior features carved wood and traditional Swiss decorations, with seating for 225, including an indoor balcony overlooking the downtown.

“Swiss tourists often say, ‘This reminds me of Switzerland,’” says Ann Faber, who’s been a waitress and baker at the restaurant for a total of 17 years. “But the reason most come here is for the authentic food.” The restaurant is especially known for its Wiener schnitzel, Geschnetzeltes and Swiss fondue. Faber’s favorite? “The jaeger schnitzel,” she says without hesitation. “It’s an egg-battered pork cutlet with bacon-onion sauce, served on spaetzle.”

On Friday and Saturday, polka bands play and guests crowd the dance floor. “Oh, yeah, people polka,” Faber says, nodding her head. “Some of our older guests, who seem to have trouble getting out of the car and walking to their table, are transformed on the dance floor. It’s amazing and great fun to watch.”

Sample more tasty Swiss fare at the Glarner Stube, whose name literally translates as “The Living Room of New Glarus,” with shelves of beer steins, a full bar, dining room and seasonal patio seating. Just around the corner is Puempel’s Olde Tavern, established in 1893 as a boarding house and restaurant for railroad employees, still with the original back bar and ice box. A few blocks away, Flannery’s Wilhelm Tell Club describes itself as “part supper club, part sports bar, part Irish pub and part Swiss chalet,” serving up seafood, prime rib and corned beef along with cheese fondue, onion rings and burgers.

All restaurants include non-Swiss menu items, of course, but there are also some non-Swiss eateries. Find casual dining in a Victorian-style home at Kristi’s, which offers a traditional menu with a Mexican influence. Kennedy’s Ice Cream & Grill is a new business run by local Sherry Dreger and her family, who opened it because of Dreger’s fond memories of her mother’s business.

“She ran a popcorn wagon at the curb of my father’s gas station in downtown New Glarus,” she explains. “I wanted to bring a popcorn wagon back to New Glarus and run it with my daughter, Kennedy, and the idea just grew.”

Dreger and her family renovated the building on Railroad Street themselves. The exterior is bright yellow with a red roof and stone foundation. Upstairs is Kennedy’s Guest House, available for rent; downstairs is a colorful 1950s-themed cafe. The decor matches the vintage Coca-Cola items on display: red and black walls accented with polished stainless diamond plate; red vinyl bar stools in front of a curved counter; a black-and-white checkerboard tile floor. A jukebox – digital – is also prominent.

“We’re popular with locals, and we appreciate the support,” Dreger says.

Picnic tables on a covered patio provide outdoor seating, and the popcorn wagon is displayed prominently. Dreger operates it on-site as well as downtown during events and festivals. “It’s a wonderful way to commemorate my childhood,” she says.

Buy New Glarus

Then there’s the shopping. Brenda’s Blumenladen, 17 Sixth Ave., a local favorite, has “bloomed” since it opened in 1996, from selling simple silk flowers and notions to offering a complete garden center and a building full of unique home furnishings and gifts. Owner Brenda Siegenthaler, a New Glarus native, comes by her retail prowess naturally, having helped her father run the Ben Franklin store in town.

“When this building came up for sale almost 20 years ago, I mentioned to my friend Hans Lenzlinger, of the New Glarus Hotel Restaurant, that I wanted to start a flower shop,” she says. Lenzlinger told her that Swiss flower shops were called “blumenladens,” and she had the name.

Now covering almost an entire block, it has a full-service florist shop and a nursery offering annuals, perennials and shrubs, as well as garden decor, including a large selection of fountains. The gift shop carries a complete line of home decor, the latest from Vera Bradley, plus a wide selection of purses, scarves, belts, watches and jewelry, gift items, bath and body products, gourmet foods, books and greeting cards. Following the arrival of Siegenthaler’s twin grandbabies, she added a line of baby items, and the section grew so much that in 2013, she opened Kinderladen, just a block further down the street.

At The Bramble Patch, 102 Fifth Ave., owner Carol Allen has high-quality retail in her blood: Her great-grandparents ran a 19th-century general store, and her grandparents began producing maple syrup in 1889. Allen worked in the family business until she opened her own store in 1992.

Allen carries jewelry, some women’s fashions, local cheeses, gourmet teas, salsas and mustards, and of course, the family’s award-winning maple syrup. But Allen’s signature merchandise is the hand-painted Polish pottery from Ceramika Artystyczna, and she keeps upwards of 2,000 pieces in stock. All pieces have an overlapping design element, so customers can mix and match to build collections piece by piece.

“I love talking to people,” she says. “We have so many repeat customers that I’ve become friends with a lot of them.”

Esther’s European Imports, 523 First St., is a must-have shop in a place known as Little Switzerland. This nifty boutique offers a little bit of the Alps, with everything that’s Swiss, German or Austrian. The store is an eclectic mix of flags, Swiss lace, cow bells, chimes, dirndls, German cuckoo clocks, Swiss watches, CDs of yodeling and polka music, authentic Swiss items for cooking, and a line of traditional clothing – classic vests, hemp herdsman’s shirts, embroidered peasant blouses, milking jackets, scarves, ties and suspenders. It’s all authentic, imported from Europe.

A longtime fixture in New Glarus is Maple Leaf Cheese and Chocolate Haus, now owned by Barb Kummerfeldt and Steve Wisdom, a married couple who retired and moved to New Glarus from DeKalb, Ill. The shop sells 124 varieties of local artisanal and imported cheeses, along with domestic and imported wines, regional soda, imported chocolates, and gourmet Swiss and European foods.

The pair came to New Glarus to escape high-pressure jobs with conflicting schedules that often kept them apart. Kummerfeldt, a Freeport, Ill., native, had visited New Glarus often as a child with her father, an ice cream maker whose ancestors came to the U.S. from Switzerland in 1717.

“Dad was very picky about his ingredients, and he came here for the milk from Voegeli’s Brown Swiss cows, which has a higher butterfat content,” Kummerfeldt explains. “When Steve and I decided to move, I remembered New Glarus. We visited a couple of times, and we loved the feel. So we ran away together.”

Wanting to be semi-retired, the pair purchased a 104-year-old home that’s also a bed-and-breakfast. “That didn’t keep us busy enough, so when this place came up for sale, we bought it,” says Kummerfeldt. In addition, Kummerfeldt serves Cedar Crest Ice Cream on homemade waffle cones that she makes to order, and Wisdom creates award-winning fudge from scratch. Original flavors include Chewy Praline, Malted Milk and Swiss Mocha. Wisdom has been featured in industry publications for his confections, and the store made the Paula Deen newsletter. He offers more than 40 varieties, including seasonal flavors and sugar-free.

Both love semi-retirement. “We meet so many different people – 90 percent are from all over the world,” says Kummerfeldt. “New Glarus is a diverse community but strongly tied to Swiss heritage. It’s not commercial, though it’s touristy. It’s a great community, family-friendly, and we enjoy living and doing business here.”

New businesses are attracted to New Glarus for similar reasons. In 2013, goldsmith Halee McNett, a Green County native, relocated from Arizona and opened her custom jewelry store, The Juvelerare, where everything is handmade.

Across the street from Esther’s, Sue and Duane Nettum opened The Artful Gourmet in mid-April. They moved the store from Evansville, Wis., to fill a niche. “Some New Glarus residents shopped at Evansville, and they said they wanted a store like ours in New Glarus,” says Sue. The Artful Gourmet stocks unique, fun products revolving around the kitchen – utensils, serving dishes, linens, gadgets and gourmet food.

“We’ve been very impressed with the Chamber and how helpful everyone has been,” says Sue. “Locals keep stopping in to introduce themselves and let us know what’s going on. We’re excited to be in New Glarus.”

Enjoy New Glarus

“There’s always something to do,” says Melanie Judd, Chamber Assistant and lifelong New Glarus resident. “Parking is close to everything, and lots of people walk or bike around town.”

New Glarus is the trailhead for the Sugar River Trail, a 23-mile multi-use route through Monticello, Albany and Brodhead, along a converted rail line. The New Glarus Chamber shares space with the trail headquarters in an 1887 train depot that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Each year, thousands of visitors flock to New Glarus to attend one or more of its many festivals, which celebrate not only the Swiss culture but the bounty of the Wisconsin region. Even so, the Chamber and Village Board continue to incorporate new events into the schedule. Some piggyback on the dates of traditional fests, adding yet another draw for visitors.

This past June, the Heidi Festival marked its 50th year, joined by Taste of New Glarus. The weekend is highlighted by a live dramatization of Johanna Spyri’s classic 1880 children’s tale Heidi. On Saturday, Taste of New Glarus offers locally produced food and beverages, and shops hold sidewalk sales.

“Something we can do that other festivals can’t is our open liquor policy,” says Fredrickson. “Instead of being confined to a beer tent or similar space, people can carry beer on the streets, in designated areas. It provides a communal, festive atmosphere, always family-friendly, and allows people to move from place to place more easily.”

Begun in 1938, the Wilhelm Tell Festival is the longest-running. Held the last weekend in August, it tells the tale of Swiss independence, and the hero who shot an apple from his son’s head. “It’s all outdoors, at Wilhelm Tell Shooting Park,” says event organizer Gmur. “It’s like a natural amphitheater, and a wooded gravel path leads to the performance area.” More than 200 local volunteers participate, and it’s a multigenerational family affair.

“My mother-in-law is 80, and she’s still in it,” says Fredrickson. “I’m in it, my kids are in it. It’s truly a community affair.” It was originally performed in German, but now, all are in English. “Over the years, we lost our German-speaking actors, and it became more and more difficult to find them in the surrounding area,” says Gmur.

The festival, which draws 400 to 500 each day, includes a children’s lantern parade, a yodeling contest, a street dance and an outdoor art fair.

Other heritage-themed celebrations, such as Volkfest, Swiss Independence Day, held in August, with yodeling, alphorns, flag throwing and more, and Oktoberfest, Sept. 26-28, are complemented by events like New Glarus Car, Truck & Motorcycle Show and New Glarus Music Fest.

Dig New Glarus Roots

Each year, 5,000 to 6,000 people tour the Swiss Historical Village & Museum, 612 Seventh Ave., in New Glarus, where 14 vintage-era buildings and numerous displays relate the story of the town’s founding and its growth into a thriving farming community. “We ask visitors to sign our guest book, and each year, we typically have people from all 50 states and about 35 foreign countries represented,” says Gail Beal, a board member of the Historical Village and 46-year resident.

Volunteering as a guide is John Marty, a direct descendant, on his mother’s side, of the original New Glarus settlers, who came from the canton Glarus in Switzerland in 1845. (A canton in Switzerland is similar to a state in the U.S.) The New Glarus Historical Society was founded in 1938 by a group of local businessmen. The first building was a pioneer cabin, acquired in 1942, which also served as the society’s first headquarters. The Village now has a pioneer church, one-room schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, cheesemaking shop, 1902 print shop and gravestones of some of the founding members.

According to Marty, most of the first New Glarus residents were textile workers, and the Industrial Revolution put them out of work. This coincided with a widespread potato famine, and many people were starving. Canton Glarus formed an emigration society, to loan people money to buy land in America. In 1845, it sent two Swiss scouts, Nicholas Duerst and Fridolin Streiff, to find affordable land and prepare for 200 settlers, who were to arrive the following year.

“They had heard that St. Louis had land for $1.25 an acre, but when Duerst and Streiff arrived, it wasn’t true any longer,” Marty explains. “They were advised to go north to a land called Wisconsin, and 30 miles north of Mineral Point, they liked what they saw.”

The rolling hills reminded them of mountainous Switzerland, with water, trees and arable land. Most importantly, the land was the price they had planned for. They bought 1,200 acres of farmland and 88 acres of timberland, to provide building materials. “That timberland is now New Glarus State Park,” Marty says.

The settlers weren’t supposed to come for another six months, but things were so bad in Switzerland that they left early. On the 49-day voyage to Baltimore, four died. Then it was a series of train and boat rides to reach St. Louis, where they discovered that it wasn’t really the end of their journey. The canton Glarus loaned the settlers money to purchase land, but they were on their own for boat fare, food and other travel expenses. “As you can imagine, some became disgruntled and decided to stop in other towns along the way,” Beal says. “Others ran out of travel money and couldn’t go any further. So, only 108 of the original 200 arrived here in New Glarus.”

These were textile workers, remember, not farmers, and they learned as they went, planting crops and using cows and chickens for personal use. Then, in 1860, the wheat market collapsed. That’s when Nicklaus Gerber, a Swiss cheesemaker, suggested that they buy more cows, form a cooperative and sell their milk to him.
“These weren’t Brown Swiss, as many believe,” says Marty. “Drovers coming through mostly had Holsteins, so that’s what they bought.”

Gerber’s cheese factories grew, and he established the first Limburger factory in the U.S., still operating as the only Limburger cheese factory in the U.S.

In the fall, the Village’s annual Harvest Fest features many of the traditional artisan crafts and occupational skills needed by the first settlers. “We used to focus on cheesemaking, but we now have beekeeping, quilting, ropemaking, blacksmithing, even cooking demonstrations – things that we take for granted,” says Beal.

The passion for New Glarus heritage is strong, and it’s not just the village’s direct descendants or those who are Swiss by genetics.

“The majority of residents have a trace of the original founders, but it’s not like it used to be,” says Gmur. “Still, the buy-in to the heritage is huge. Kids are taught the history, and encouraged to participate in Heidi and Wilhelm Tell.”