Rolling hills, a sea of green, fertile land and ample space are what settlers from Switzerland saw when they came across Monroe County, sometimes referred to as “The Switzerland of Ohio,” in the 1800s.
Swiss settlers were greeted with much of the same sights in Sugarcreek, around 100 miles northwest of Monroe County, which calls itself “The Little Switzerland of Ohio.”
“They liked the topography … of the land. It reminded them of Switzerland,” says Alpine Hills Museum Curator Becky Detwiler. “And they realized that the hills and the grass was good for cows grazing and that that would give good milk for cheese.”
Monroe County commissioner Mick Schumacher had similar things to say about the Swiss immigrants that settled in the area; they liked the land and it reminded them of home.
The seat of Monroe County is Woodsfield, a village of around 2,000 people that centers on a small downtown area dotted with old buildings, small businesses and a palatial courthouse built in 1908.
Sugarcreek is also a village of around 2,000 people. Sugarcreek’s downtown area has sidewalk installments flying Swiss flags, buildings influenced by Swiss architecture, and the world’s largest cuckoo clock.
Another thing the villages have in common: a history of cheese making.
Woodsfield is the home of the Monroe County Historical Society, which maintains a 19th century dairy shed used by Swiss settlers to make cheese. Inside the barn are a number of cheese molds, pots, stirring devices and more that settlers used to make their famous Swiss cheese.
“Sugarcreek, meanwhile, once had as many as 80 different places making Swiss cheese at a time,” Detwiler says.
Not to be outdone, Monroe County lays claim to the Isaly family, who brought their cheese-making to the area in the 19th century. Grandson of the original settlers, William Isaly later founded Isaly’s, a dairy and restaurant chain most well-known for creating the Klondike bar and its slogan, “What would you do for a Klondike bar?”
Residents of both villages can trace their heritage directly back to the Swiss immigrants who originally settled the land.
“My wife’s grandparents and her family still spoke Swiss, even, she just passed away in the late 90’s. And she and her sisters, I think there were 6 or 7 in their family, they all spoke a dialect of Swiss,” Schumacher says.
He says most of the people in Monroe County had Swiss or German heritage before aluminum factories moved into the area and brought workers with different ancestry.
Sugarcreek residents can also trace their ancestry back to Switzerland. Some residents even have grandparents who were the first members of their family to leave Europe and live in the U.S., Detwiler says.
Schumacher admitted that Monroe County’s claim to be “The Switzerland of Ohio” is not as strong as it once was.
Detwiler, meanwhile, spoke proudly of Sugarcreek’s Swiss Festival as a major component of the village’s claim to be “The Little Switzerland of Ohio.” Sugarcreek is the only place in Ohio that has a Swiss festival, Detwiler says.