Swiss immigrants brought eighteen heifers and three calves to New Glarus, Wisconsin, in 1846. That was the beginning of what eventually grew into a rich cheese making heritage in Green County. Once home to 300 cheese factories, the number has dwindled to 12 today. However, Green County is still one of the nation’s leading cheese manufacturers. The National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe, Wisconsin, shares Green County’s cheese making history with visitors.
Turner Hall was once the place to be in Monroe, Wisconsin. People lined up around the block hoping to get into the hall where dances were held several times a week. National greats like Lawrence Welk, Wayne King and Frankie Yankovic played at Turner Hall, and locally popular accordion player and songwriter Rudy Burkhalter was a fixture there. People may not be clamoring to get into Turner Hall these days, but on the third Tuesday of each month the Ratskeller Restaurant, in the lower level of the building, often books solid. It’s the day that accordion players, along with a few musicians playing banjos, horns or other instruments, come together to jam during Squeezebox Night.
I had the pleasure of dining and chatting with John Waelti, freelance columnist, retired college professor and Monroe native, at the Ratskeller Restaurant on a Squeezebox Night. While I enjoyed my kalberwurst dinner, John filled me in on the history of Turner Hall.
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The original Turner Hall was built in 1868 by Swiss immigrants. “Turner” is the German word for “gymnast.” The architecturally plain building served a double purpose. It included both a dance hall and a gym. The building burned down in in 1936. It was replaced with the current building, a Swiss Emmental-style chalet, and includes a dance hall, gym and bowling alley upstairs and the Ratskeller Restaurant downstairs. I didn’t get a chance to see the upstairs while I was there, which I understand was beautifully restored a few years ago. I was told the wood floor has a give to it making it perfect for dancing. In 1982 Turner Hall was listed on both the National and the State Registers of Historic Places.
Rudy Burkhalter is a name that came up time and again while I was in Monroe. Born in Basel, Switzerland in 1911, Rudy began playing the accordion at a young age. He was able to easily duplicate tunes he heard played on the radio. Rudy attended the Basel Music Conservatory where he learned music theory and composition. He played at the Chicago World’s Fair where he met his wife Frances. The couple eventually settled in Monroe, Wisconsin, where Rudy taught accordion lessons. Several of his students went on to play professionally, including Roger Bright who played with Frankie Yankovic. One of the songs that Rudy Burkhalter wrote was the “Cheese Days” song for the bi-annual Green County Cheese Days festival, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2014. Rudy wrote the words, but the tune is borrowed from an old Swiss folk song.
Did I mention that my dinner partner, John Waelti, plays the accordion, too? As a young boy, John was a student of Rudy Burkhalter but then lost interest. John retired in 2005 after a career that culminated in a department head position at New Mexico State University. He returned to his roots in Monroe and picked up the accordion again with renewed interest. He often plays at events with accordion partner Bobbie Edler. The night I was there both John and Bobbie played with the dozen or so who turned out to jam, playing mostly polka music. When they played “Cheese Days” song, it seemed everyone except yours truly knew the words and sang along.
During the entertainment I sat with a few women who filled me in on more Monroe Swiss culture. It’s amazing that in a transient age so many have stayed put in a town of 11,000 people. It could be they are involved in the area’s dairy, cheesemaking or beer industries, or it could be that Monroe is within commuting distance to Madison and not far from Milwaukee, Chicago and Rock Island. Some leave but return again for their retirement years.
I wondered whether the accordion tradition would continue after the evening’s entertainers, who for the most part are seniors, are no longer able to play. The accordion isn’t usually the instrument of choice with the young folks. Then I learned that a 91-year-old banjo player had taught himself to play at the age of 65. John Waeiti picked the accordion back up after he retired, and he said he knew of a teenager who is learning the accordion.
Turner Hall may not be as popular as it once was, but there are still plenty of Swiss cultural activities held there, along with wedding receptions and other events. Accordions and polkas aren’t as popular as they once were either. However, both have survived, and with the spirit I witnessed in Monroe, Wisconsin, I imagine both will be a big part of the Monroe’s Swiss community for years to come.
Turner Hall is located at 1217 17th Avenue in Monroe, Wisconsin. The Ratskeller Restaurant is open Thursdays through Sundays. Check the web site for restaurant hours, Swiss heritage events and information on bowling.
Disclosure: My visit to Turner Hall was hosted by the Green County Tourism, but any opinions expressed in this post are my own.
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