Wisconsin town has its roots showing Swiss visit: In New Glarus, you feel as if you are in the old country.

November 05, 1995|By Beth Gauper | Beth Gauper,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

In 1845, a city father addressed the nervous people in the Swiss canton of Glarus:

"Diligence and eagerness for work, these two glorious national virtues of the Glarnese -- take them with you, dear departing fellow citizens, into your new fatherland," boomed Caspar Jenny.

And with that the crowded canton shooed out the new emigrants, some so impoverished their mountain villages had to pay traveling expenses. But they had a place to land: 1,200 acres in the rolling hills of south-central Wisconsin, chosen by two trustees of the Glarus Emigration Society, who then had to quickly build 14 one-room cabins to house the 108 people who arrived on their heels.

The colonists suffered and starved at first; they were weavers and didn't know a thing about farming. But, being Swiss, they worked hard and saved their pennies. Today, New Glarus is a flourishing middle-American farm town with one foot in the Alps: In August, 4,500 visitors from Switzerland poured in to help the town celebrate its 150th anniversary.

"What's interesting is they continue to be very interested in us," said Lila Dibble, a descendant of the emigrants and a guide at the Swiss Historical Village. "They feel very responsible for us."

Wisconsin Route 69 crosses the Little Sugar River and rolls into town, flat and without fanfare. No mountains, but look -- there's a sprawling Swiss chalet, a hotel with wooden balconies and window boxes with cascading geraniums. And another chalet that's a bank. And one for the chiropractor, too.

Up a gentle incline a block away, in the downtown, there are Swiss flags and more half-timbered buildings. Old Germanic platitudes unfurl in Gothic script across plaster facades: "Um froehlich zu sein braucht es wenig, und doch wer froehlich ist, der ist ein koenig": "One needs little to be happy, and he who is happy, is a king."

I walk into the Glarner Stube, whose heavy wood beams and coziness give it the feel of a Bavarian pub, except the people next to me at the bar are drinking martinis and watching NFL football. A spry bartender who looks just like Kaiser Wilhelm fetches me an Edel-Pils made just down the road by the New Glarus Brewing Co.; it's marvelous, fruity and smooth.

Under a mounted crossbow -- this is William Tell territory -- I eat pastetles, slices of veal, pork and chicken in a pastry shell with fresh mushrooms in a wine cream sauce; and roesti, the Swiss national dish of potatoes with aged cheese -- "very aged," noted my waitress, Betty, with a raised eyebrow.

The next morning, I install myself in the pleasant tearoom above the New Glarus Bakery, looking forward to a classic European breakfast of crusty hard rolls, butter, jam and strong coffee, which is so very good I ask if there's a trick to making it; but if there is, the waitress won't reveal it.

Across the street, people have arrived for Sunday brunch at the 1853 New Glarus Hotel, filling the glassed-in wooden balconies. The warm weather has slowed business at the picturesque Choco-Laden, which sells chocolate and other meltable delicacies, but Mrs. Lackovich's Christmas House is filled with women oohing and aahing over the large collection of Central European blown-glass ornaments, made from 19th-century molds.

From a half-timbered depot, bicyclists are heading south on the scenic Sugar River State Trail, which follows the river 23 miles to Brodhead. I drive a few blocks to the Swiss Historical Village, where Lila Dibble shows me and a half-dozen other tourists the exhibits of cheese and textiles contributed by contemporary Glarnese. She makes a point about homesickness by showing us two waist-high relief maps, one of the lovely but gentle hills around New Glarus, and one of the severe peaks around Glarus, a canton southeast of Zurich.

"The colonists were happy to be here, but they missed the mountains," she said. "Here, there was a feeling the whole world could look in on them."

She leads us to a tiny pioneer cabin, a beekeeping house, a school and a cheese factory, with an enormous copper vat brought by oxen from Milwaukee in the late 1860s and still used to make cheese during festivals. As a child, Ms. Dibble said, she played around the pot, abandoned in a decaying building; and like most children before World War II, she could not speak English when she entered kindergarten.

"Now, the town is less than 50 percent Swiss, but before the war, it must've been 80 percent," she said. "Young people were better educated after the war and saw better opportunities elsewhere." The building of quaint Alpine facades began only in the 1930s and accelerated after the war, she said, as the town tried to hang on to its heritage.

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