LEBANON — This is no cookie walk. And it’s definitely not a cake walk, figuratively or literally.
The two-day cookie, craft and soup sale, billed as the largest in Wisconsin, wraps up today at St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in this Dodge County farming community of 1,645. But the 19th annual event is more like a marathon.
It includes an army of bakers, decorators and other workers and truckloads of ingredients. The endgame is to raise more than $15,000 for mission programs, the church and its small school that educates students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
The production process, spread out over 13 days, and weeks of planning, includes not only church ladies but church men, church children and anyone else who can dip, spread, sprinkle, mix, chop or bake.
The legion of volunteers numbers near 170, all of whom (and this is really important) need to follow the 150 or so laminated recipes stored in a thick, three-ring binder.
Making 3,000 pounds of cookies — which is nearly 60,000 cookies — 350 loaves of Kranzkuchen and over 20 types of soups and chili doesn’t happen overnight.
Production began the first weekend in November and wrapped up Friday night after an exhaustive seven-day stretch that involved eight to 10 hours at a crack.
Last year, all but three cookies were sold over the two-day event where customers packed Styrofoam containers with their favorite sweets at $7.50 per pound.
“Everybody enjoys being together and working for a common goal,” said Allen Behl, 61, a former turkey farmer who now grows corn and soybeans but each November produces cookies and German sweet bread. “It’s not just the St. Peter’s church members, a lot of other people from the community help.”
And all that help is a requisite to pull off the enormous undertaking.
The ingredients include 1,000 pounds of flour, 450 pounds of butter, 270 pounds of dipping chocolate and 650 pounds of white and brown sugar. The recipes need 2,600 Hershey’s Kisses, 1,200 miniature Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and 130 pounds of pecans, walnuts and peanuts.
“It’s got to make 3,000 pounds of cookies so it takes a lot of pounds of ingredients,” said Debbie Groeler, one of the lead organizers. “It’s a big undertaking but the people at this church are workers.”
The town of Lebanon is located about seven miles northeast of Watertown and is where Fireman’s Park plays host to the annual town picnic, its Rock River League baseball team the Whitetails and concerts by the Lebanon Band.
Brick cheese was invented here in 1875 by Swiss native John Jossi, but people wince when there is talk of the Home Plate Inn that is now a strip club. There is also worry that the Watertown School District might close the town’s elementary school due to budget concerns.
St. Peter’s, however, is one of the pillars of the community. The church and school were both organized in 1881. The church building was completed in 1885, and the school building now used, and attached to the church, was built in 1961. The addition included a parish hall and kitchen that are now instrumental in the annual cookie affair.
Groeler, who some call the “Cookie Queen,” took vacation last week from her day job as a procurement and fleet manager at Bethesda Lutheran Communities in Watertown to oversee the cookie, soup and kuchen production lines. Work, however, could only begin each day after hot lunch was served to the school’s students.
The kitchen bustled with activity. Some chopped onions for soup while others placed M&M’s, print side up, on top of soft chocolate impressed in a peanut butter dough. A commercial-grade Hobart mixer got few breaks, while a convection oven with a rotating rack ran virtually nonstop. It held eight trays at a time and baked up to 24 dozen cookies in a shot at 325 degrees.
“She takes a lot of pride in this,” Alyssa Cahoon, 39, said of Groeler’s effort. “There’s not too many activities you can do like this in life.”
In the parish hall some peeled carrots, cut green peppers and scooped squash for the soups that also require seven turkeys, 16 chickens and 80 pounds of hamburger.
There were tables lined with containers of sugar toppings, icing, sprinkles and candies. A few used squeeze tubes to carefully decorate angel sugar cookies.
Lynn Zindl, 65, Pat Cunderman, 74, Phyllis Frederick, 72, and Arlene Zastrow, 85, kibitzed as they spread jelly on star-shaped cookies to make a raspberry cookie sandwich.
“It’s a phenomenal community outreach to people and great way for the congregation to work together,” Zindl said without taking a break from spreading and pressing. “It’s a way to socialize.”
Socialization is what got the whole thing started. But first you need to understand dartball.
The sport is popular among Wisconsin church groups and uses a 4-foot square board sectioned off with baseball terms. Players stand 20 feet away, throw 7-inch darts underhanded at the board and try to score runs before getting three outs, just like in a baseball game, according to the Wisconsin State Dartball website.
And, just like in baseball, there’s a lot of standing around.
So, it was during women’s dartball league that talk began about how to pay off the church’s debt so they could pursue a remodeling project. They knew of other church cookie walks and ultimately decided to have their own.
The first year a small group of women brought their own mixers to the parish hall and cobbled together ingredients to make about 4,800 cookies.
“It’s crazy when you think about how we got started,” said Debbie Behl, the town’s clerk who was fretting about missing part of last week’s baking because of the presidential recount. “That first year we sold 300 pounds and we were ecstatic about that. Now we would be sorely disappointed with that.”
To put that in perspective, this year the group will make about 300 pounds of turtle bars alone and overall, nearly 60,000 cookies. The creations include cherry rum balls, chocolate mint slices, coconut lime shortbread, cream cheese spritz, macaroon kisses, maple meltaways, peppermint bows, orange sherbet slices, spicy gingersnaps and the list goes on and on.
The next generation
Emelia Groeler, 15, has taken part in the event for as long as she can remember. She knows all the nuances of running the commercial cookie dough rolling machine and figures someday, she might be running the whole operation, just like her grandmother.
“I’ve watched her do a lot of it and I’d be glad to take over someday,” said Emelia, a sophomore at the Watertown School District’s Endeavor Charter School, where she’s learning how to be an entrepreneur. “I love doing this and I love doing it with my church family and immediate family and everyone.”
Just a few feet away, Donald and Lilues Maas sat at a table across from one another and methodically spread marshmallow filling onto the flat sides of chocolate chip cookies to create s’more cookies. The octogenarians and retired farmers met at a dance hall in Hustisford in the 1940s and have been married for 68 years.
“We just do what they tell us,” Lilues Maas said. “It’s quite a project here.”
“It’s crazy when you think about how we got started. That first year we sold 300 pounds and we were ecstatic about that. Now we would be sorely disappointed with that.” DEBBIE BEHL,
Town of Lebanon Clerk and bake sale worker