A Postcard from New Glarus

Hi everyone,

Welcome back to Traveling with Tom. For the past two weeks, I’ve blogged about Wisconsin’s dairy industry. Click here and here if you missed those posts. This week I’ll continue this series with a visit to New Glarus, Wisconsin, self-described as America’s Little Switzerland.

The village of New Glarus, population about 2200, is about thirty miles south of Madison. On the day of our recent visit, there was road construction so we followed the suggested detour that took us the long way around. The drive through the rolling hills with farms dotting the landscape was a pleasant diversion from too much time spent in the city. Besides that it was a beautiful day with blue skies and temps in the low 80s.

Swiss immigrants founded New Glarus in 1845 after suffering failed crops, food scarcity, and severe poverty in the canton of Glarus in Switzerland. Eventually, 193 Swiss came to the Territory of Wisconsin before it became a state in 1848. It wasn’t the best land available for purchase but the valleys and hills along the Little Sugar River reminded them of their home country.

The industrious settlers got right to work clearing land for farms, planting crops, and building barns. Dairy cows provided the milk for making cheese that became one of the main industries in New Glarus. At one time, there were twenty-two cheese factories in the area! They introduced Swiss cheese to the United States as well as the less popular, smelly Limburger cheese.

Eventually, the New Glarus dairy farmers imported Brown Swiss cattle from Switzerland. The pale brown, gentle cows are medium sized and were considered a dual purpose breed (draft animal, milking, and meat) back in Switzerland. Through selection for dairy characteristics and milk production they became a dairy breed. One of the well-known Brown Swiss herds in the world is located down the road from New Glarus. Voegeli Farms milks about 250 cows and sells breeding stock all over the world.

The Swiss heritage was preserved through the use of architecture, ethnic foods, the German language, and festivals. Note the Alpine style architecture on the left side of the photo. Speaking of festivals, there’s the Heidi Festival this weekend, the Swiss Volksfest in August to celebrate Swiss Independence Day, the Wilhelm Tell Festival in September that includes an outdoor theatre presentation, and several other festivals. Check out the schedule of events at Swisstown.Com

The New Glarus Hotel and Restaurant has a long history. It had its beginning in 1853 as hotel for travelers. Later it served as the village opera house with silent movies, vaudeville shows, and dances. The lodging portion closed but the restaurant continued with a popular Sunday buffet brunch serving authentic Swiss dishes. We enjoyed many meals here, often driving down after Sunday services to enjoy the food and friendly atmosphere. Unfortunately, the restaurant closed at the end of 2020, a casualty of the pandemic. The family has two other restaurants in town that continue to operate.

This Swiss-German folk saying on the side of one of the banks in New Glarus. Here is the translation to English: “Money is neither bad nor good, it depends on who needs it.”

One of the first items of business for the Swiss immigrants to New Glarus was to build a church. The first Swiss Reformed Church was a log cabin, that was replaced about ten years later by a white stone church similar to those left behind in Switzerland. The new church, Swiss United Church of Christ, was built in 1900 on a hill at the end of First Street. It’s easily the tallest structure in the village. Until the 1920s, services were conducted in German, the predominate language. First, an English language service was held once a month, then two, then three until 1950 when the last German service was held. The bells are the pride of the town. Imported from Switzerland, they ring before and after the service.

It’s hard to miss the old train depot, now the town visitor center. The abandoned railroad bed has been repurposed into the twenty-four mile bike and walking  Sugar River State Trail. The trail travels from New Glarus through Monticello and Albany, ending at Brodhead. The visitors center has a large parking lot where bikers can park their cars in preparation for their ride. This is a very popular activity with hundreds making the ride each week. A pass is required to ride the trail, $5/day or $25/annual. I’m tempted to rent an electric bike from the bike shop in New Glarus and make the ride, maybe later this summer. Watch here for a blog!

In the center of town is the Village Park. I told you there were cows involved but don’t touch her!

From previous experience, I know the pastries offered by this bakery are unbeatable! I was tempted but I had ice cream on my mind so only took a photo.

The school mascot of the New Glarus School is the Knights. Summer school was on with groups of kids getting outside to burn off energy before heading back inside for more learning on a nice day. I couldn’t determine why they are called the Knights but I guessing it’s somehow connected to Switzerland, maybe to the Knights Templar. 

Are you interesting learning more about Swiss settlement of the New Glarus area? Then stop by the excellent Swiss Historical Village and Museum just up the hill from the downtown shopping area. There are fourteen historical buildings including a log cabin, early cheese factory, and many others. Stop by, you’ll be glad you did.

New Glarus Brewing Company

About a mile south of town is one of the best known business in Wisconsin, the New Glarus Brewing Company. It was started by a couple in 1993 in a renovated brewery near downtown New Glarus. Their craft beers were an instant hit with beer connoisseurs all over the state. For those interested, this beer is only sold in Wisconsin. Several years ago, a new brewing facility was build on a hill south of town. They soon added a tasting room, a gift shop, self-guided tours, and a beer garden. Since I was here thirteen years ago, it’s greatly expanded. The day of our recent visit there were lots of visitors with out of state plates stocking up on their favorites.

New Glarus brews are my favorites. I especially like Spotted Cow and the summer seasonal, Totally Naked. It’s my after lawn mowing refreshment.

I took an abbreviated self-guiding tour. My main goal was to see the bottling line but on the way I noted these large copper kettles. I was amazed at the miles and miles of stainless steel pipe that conveyed the products throughout the huge brewery. 

Here’s a short video of the bottling line. I challenge you sing along: “Ninety nine bottles of beer on the wall, take one down, pass it around; Ninety eight bottles of beer on the wall……”

As we were leaving, we noticed this hop garden near the entrance of the brewery. Hops are critical ingredient in the brewing of beer, it gives flavor and aroma to beer. The plant itself can grow as high as fifteen feet.

New Glarus Woods State Park

After our fun stop at the brewery, we drove another mile down the road to the New Glarus Woods State Park. Compared to some Wisconsin state parks, this one is on the small side, 435 acres. The park features a picnic area, playground, hiking trails, and a campground with seventeen drive-in sites and fourteen walk-to sites. A paved trail connects to the nearby Sugar River State Trail. It’s a pretty little park away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

I hope you enjoyed our day away in New Glarus. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention there are several excellent eating establishments in the village. They also have several taverns, it is after all a beer town!

Until next week, happy travels!