The Swiss Colony has been selling cheese since 1926, but there’s even an older tradition in its hometown. It’s Green County Cheese Days in Monroe, Wisconsin!
In the beginning, there was cheese.
University of Wisconsin senior Ray Kubly drew up an advertising campaign for a marketing class project in 1925. Being a native of Monroe, Wisconsin, his fictitious business was based on his hometown’s most famous product: cheese. Monroe, you see, is the seat of Green County, the epicenter of cheese production in Wisconsin. The idea impressed his professor, who suggested that someone should sell cheese by mail…and in 1926 Kubly did just that. He drew up a handbill, mimeographed and stamped it, and mailed it out to whomever he thought might be interested. This was the beginning of The Swiss Colony—the oldest specialty food catalog in the United States—and it started in the very same town as Wisconsin’s oldest food festival.
Green County Cheese Days
Monroe—and all of Green County—had been a hub of cheesemaking since the mid-1800s. Green County is known as “America’s Little Switzerland”; most of its residents then were of Swiss descent, and many of them brought a knowledge of cheesemaking from the old country. Green County was home to some 300 cheese factories, and Monroe was fast becoming known for its traditional Swiss cheese (and others, such as Limburger). Today the number of cheese factories is down to 12, but Green County is still the top cheese-producing county in Wisconsin, with more Master Cheesemakers than any other county—or state—in America.
Clearly, cheese is the straw that stirs the drink in Green County. So when the small town of Forreston, Illinois, about 35 miles south, put on a Sauerkraut Day in 1914, the good citizens of Monroe decided they should do something bigger and better to celebrate their cheese.
A group of local businessmen got together and planned the Cheese Day festivities in less than three weeks. Between 3,000 and 4,000 people showed up for the entertainment, which included vaudeville, acrobats and bands. Naturally, the food featured cheese: about 13,000 cheese sandwiches prepared in the basement of the Blumer Brewery. (Founded in 1845, this brewery, later renamed Huber and now Minhas, is the oldest continually-operating brewery in the Midwest, and second-oldest in America. So between beer and cheese, Monroe has Wisconsin’s top two food groups covered.)
Cheese Day grew the following year, as 20,000 people packed the city square to watch Swiss wrestling, the first parade, and an “Ode to Limburger”. In addition to Swiss cheese, Monroe was known for making the stinky cheese that was such a hit with German-American workingmen. Today, in fact, Monroe is home to the only cheesemaker in America certified to make Limburger cheese.
Cheese Days Today
Cheese Day got an “s” added to it in 1965, when it became a full weekend. It also grew large enough that today Cheese Days is only held every other year (the even ones). More than 100,000 people—about 10 times Monroe’s population—pack the square for music, beer, and cheese. The cheese sandwiches as served in the very beginning can still be found, along with numerous free samples from Green County’s many cheesemakers…but the favorite food of all is a basket of the Monroe Optimists’ Club “secret recipe” cheese curds. These nuggets of un-aged cheese are deep-fried, as they commonly are in Wisconsin, and demand to be washed down with a local beer. Get in line, and prepare to wait while enjoying some conversation; these treats are the biggest attraction on the square.
Ray Kubly’s company grew right along with Cheese Days. In 1959, The Swiss Colony established its own bakery staffed by a team of master pastry chefs brought in from Austria. Today it is America’s largest hand-decorating bakery, and The Swiss Colony sells far more handcrafted baked goods and food gift baskets than it does cheese. Beginning in the 1980s it added non-food catalogs to its portfolio, and today is known as Colony Brands, Inc., with catalogs offering fashion, home décor, household goods and more…even selling all of these categories under the Montgomery Wards brand. And The Swiss Colony is the primary sponsor of the Cheese Days Parade, which swelled to 160 units in 1965 and is still led by Brown Swiss dairy cows.
If you want a true taste of Wisconsin, you can’t go wrong with Green County Cheese Days, September 16–18, 2016.
Photo © Bloom Photography by Michele