Photograph by Andre Jenny, Alamy Stock Photo
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In New Glarus, Wisconsin, fiberglass cows dressed in Swiss garb reflect the town’s origins. Wisconsin and other states in the Midwest have deep European roots.

Photograph by Andre Jenny, Alamy Stock Photo

How to take a European road trip without leaving America’s Midwest

A scenic drive in Wisconsin takes in Swiss yodelers, Norwegian trolls, and more.

The drive to New Glarus, Wisconsin, 25 miles south of Madison, winds through a classic midwestern landscape. Barns painted a dark red frame the country road beside tall silos stacked with corn. There are Victorian farmhouses flying American flags, ripe green fields rolling to a low horizon, and groups of grazing Holstein dairy cows, standing in bovine formation.

When Highway 69 dips down into a valley and turns a corner into New Glarus itself, though, you enter an entirely different scene that’s anything but midwestern. The Stars and Stripes gives way to Switzerland’s red-and-white flag, mounted on the wooden chalets that line First Street.

Murals of Alpine meadows splash across storefronts; overhanging balconies sprout banks of flowers. And adding to the sustained yodel of Swiss pride are 16 life-size, fiberglass cows popping up all over town, decked in folk costumes that would do Heidi proud.

The only thing more Swiss than New Glarus, in fact, is the original Old World canton of Glarus itself. Too often dismissed as a blandly homogenous landscape, southern Wisconsin, like much of the Midwest, offers pockets of diverse, deeply authentic European cultures imported and zealously preserved by their original settlers.

And the payoff for Americans is especially meaningful now. In the middle of our pandemic lockdown, when so many borders are shuttered, it’s still possible to set off on a European marathon without ever leaving the country.

Swiss shelter

New Glarus’s own immigrant roots mirror the history of so many midwestern towns. “The Swiss canton of Glarus was in such a deep economic depression in the 19th century that they sent two scouts to the U.S. to search for fertile land,” says Bekah Stauffacher, executive director of the local chamber of commerce. “They purchased 1,200 acres in Green County, and 131 colonists quickly followed, leaving old Glarus and arriving in their new Glarus in August 1845.” A thriving artisanal cheese industry developed and the town, dedicated to honoring its cultural legacy, became known as America’s little Switzerland.

At the New Glarus Hotel Restaurant, chef Mike Nevil offers a traditional menu of sauerbraten, rosti (potato pancake), raclette, and schnitzels. He makes semi-annual treks back to Switzerland along with a group of New Glarus firemen.

“Last time we went back,” Nevil says, “we were honored with a special meal. ‘We’re going to serve you a special dish,’ the Swiss chef told us, ‘that you’ll only find here, in Glarus, and absolutely nowhere else in the entire world.’ I had to laugh. When they produced the singular delicacy it turned out to be kalberwurst, the veal sausage I’ve served annually—oh say, about 700 times—back home at our own New Glarus firehouse for the last 20 years.”

Just down the street from his restaurant, the pastry cases of the New Glarus Bakery are dense with Linzer tortes, lebkuchen cookies, and its signature bienenstich, a buttercream cake topped with a honey almond glaze. Nearby, Esther’s European Imports comes stocked with dirndls, cuckoo clocks, and cowbells. The town’s Swiss Center of North America exhibits Swiss art and folk costumes.

Although COVID-19 concerns canceled the annual June Heidi festival this year, event organizers expect it to resurface next year, along with Labor Day’s Wilhelm Tell Festival, which features a retelling of the legend, performed by half the town in peasant drag.

“No child is actually harmed in the production of the play,” confirms Kayla Zimmerman, whose own son has performed as Tell junior the last few years. Through a deft sleight of hand, an apple already imbedded with an arrow is plopped on the boy’s head at the play’s climax.

Adding to the town’s entertainment calendar are performances by the New Glarus men’s choir and a group of yodelers, both temporarily silenced by the pandemic. “There are three members of the Yodelers, all in their 60s,” the group’s musical director, Andrew Schulz, says. “This group has been in existence for 90 years so we’re hoping to recruit some younger members to keep the tradition going.”

A job for Cornish miners

Just 31 miles west of New Glarus, you can continue your European tour in the village of Mineral Point, which pays homage to its own authentic cultural legacy. Located in Wisconsin’s Driftless area, rich with mineral deposits, the region drew miners from Cornwall, England, who were adept at deep rock mining and knew how to extract the veins of lead. It was because of these miners that the Badger State received its nickname. The original lead miners in the southwest part of the state were said (rather insultingly) to live in holes in the ground, like badgers.

“It was like a midwestern version of a gold rush,” says Nancy Pfotenhauer, curator of the Mineral Point Library Archives. Cornish immigrants came in waves between 1830 and 1850. The flourishing settlement was suddenly flush with money; its main street remains an emblem of its meteoric ascendance.

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Mineral Point’s High Street in Wisconsin was built during an influx of Cornish miners, who arrived in the early 1800s from England.

Lined with limestone and red-brick Italianate buildings, High Street slopes down to a horizon of green fields. A metal sculpture of a pointer dog, perched above a café, its nose in the air, takes pride of place as mascot of Mineral Point.

Like many midwestern towns, though, the place evolved. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, creatives moved in and mined the landscape for artistic inspiration, instead of lead. The result was a second renaissance.

“The original 19th-century buildings were cheap to buy and rehab,” says painter Keith Huie, who moved to Wisconsin from San Diego and never looked back. His eponymous gallery, one of many on High Street, showcases his own colorful canvases. High Street also now features a CBD (cannabidiol) shop, pottery studios, and a massage and meditation center. Rainbow Pride flags are mounted on the storefronts, and rock bands occasionally play at the 19th-century opera house.

But the town hasn’t lost touch with its Cornish roots. At the venerable Red Rooster Cafe, the menu includes classic Cornish pasties, as well as figgy hobbin for dessert (an epic bundle of raisins, nuts, brown sugar, and cinnamon rolled up in a pastry crust). The antique shops are crowded with English relics. And near High Street, the Pendarvis historic site functions as an open-air museum. Although formal tours of the site have temporarily stopped, due to the pandemic, visitors can still walk the winding path past the cluster of restored Cornish miner’s cottages, coach houses, and log cabins.

Trolls and tulips

A quick drive 28 miles back northeast takes you from England to Scandinavia. Luring large waves of Norwegian settlers in the latter half of the 19th century, Mount Horeb has kitschy fun with its heritage, pumping up the comic relief.

The main street has been dubbed the Trollway for good reason; carved, life-sized trolls, many created by resident woodcarver Michael Feeney, surface on every block of the town’s center, variously watering flowers, tending chickens, and playing music.

“Trolls originated in Scandinavian folklore,” says Janice Sievers, owner of Open House Imports. “According to ancient Norwegian legend, they have long crooked noses, only four fingers on each hand and four toes on each foot, and a long bushy tail. They guard all the treasures of the earth, the gold and gemstones.”

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A statue of a troll mayor greets visitors to Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, a nod to the town’s Norwegian roots.

Doing full justice to the tradition, Sievers’ bulging shop is crammed with troll fridge magnets, keychains, talking dolls, and figurines, along with a haul of Norwegian sweaters, clogs, horned Viking helmets, and wooden plates lavishly painted with swirling flowers and decorative flourishes in a folk tradition called rosemaling.

Just down the block at Schubert’s Diner and Bakery, the long bar is closed during the pandemic but the café is still serving its signature Norwegian meatballs and lefse, a thin potato pancake.

If you want to expand your heartland tour, there are other European outposts that allow for a semi-staycation. New Ulm, Minnesota, bills itself as a little Germany, complete with the second-oldest family-owned brewery in the country and a busy calendar of beer and polka festivals. Holland, Michigan, lives up to its name with banks of tulips and a towering windmill. And Kimballton, Iowa, honors its Danish roots with a replica of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue.

All of these proudly patriotic towns seem intent on sustaining their tight ties to their European sisters. “Every other year,” says Pfotenhauer, “a group of Mineral Point High School students fly over to Cornwall for a visit. And on alternate years a group of Cornish students come visit us, retracing their own ancestors’ journey to Wisconsin.”

Raphael Kadushin is the editor of three travel anthologies. Until recently, he was executive editor at the University of Wisconsin Press.