My day trip plan was to drive to Monroe to take in two sessions (6am and 6pm) of the US Open (Balloon) Championships, to drive their rural roads in search of barn quilts and to take in a couple of their local craft breweries. What I didn't realize, was that there is so much more to see and do in Green County . . . so now I'm already planning for when I should return to experience more! For a small rural county of 585 square miles and something around 35,000 people, it is surprising to met just how much is there for visitors and tourists to learn about.
The City of Monroe is also the county seat, home to around 12,000 people. Settled in the 1840's by immigrants from Switzerland, it is known as the "Swiss Cheese Capital of the USA". Their Swiss heritage is evident everywhere you go, from the dairy farms flying the Swiss flag to the government building that sits in the middle of the city square with its unique architecture. Built in 1891, the clock atop the 120 foot tower continues to keep time as it has continuously ever since.
About three or four blocks from the square, I stumbled upon the Green County Historical Museum which is now housed in a church that was built in 1861. Also on the grounds there is a small one-room Bethel Schoolhouse that was built in 1868 and subsequently moved here to be part of the museum grounds for preservation.
Turner Hall is in the National and Wisconsin State Registry of Historic Places. While it was closed due to a private event during my visit, I did slip in to snap a photo or two of the inside. They are open to the public during the week for lunch and dinner, and boast "the best fish fry in Monroe" on Friday nights. For more info on Turner Hall, check out their web site: http://www.turnerhallofmonroe.org/ .
Who hasn't received one of those cheese and meat gift boxes from Swiss Colony? Well it came from their factory in Monroe! Founded based on an advertising project completed by a student of the University of Wisconsin - Madison in the 1920's, today Swiss Colony is now known as Colony Brands, shipping their gift packs around the world.
And speaking of cheese, I do not think it is possible to drive anywhere in or around Monroe without passing a cheese factory or outlet store. Cheese is so central to their economy, that every-other-year since 1914 they have held the Green County Cheese Days in Monroe. This year's event is scheduled for September 14 - 16, 2012.
As you drive north out of Monroe on Hwy 69, you will reach the Village of New Glarus within 30 minutes. New Glarus was settled by Swiss immigrants back in 1853. The leaders of Glarus, Switzerland commissioned an exploratory expedition to Wisconsin in 1845, which resulted in the founding of New Glarus. Today they remain true to their Swiss culture and is known as "America's Little Switzerland". Yodeling and polka are still practiced preserving the art for generations to come.
If you happen to be in town on a Friday or Saturday night, you may want to stop in at the New Glarus Hotel & Restaurant, located right on Main Street. Built in 1853, they continue the tradition of old world dining and dance.
There are also a number of cheese factories and dairy farms throughout New Glarus. The village is also home to the first brewery founded by a woman - New Glarus Brewing Company. Using only natural ingredients, they are the 21st largest craft brewery in the United States. Be sure to enjoy a Spotted Cow ale or Fat Squirrel malt while in Wisconsin because you will not find their product in any other state in the country!
While in New Glarus you may also want to check out the Swiss Historical Village which actually tells the story predating Swiss settlement when the Ho-Chunk tribe inhabited this region of Wisconsin.
There is just so much to explore in Green County. It makes for a nice day trip or even a weekend excursion from Milwaukee (2 hours), Madison (1 hour), Green Bay/Appleton (3 to 3 1/2 hours) or even Chicago (3 hours). Given that many people come to the Dells for a Wisconsin vacation, Green County is a very easy day trip from there (under 2 hours). I know I am personally looking forward to my next opportunity to get back and to see more!