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This episode of the See America Podcast was written and hosted by Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue.
Introduction to Mars Cheese Castle:
A glowing white stone castle shines like a beacon of hope to weary travelers in the southeast corner of Wisconsin- but no knights in armor or kings and queens live here. This is a castle of another type, one that enshrines Wisconsin’s most prized product. Cheese.
Anyone from Wisconsin has surely heard every cheese joke under the sun, and probably participated in a few. It’s part of being a midwesterner…you’re known for farm stuff. The barley in your beer probably comes from North Dakota. Kansas has all the wheat. Iowa has more pigs than people. Illinois builds all the tractors. And Wisconsin… Wisconsin has dairy. This Chicagoan has spent quite a few dollars on Wisconsin cheese products. You can have your European or Californian cheeses. There’s a reason the best pizza in the world is in the midwest. And no, I’m not talking about Chicago-style pizza. I’m talking about the pizza you can find in virtually any town in the heart of the country. Chewy crust, with generous toppings, almost completely buried in stretchy Wisconsin cheese blends. Wisconsin cheeses are like any midwesterner. They don’t strut, they deliver. They’re good with, in, or on practically anything. Unassuming yet bold. They’re perfect.
But Wisconsin cheese is anything but simple. Tthe state produces more varieties of the stuff than any other place on earth. 600, in fact. Double California’s offerings. From blue to mozzarella to gouda to America’s Cheese—cheddar—and everything between. Wisconsin produces almost 4 billion pounds of cheese a year from over a million dairy cows, who give up 90% of their milk for Cheese.
And Wisconsinites don’t just make the stuff, they consume it. They fry it. They grill it. They grind it into sausages. They spread it on bread. They put it on their heads at football games for some reason. There’s literally no better soup than Wisconsin beer cheese soup. And you can pass by the french fries in favor of fried cheese curds when you visit, which are chunks of fresh, unaged cheddar. Like, unbelievably fresh. They’re usually fried within a day of being produced. If you’re getting cheese curds outside of a dairy state – it ain’t the real thing. It’s just fried cheese chunks. Which is ok, too, I guess.
In the 1830s and ‘40s, immigrants from all the big cheesemaking European countries arrived in Wisconsin, before it was even a state, and began turning milk into cheese. By 1877, the first real American cheese innovation was born – brick cheese. Which isn’t actually named for it’s shape. Swiss immigrant John Jossi began using bricks to press curd, and shared his process with other cheesemakers. In 1885 John Steinwand invented the soft, open-textured colby, which became a hit around the world. By the 1910s, Wisconsin surpassed New York as America’s #1 dairy state. By the 20s, it became the 1st state to grade cheese for quality and institute food safety regulations.
Back in 1979, a cheesemaker at Arena Cheese in the Wisconsin River Valley noticed that he had a little bit of Colby and a little bit of Monterey Jack left over at the end of each shift – but not enough to sell either cheese on its own. In Wisconsin, they hate to see good cheese go to waste, so Colby Jack was invented.
Throughout the last century, Wisconsin cheeses became incredibly popular among Americans, but also gained worldwide acclaim. In 1982, Julie Hook’s colby took home the title of “finest cheese in the world,” besting 492 other offerings at the World Cheese Championship. In 2018, Wisconsin won more awards than any country at the event.
As Americans began to hit the road in the post- World War 2 boom, Wisconsin began to show off its wares. Roadside cheese stands began to crop up across the state, none more infamous than the Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha, well-placed in view from interstate 94. Less than an hour from Chicago.
History of the Mars Cheese Castle:
Mario Ventura, Sr. and his wife Martha decided to capitalize on Wisconsin’s dairy cred in 1947 by opening a cheese market. The name Mario comes from the Roman god Mars, which Mario quite liked, and his mother owned a castle in Italy, so he decided to honor her. Mars Cheese Castle was born. The store wasn’t quite a castle in the beginning, however. It began out of an old Kenosha schoolhouse. Artist George Pollard designed the store’s logo; the project was his first job. “Everybody discouraged us and said, `Oh, them poor young people, they’re going to be out of business in a few months,’” Martha told the Chicago Tribune. But the Mars Cheese Castle would survive them all.
In 1957, the original building burned down, but the Ventura family started over, dragging what they could salvage to an old gas station that became the new store.
Over the years, the Venturas built addition after addition until Mars reached a castle-like 25,000 square feet. They added a lunch counter, then a tavern, and even operated as a Wisconsinwisconsin-style supper club for a while. There was a motel for a time.
Mario had been a butcher in the military at the Great Lakes Naval Base, so he brought his love for fresh and cured meats to the cheese castle – bacon and ham especially.
In 2011, a project that would widen Interstate 94 forced the store to relocate 50 yards away from it’s long-held location. But it gave the Venturas descendants the opportunity to really build the castle of Mario senior’s dreams. The new store is over twice as large as the previous one, and has a watchtower to complement the original 80-foot sign, which since it had to be moved, went against new local ordinances banning signage of that size. A wisonsin state legistlator wrote into the state’s budget appropriations bill that the Mars Cheese Castle sign must be allowed to be returned to the new site in it’s original condition and could never be moved without the permission of the Venturas. Even since, they’ve added on another 22,000 square feet. There’s a tavern, a deli, a bakery. a massive wine selection, and all sorts of Wisconsin-borne products. There’s a feast hall for wine tastings that can be rented out, and a gift shop full of quirky Wisconsin curiosities.
The bar features what is known far and wide as one of the best Bloody Marys on the planet, and a wide selection of Wisconsin beers. The restauraunt serves a killer grilled cheese, naturally, and a stellar Rueben, piled high with swiss.
In the store, you can buy their summer sausages, spiral hams, bratwurst, or canadian bacon. And, of course, there’s cheese. 800 different varieties. And things made from cheese, like spreads, sausages, crackers, and bread.
Mars Cheese Castle has become a destination on any I-94 road trip, and it’s attracted its fair share of celebrity celebrity visitors. John F. Kennedy and Johnny Cash have visited. The rock band Weezer held a record signing at the store in 2001.
Visiting The Mars Cheese Castle:
Visiting the Mars Cheese Castle can be a quick stop on your road trip through Wisconsin or a half-day affair. Kenosha sits on both The Yellowstone Trail and the Lake Michigan Circle Tour. It’s also a Wisconsin Harbor Town, and part of two multi-state water trails: Lake Michigan Water Trail and Fox River Water Trail. And if you can’t make it in person, Mars sells all sorts of cheese, meats, and gift baskets on their website, marscheese.com. If you’re looking for more of a cheese-filled Wisconsin itinerary, you might consider one of travelwisconsin.com’s several cheese tour routes.
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You can hear this story and more on the See America Podcast. Available on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.