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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Establishment of an American Village

In the 1840s failed crops and foul weather left Glarus, Switzerland, in tough times. Desperate to help their people survive, the Swiss government loaned families enough to travel to the New World and purchase land. The majority of the 193 who left Switzerland came to southwest Wisconsin, where they settled in a fertile valley with rolling hills, which reminded them of Switzerland. They affectionately named their new home New Glarus.
            My husband, Mark, and I arrived at the Swiss Historical Village in New Glarus just in time for the first tour of the morning. Eleven buildings of period furnishings arranged around a central yard comprised the village. Starting the tour with us was another couple with children and a woman with twin girls about seven years old and the twins’ grandmother. Those twins, with pale skin, light red hair and irises of barely blue, seemingly dazed out on something, stuck to their mother’s side like lint on a screen—as hard as our guide tried to engage them. Their languid manner and expressions of disinterest changing not during the 105-minute tour. The other children, a brother and sister about the same age as the twins, played on the lawn, occasionally checking in with their parents.

Our guide, an older gentleman, told us about the settlement of New Glarus. The Swiss government sent two scouts to America with an aim for St. Louis, Missouri. They were to purchase land, build cabins and generally get things organized before the would-be settlers left from their homeland. However, by 1845 St. Louis was quite the popular destination and land in and around the area was out of the Swiss government’s price range. So, the scouts pointed north, toward undeveloped land. In what would be southwest Wisconsin, they purchased 1,280 acres at $1.25 per.

The Switzerland group reached St. Louis, expecting their months-long journey, which had claimed six souls to that point, to be at an end, only to learn that their scouts had been there and left. The Swiss mix hired two more scouts to locate the original scouts, and eventually most met in the area of New Glarus. Some of the original group stayed in St. Louis because they could not afford to journey further.
            Our guide showed us the roster of passengers on the barge the settlers took from Switzerland. He focused in on one young couple, traveling with an infant. He proudly stated that those two were his great-great grandparents.
            Several more people had joined the tour by the time we reached the final building, the church. Our guide invited us to take seats in the pews as we looked all around. A large rope hung through the ceiling in the back, and, after our guide asked, one of the twins, after the mother plucked her off her hip, walked over to pull on it. No smile, no excitement or interest, and she couldn’t pull it at first; the bell it was attached to was too heavy. After a couple half-hearted attempts, the guide helped the twin toll the bell. The bell rang once, and the twin released the rope and started back to her mom. The guide looked at the rest of us like, “I am really trying.” He (and the mom) did convince her to come back and ring it several more times. With the momentum of the swinging bell, she could do this on her own. And, though she didn’t smile, her eyes lost that bored, dazed out look.
            A pump organ sat at the front of the church, and, wanting to demonstrate its sound, our guide asked if anyone knew how to play. No one responded. He asked again, looking at each of us, begging. I sighed and stuck my hand up, hoping my third-grade piano lessons would come back. It’d been probably 20 years since I had sat at a piano. I didn’t know what I would play, but I walked to the organ and sat on the stool with the spinning seat. My feet pumped the pedals and my mind drew a blank. Why did I volunteer? I thought, continuing to pump, Because the poor guide looked desperate and needed a break after working so hard to get a reaction from the twins. I put my right thumb on middle C, and plinked out the only song that came to me: “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
            After the ending “mac-a-ro-ni” flourish, I swiveled around to great applause and wide smiles (though I don’t recall seeing the twins’ faces). As I scooted into the pew next to Mark he whispered, “I didn’t know you could play!” It was nice to learn I still held surprises for him, after so many years together. The melody was also a perfect, patriotic ending to a lesson in American history.


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