Driving through New Glarus on Highway 69, you’ll notice something immediately. Chalet-styled buildings with sloping roofs and balconies, which are often decorated with colorful flower boxes in the summer. If you think it looks a bit like Switzerland, then the locals got their message across. New Glarus’ roots and origins are in the canton of Glarus, Switzerland.
In 1845, two agents set out from the canton of Glarus to find land in America for immigrants from this German-speaking region. The industrial revolution had hit hard. The new factories undermined the local economy that relied on family-sized gardens and weaving. The citizens of Glarus were looking for a chance at a new life. Making their way to the Midwest, the agents searched for suitable land in Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa, eventually exploring parts of the Wisconsin Territory. Coming across unclaimed land along the Little Sugar River Valley, they purchased 1,200 acres of land and 80 acres of timber.
The main body of migrants set out for America before they even knew where they were headed. Despite this, on August 15, 1845, they arrived and established New Glarus. The last immigrants from Switzerland arrived in 1925, but the colonists’ German Swiss heritage lives on in New Glarus’ current residents, including those who have no direct Swiss lineage.
The original colonists knew little about farming this type of land and struggled to grow wheat. They decided to switch to dairy when the soils became depleted and crops failed. This started the era of cheesemaking and signaled the spread of the dairy industry across Wisconsin.
Gone are the days when 4.2 million pounds of limburger cheese were produced. The village no longer has a working dairy, yet cheesemaking is still a main staple of the area with some of the finest Swiss cheese in the state. In a nod to Switzerland’s, the town’s, and Wisconsin’s love affair with cheese, painted cows can be found throughout New Glarus—great for posing for selfies.
Today, the town’s Swiss Historic Village captures all of this pioneering development, including a dairy, beekeeping, and a blacksmith, in addition to the history of the settlement of the village and township. During the Harvest Fest, in October, the historic village comes to life with living demonstrations of the essential jobs within the community.
The local restaurants offer traditional Swiss food on a daily basis. If visiting the New Glarus Hotel Restaurant in the spring, ask to be seated on the wraparound, glassed porch. You can view the tree blossoms and main street activities while reviewing the Swiss-inspired menu. Fondue is a daily dish here, as is raclette—melted cheese over boiled potatoes. The chef offers different versions of raclette as well as rosti—a dish traditionally made for breakfast with coarsely grated potatoes and Swiss cheese. A diner can choose from a traditional version to rosti with bacon or bratwurst or chicken or sautéed vegetables. Small pickled vegetables often accompany the dishes. The vegetarian rosti is delicious!
Once you have finished, explore this original 1853 building with its mountain-based décor. A large room with tables and wood floors invites patrons to dance. Bands are a regular fixture here on Friday and Saturday nights with polka music. And don’t miss the cozy sunken bar near the entrance. The Hotel is in name only, honoring the building’s early years when it served as a hotel and a center of village life with performance space used for theatre and vaudeville.
The Jodlerklub New Glarus was started in 1928 and found a home at the Hotel for a brief time. The Club keeps the alpine art of yodeling alive. Performing at festivals in New Glarus, other Wisconsin locations, and beyond, the Club includes alphorns; flag throwing; and, of course, yodelers. Another traditional singing group, the Mannerchor New Glarus, was also established in 1928. This traditional all men’s choral group features German and Swiss dialect songs.
Both groups feature in the annual Volksfest, which celebrates the founding of the Swiss federation in 1291. August 1 is the official day, and the celebration usually is held on the weekend closest to it. These singing groups keep faith with the original colonists who, while traveling to the Midwest, sang to the residents of then Pittsburg.
“As we floated into the city our singers sang several Swiss songs which attracted hundreds of people to the border of the canal and to the windows of adjoining houses” –Mirror of Switzerland quoting the writings of colonist Mahias Duerst.
Outdoor recreation has become the new New Glarus industry. In the 1930s, 78 acres of the colonists’ original 80 for timber were purchased by the Wisconsin Conservation Department, becoming the foundation of the now 435-acre New Glarus Woods State Park. The park connects with the Sugar River State Trail, a multiuse trail along the old railroad which served as the main connection for New Glarus to markets for cheese and other local products. The old depot serves as the trail headquarters and a good place to stop for refreshments.
Today, people come to New Glarus for recreation, the many festivals, and the ambiance. Oktoberfest plays a large role in the fall calendar supported by the New Glarus Brewing Company. Not surprising as the original immigrants were from the German-speaking region of Switzerland. Early in the year, Swiss heritage is put on stage in the retelling of two tales: Wilhelm Tell, a folk tale about the origins of the Swiss people’s rebellion against tyranny, and Heidi, the story of an orphaned girl sent to live with her grandfather in the alps. New Glarus’ community transforms these stories into their own festivals and opportunities to showcase the village’s Swiss roots.
So come to New Glarus and steep in Swiss heritage and culture. And if you meet someone with the last name Streiff, Kundert, Duerst, Tschudy, Egger, and others, you just might be meeting someone who can directly trace their history back to the original immigration from canton of Glarus.
Swiss Historic Village and Museum, New Glarus, Wisconsin.
Tschudy, Kim D. (2014). Images of America New Glarus. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing.
Tschudy, Millard. (1995). New Glarus, Wisconsin. Mirror of Switzerland 1845 – 1995.
Liz Wessel is the owner of Green Concierge Travel, which has information for honeymoons and other ecotravel at greenconciergetravel.com .