Wisconsin makes more cheese—and different types of cheese—than any other state. No wonder The Swiss Colony is America’s original source for gourmet cheese gift baskets.
There’s no question about it: America loves cheese. Macaroni and cheese, the cheeseburger, cheese pizza, potatoes au gratin, good old grilled cheese sandwiches…all have their rightful place in the pantheon of American foods. And in no place is cheese mania more fervent than in Wisconsin.
It’s no surprise, of course. Wisconsin leads the United States in cheese production, producing around 25% of the nation’s cheese, and its cheesemakers routinely dominate the national cheese awards in a dizzying array of styles. Some 60 Wisconsin artisans produce more than 600 different types of cheese, and Wisconsin has won more awards than any other state…or nation. In the 2014 World Championship Cheese Contest, Wisconsin won 39% of the awards—more than five times as many as the nearest competitor, Switzerland. If Wisconsin were a separate nation it would rank fourth in the world in cheese production, behind the remaining U.S., Germany and France, and ahead of Italy and the Netherlands.
What California is to wine in the U.S., Wisconsin is to cheese. And what the Napa Valley is to California, Green County is to Wisconsin. About a quarter of the state’s Master Cheesemakers are in this rural county just south of the state capital of Madison. Wisconsin’s climate and low-acidity grass are perfect for raising dairy cattle, and the rolling hills and limestone-filtered water of Green County, in the southernmost tier of the state, complete the ideal terroir for producing some of the finest milk in the world.
It was in this idyllic locale that a young man would make Wisconsin cheese gifts available to a nation of customers through what may have been America’s first food catalog.
The Birthplace of Wisconsin Cheese Gifts
Ray Kubly grew up in Monroe, Wisconsin, the seat of Green County and Wisconsin’s unofficial cheese capital. As a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Ray wrote up an advertising campaign promoting a business that sold cheese by mail. In 1926, after graduating, Ray turned his class project into reality. He designed and mailed out his own handbills advertising cuts of Wisconsin-made cheeses. He bought the huge wheels of cheese in bulk, cut them by hand as orders came in, and wrapped and shipped them himself. Kubly sold 50 packages of cheese in his first year.
Largely founded and populated by Swiss immigrants, Green County is known as “America’s Little Switzerland.” Being of Swiss descent himself, Kubly named his fledgling company The Swiss Colony. His enterprise grew over the years—during which Kubly still worked a regular day job—and his product line grew to include some of Wisconsin’s finest cured hams and sausages.
The Swiss Colony’s client list also grew to include Eleanor Roosevelt, Bud Abbott (of Abbott and Costello), Senator J. William Fulbright, James Stewart, Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan, and other celebrities wanting to give gourmet cheese gift baskets and boxes (mostly boxes, as they were much more stable for shipping). Wisconsin cheese had hit the big time.
In 1959, The Swiss Colony established its own bakery staffed by a team of master pastry chefs brought in from Austria. (The hard-working Kubly finally quit his day job in 1961.) The company’s food gift baskets grew, too, incorporating gourmet pastries along with the traditional meats and cheeses.
Today the Swiss Colony sells far more handcrafted baked goods than it does cheese (the bakery is still America’s largest hand-decorating bakery), but the company’s origins have never been forgotten: world-class Wisconsin cheese gifts.