Cheese Days: A Celebration of Culture
Eat cheese curds, drink beer and rock (yodel) out at Wisconsin’s oldest food festival. In Monroe, Wisconsin, Cheese Days is how we roll…out the barrel.
In Wisconsin, no one needs an excuse to party. Seemingly every town with a population in the triple digits (and some even fewer) has its own annual festival to celebrate whatever makes it tick. In Green County, home to the most cheese factories in a state that produces more cheese than most nations, there’s no question what the celebration is about. And the celebration is big enough that the host city of Monroe only puts it on every other year. Welcome to Cheese Days.
Wisconsin’s Oldest Food Festival
It all started in 1914, when some folks from Monroe had ventured 35 miles south to Forreston, Illinois, for their Sauerkraut Day (which had started just a year earlier). With the attitude that “if they can do it, so can we”, the Monroe contingent returned with plans to celebrate their own signature food product.
Monroe—and all of Green County, of which it is the seat—had been a hub of cheesemaking since the mid-1800s. Most of its residents then were of Swiss descent, and Monroe was fast becoming known for its traditional Swiss and Baby Swiss cheese.
So a group of local businessmen got together and planned the festivities in less than three weeks. To publicize it, they drove through town in a roadster bearing a sign that read, “First Cheese Day Committee 1914—We Started Something!” It worked; between 3,000 and 4,000 people showed up for the entertainment, which included vaudeville, acrobats and bands. Of course, the food featured cheese: some 13,000 cheese sandwiches prepared by volunteer firemen and meat cutters in the basement of the Blumer (later Huber and now Minhas) Brewery.
All in all, it wasn’t bad for the first year of this new event. The following year, 20,000 people—including the governor—packed the city square as the celebration grew to include Swiss wrestling, its first parade, and an “Ode to Limburger”. Yes, despite its heavy Swiss population, Monroe was particularly known for making the notorious Belgian-style 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 Song
Fast-forward 50 years to 1965. Cheese Day got an “s” added to the end as it grew into a two-day event, with a crowd size estimated at 125,000. And in the same year Bob Dylan recorded “Like a Rolling Stone”, the Beatles sang “Help!” and the Rolling Stones hit with “Satisfaction”, accordionist Rudy Burkhalter wrote and recorded the official Cheese Days song with the Monroe High School Band. “Cheeseday in Monroe” was released as a 45 rpm record, but we can’t find any mention of it on the pop charts of the day.
Of course, styles change quickly in the music world. Two years later, as the Beatles’ sound became more complex with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Jimi Hendrix and the Jefferson Airplane provided the soundtrack to 1967’s Summer of Love, Burkhalter re-recorded the Cheese Days song with Martha Bernet as the featured yodeler. According to the history section of the Cheese Days website (where you can also listen to the 1967 version), this time the song was recorded “under studio-controlled conditions for a ‘high-fidelity’ version ideal for home use and juke boxes.”
Martha Bernet would later become Cheese Days Queen in 1980 and a Parade Marshal in 2012, while Burkhalter passed away on the Friday of Cheese Days weekend in 1994. Still, the tradition of Cheese Days music lives on with a new Cheese Days song, “Teach Me How to Wedgie” in honor of the official Cheese Days mascot, Wedgie.
Cheese Days Chase
The Swiss have always been into fitness; many towns with a Swiss heritage have or once had a “Turner Hall”, as Monroe still does today…and it’s not named after someone named Turner. In Switzerland, a turner is a gymnast or athlete, and the Turner Hall provided a sports center and gym for the community. Today, a lot of those Turner Halls have become local meeting places, pubs, or restaurants; Monroe’s also has a bowling alley. And when you get a taste of their traditional Swiss cuisine, you’ll see why they needed a place to burn off all those calories.
Cheese Days is no different, of course; while a beer stand didn’t appear on the city square until 2008, the event has always provided plenty of calories in the form of cheese. The cheese sandwiches mentioned earlier can still be found—especially at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern on the square—but the hands-down favorite are the Monroe Optimists’ Club “secret recipe” cheese curds, which were first served in 1972. In Monroe’s version of Wisconsin’s favorite snack, cheese curds are deep-fried (as they are almost everywhere in Wisconsin) and served with a special dipping sauce that is anything but fat-free. Get in line; you won’t be the only one waiting for a basket of these morsels.
Free samples from Green County’s many cheesemakers are available as well, so you’ll have no trouble satisfying your cheese jones. No wonder there has almost always been an athletic element to Cheese Days, going back to the first Swiss wrestling in 1915, a jitterbug contest in 1940, and the first Cheese Days Chase in 1984, which drew 900 runners.
The Cheese Days Chase is a 5k or 10k run, with 2-mile walk and Kids Chase options available for those not into something quite so grueling. At the end of the race, runners can exchange the tear-offs on their race bibs for—you guessed it—a cheese sandwich and a beverage: either a local beer from the Minhas Brewery or a Blumer’s Root Beer, also made at the brewery.
Minhas isn’t the only brewery in Green County; New Glarus Brewing Co. is right up the road in New Glarus, another town with a proud Swiss heritage. After all, a county that produces as much Wisconsin cheese as Green County does needs a lot of Wisconsin beer to go with it.
Photo © Bloom Photography by Michele