Switzerland & Midwest Connections: New Glarus, America’s Little Switzerland

Welcome to the History Blog featuring the connections between Switzerland and the Midwest. I am Joerg Oberschmied, Deputy Consul General in Chicago. My interest in history started at an early age and continues to this day. The views expressed are solely mine and I hope you enjoy these journeys through time.

Poor harvest years in 1837, 1838 and 1841 plagued Switzerland and these were followed in 1845 by the potato blight imported from Ireland, which destroyed large parts of the potato crop. The textile industry was in a second mechanization phase, which affected local weaving mills. Wages in home work decreased, and the home worker was now in competition with the factories with their modern machines. These events had a devastating effect in homeworking areas like Glarus with the result that Municipalities began to encourage emigration. In 1844, the Glarus Emigration Association was founded and soon about 8% of the Glarus population left, leaving many small towns at the brink of extinction. Far from a holiday trip, the emigrants faced long weeks at sea, dogged by cold, disease and uncertainty.

Coming to America

On March, 8, 1845, Judge Niklaus Dürst and blacksmith Fridolin Streiff departed Glarus as representatives of the Emigration Society to search for land and relocate a group of Glarners to the New World. The two men looked for land in Illinois, Missouri, Iowa and finally Wisconsin. In July, Dürst and Streiff purchased 1,200 acres in the Wisconsin territory at the price of $1,500 or $1.25 an acre. By comparison, land in that area of Wisconsin today costs over $6,000 per acre, or north of 7 million dollars. In April, 135 colonists (some accounts have this number at 108 and 122) departed Glarus and connected with Dürst and Streiff in Galena, Illinois, in August of that same year. Given the lack of communication between the groups this was a fortunate occurrence since the colonists had no way of knowing if Dürst and Streiff were even alive. The settlement they founded in Green County was aptly named New Glarus, which this year will celebrate its 175th + 1 Anniversary.

Swisstown

Today, the town of 2100 souls attracts thousands of tourists, including many Swiss, to enjoy its friendly heritage and chalet-style architecture. New Glarus is also the starting point for the 23-mile Sugar River Bike Trail, and New Glarus Woods State Park is less than a mile from the edge of the village. Nearby Monroe hosts the Cheese Fest which draws 100,000 spectators each year and has the historical cheese making Museum. There are two vineyards to visit — Bailey’s run and Hawks Mills winery. The Kelch Aviation Museum will open its doors in July and showcases 19 original vintage airplanes. The town celebrates the Wilhelm Tell Festival and Oktoberfest in September, and for the first time this year, the Christkindli Holiday Market in December.

The Swiss Center of North America

The Swiss Center of North America in New Glarus preserves and supports the rich Swiss heritage in the United States and Canada. Last month it received the original 1887 constitution of the Swiss Ladies Aid Society of Cleveland. Whereas the group dissolved at the end of 2020, its members fortunately donated it to the Swiss Center where it joins other Swiss-American historical records including those from the San Francisco Gymnastics Club, the Louisville, KY Grütli Verein and the Schweizerverein of Madison. The collection also includes clothing, textiles, folk and fine art, household furnishings and other objects representative of the immigration experience. Since 2008, the Swiss Center has been led by Beth Zurbuchen, who is happy to announce that the building has reopened to the public after being closed for a year due to Covid-19. Beth says her work at the Swiss Center is a passion. “I feel part of a larger family of people who, like me, are extremely proud of our Swiss roots. Taking part in August First celebrations as well as events promoting Swiss authors or movie producers makes me very proud that my great-grandparents and a grandfather emigrated from Switzerland bringing with them the values of family and working hard for success.”

New Glarus is located in the heart of Green County in southern Wisconsin, less than three hours by car from Chicago and about two hours from Milwaukee. Special thanks to Beth Zurbuchen for her contribution to this article. For more information, please visit www.swisstown.com, www.Greencounty.org and www.theswisscenter.org.

Beth Zurbuchen & Bekah Stauffacher, Executive Director of the New Glarus Chamber of Commerce, with Nico
New Glarus monument to the first settlers, 1915 (courtesy Beth Zurbuchen, Swiss Center of North America).
Celebrating the 90th Anniversary in 1935 (courtesy Beth Zurbuchen, Swiss Center of North America).
New Glarus today (courtesy Beth Zurbuchen, Swiss Center of North America)

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