New Glarus Celebrates Swiss Roots

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on March 3, 2002

Swiss roots run deep in New Glarus, Wis., (pop. 2,111) a village founded by immigrants from Glarus, Switzerland, in 1845. Red geraniums cascade from window boxes of chalet-style homes, and polka music fills the air.

Swiss Historical Village, a 14-building complex six blocks from downtown, was established by residents in 1938 to preserve the story of their immigrant ancestors. In letters faded and torn, log buildings, and worn iron kettles, the museum expresses the perseverance and determination of the town’s early settlers.

The museum’s artifacts show “how a community can build from literally nothing, the successes, the tragedies, the reasons for continuing,” says Bob Beal, president of the New Glarus Historical Society.

Today, townspeople continue to maintain close ties with their roots in the Swiss city of Glarus. Members of each community’s volunteer fire departments, for example, visit one another every two or three years.

New Glarus also has kept its ethnic heritage alive through organizations such as Mannerchor New Glarus, an all-male choral group established in 1928 to preserve traditional Swiss and German four-part harmony music. To commemorate the birth of the Swiss nation, the group annually celebrates Volksfest on the first Sunday in August with Swiss choral folklore music, yodeling, flag throwing, and alphorn playing.

New Glarus residents honor their cultural heritage through several other festivals throughout the year, all involving untold hours of volunteer labor. At Polkafest, “Polka music goes all day Saturday and on Sunday noon till 6 p.m., continuing until 10 p.m. at the New Glarus Hotel,” says chairperson Susan Foster, whose forefathers were some of the original settlers who came from the region of Glarus.

“If people want to learn the hop polka, we have people who will teach them,” Foster says.

Heidi, a Swiss national symbol, is honored each June with productions of Johanna Spyri’s tale representing the feisty spirit of the mountain people and the Swiss love of nature. Willy Ruef, who has played the part of Heidi’s grandfather every year for 37 years, represents the dedication of New Glarus citizens to their heritage.

Perhaps the most unrecognized volunteer is the goat handler who lies on his back throughout the two-hour play, monitoring the animals on stage, says Ron Paris, president and treasurer of the Heidi Foundation. “After the play, children enjoy taking photos and getting autographs of cast members and meeting the goats,” Paris says.

More than 200 volunteers, members of the Wilhelm Tell Guild, put on the Wilhelm Tell Festival, a Labor Day tradition in New Glarus since 1938.

Twenty-two years ago Peter Etter had been in town only three weeks when he was asked if he would like to be involved in the Wilhelm Tell play. “Anyone who lives in New Glarus becomes Swiss,” says Etter, the first non-Swiss to be elected president of the Wilhelm Tell Guild.

The festival includes three outdoor performances of the Wilhelm Tell pageant, the story of Swiss independence, one in German, two in English. The only other place the pageant is performed in German is in Switzerland.

Etter says all ages get involved, with babies going on stage as peasant children in their mother’s arms. Later, little boys become goatherds, choirboys, and soldiers, while young girls move from Swiss Miss dancers to wedding dancers, to usherettes dressed in elaborate 13th-century costumes.

With cheese fondue and Roesti potatoes available in New Glarus restaurants, kalberwurst (veal sausage) in the meat market, and Swiss music all around, it’s no wonder many visiting Swiss have been heard to say, “I feel at home here.”