MONROE – The future of Green County Cheese Days is absent Swiss lineage.
Cammi Ganshert is a former Cheese Days princess, is learning to play the accordion, and her family tree includes roots from Germany, Ireland, Norway, Poland, Ireland and Scotland, but not Switzerland.
The 13-year- old plays piano and sings in Precocious, a classic-rock band with three of her Monroe Middle School eighth-grade classmates. She plays hockey, volleyball and softball, downhill skis in the winter and wakeboards on Lake Monona in the summer.
Cammi, the daughter of a third-generation Monroe dentist, is also a darn good yodeler and showed off her skills last week before about 75 people during a dinner of Swiss cheese sandwiches, veal brats, taps of Berghoff and Spotted Cow beers and a dessert of Blumer’s Root Beer floats.
And to prepare for Cheese Days (Sept. 19-21), which will celebrate 100 years since its first event, Cammi has given up sharing selfies on Snapchat with her friends, all so she can focus on practicing for what is this community’s biggest event every two years.
“I just really love yodeling, and I just like the culture,” said Cammi. “It’s something unique, and it’s something none of my friends know how to do. If I had to pick a band, I’d probably pick yodeling. I find it much more fascinating.”
Cheese Days began in 1914 after a group of Monroe businessmen attended Sauerkraut Days in Forreston, Illinois, and thought a festival based around Green County’s cheesemaking would be a way to celebrate the area’s culture. Around 4,000 people attended the first event and ate 13,000 cheese sandwiches prepared by firefighters in a garage at Blumer Brewery, now Minhas Craft Brewery.
The 1915 event drew an estimated 20,000 people and in 1917, a four-mile parade included 150 decorated cattle led by Swiss-costumed dairy maids. Because of World War I, the 1918 Cheese Days was canceled. It resumed in 1923 but was held only eight times before 1970. From then on, Cheese Days has been held every other year and thanks to the continued growth of the craft cheese industry and our love of cheese curds, the 2012 celebration drew more than 100,000 people.
According to statistics dug up by Noreen Rueckert, executive director of Green County Tourism and one of the key organizers of Cheese Days, the Monroe Optimist Club has sold $1.5 million worth of cheese curds at its stand since 1972. At the 2012 event, 5,586 cheesecakes-on-a-stick were consumed, 40,000 pounds of cheese was sold , there were 130 entries in the parade and 500 volunteers.
This year, more than 130 accordionists will perform with the Monroe City Band just before 1 p.m. Saturday.
“They’ll just squeeze onto the stage and flank the band,” Rueckert said. “People are just really pumped about this one. It’s just good, clean fun.”
And the cheese curd stand? It require s 30 workers per shift but still result s in long lines, which prompted Cammi and her music teacher, Cindy Blanc, to write a song, “Waiting in Line for Cheese Curds.” It’s sung to the tune of the Credence Clearwater Revival song, “Proud Mary.”
“Didn’t get to hear the yodelers, never took a sip from a big beer stein/We all were big dummies, we didn’t go to Baumy’s/Spent the whole big day just standing in line,” Cammi sang in reference to Baumgartner’s Cheese Store & Tavern while playing an electric piano. “Wish we were out there groovin’, but this big old line just ain’t movin’/Waiting, waiting, waiting in line for cheese curds.”
When I spoke with Cammi, she was seated at a banquet table with her parents, Tom and Jodi Ganshert, and her 90-year-old grandfather, Joe Ganshert. This was Tuesday in the Old World Ratskeller restaurant, located in the basement of Turner Hall, home to the Swiss Heritage & Community Center.
Once a month, the Turners host what is called “En Guete Evening.” Pronounced en-goy-tah, it translates into “eat hardy” or “have a good meal.” The event is about as Swiss as it can get and is sponsored by the New World Swiss Club. The walls of the place are filled with historic photos of past Cheese Days . A display case near the front entrance chronicles Swiss wrestling matches held during Cheese Days, while old copies of the “Swiss Review: The Magazine for Swiss Abroad,” are piled on a small table below a painting of a guy on a mountain blowing a Swiss alphorn.
Because of the approaching Cheese Days, a side room was filled with samples of several cheeses . But those in attendance defined the evening.
The crowd included two of the state’s 56 master cheesemakers. Del Heins was there with his accordion and so, too, were John Waelti and Bobbie Edler. Duke and Diane Phillips, this year’s Cheese Days king and queen, were seated stage right and Martha Bernet, longtime vocalist, accordion player and the 1980 Cheese Days queen, was seated stage left — that is, when she wasn’t up front leading the crowd in the Cheese Days song.
Bernet, 88, came to the U.S. in 1947 from Switzerland, was named Monroe’s outstanding senior citizen in 1971 when she was 44 years old and for the past 59 years has hosted a Swiss radio show six days a week on Monroe’s WEKZ. She and her husband were cheesemakers and for 26 years ran Bernet’s Cheese & Sausage Shop.
“I love Monroe, and I love Wisconsin,” Bernet said. “When my husband passed away (in 1984) everyone thought I would go back to Switzerland, but I just think Monroe is one of the finest places to be.”
Cammi was by far the youngest in the room. In fact, not counting the wait staff, Cammi’s parents were probably the next youngest. Her grandfather, who played trombone in the Monroe City band for 57 years, may have been the oldest. He remembers shuttling Cammi to her activities and her singing in the car.
“It’s like breathing,” Joe Ganshert said, as he looked at Cammi. “I think that’s where you get your oxygen.”
The singing of Bernet and her “Swiss Hen” partner, Marian Kundert, were beloved and the accordion music provided a classic atmosphere for the diners. But it was Cammi who stole the show . And if she stays on track, the non-Swiss native of Monroe will help carry on the heritage and tradition of this historic city.
“I’ve learned about the history and what everything has meant,” said Cammi, who wrote a report on yodeling in sixth grade. “I find it really interesting. My friends are always kind of surprised about it.”