The great Midwest cheese duel of 1935
A story of regional identity, the postal service, and a block of Limburger
Hello, Snackers. How far would you go to defend the honor of a piece of cheese?
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A crowd had already gathered at the Hotel Julien in Dubuque on March 9, 1935, when two men arrived to fight an unusual duel with both federal rules and regional pride on the line.
On one side was John Burkhard of Monroe, Wisconsin. On the other: Warren Miller of Independence, Iowa. The site of the battle was chosen as a neutral ground, roughly halfway between their hometowns, and had a grandiosity fitting the occasion: a Beaux-Arts building on Dubuque’s Main Street, a short walk from the Mississippi River. Hotel Julien was known for hosting captains of industry and passing luminaries in its 168 guest rooms; in the 1920s, according to hotel staff, it was a favored hideout of Al Capone, whose heavily-armed entourage booked the entire eighth floor. There were probably some guns in the crowd on that March day in 1935—it’s hard to imagine no one was packing, given the era and circumstances—but the most pressing danger, depending on who you asked, may have been the twenty-five pounds of Limburger cheese that Burkhard had brought from Wisconsin. This was the chosen weapon for the duel.
Burkhard and Miller were the postmasters of their respective towns, with official responsibility for maintaining the safety and efficiency of the postal service and, just as important on this particular day, an unofficial but deep-seated obligation to uphold the honor of their respective corners of the Midwest. The cheese represented all of this, in various ways.
The postmasters both arrived with small entourages at their sides, the seconds and thirds of a traditional duel. Burkhard brought along six dairy farmers from Monroe, along with all that Limburger, ten pounds of Swiss cheese, five pounds of brick cheese, ten cases of pilsner, forty loaves of rye bread, ten pounds of pickles, forty pounds of crackers, and two jars of mustard. They were not traveling light. They had a statement to make, a score to settle.
The combatants strode through an eager, buzzing crowd of about one hundred people assembled on the hotel mezzanine and made their way to Parlor Room B. Journalists peppered them with questions, and the men posed for photos, “the first picture catching Miller with a frown on his face while Burkhard was all smiles,” AP reporter John J. Fuhrman wrote in one of the many stories that appeared in newspapers around the country the next day.
Burkhard offered Miller a gas mask, the better to face the pungent cheese, as the Monroe contingent roared its approval. Outside, dark clouds foretold an oncoming winter storm.
* * *
This was the core of the original dispute: Could a block of Limburger be a threat to public health, a malodorous menace to society? More to the point, could you send it in the mail? Postmaster Miller said no, absolutely not, and compared the odor to “poisonous gas.” Postmaster Burkhard disagreed, vehemently.
It’s hard to trace exactly how this all started. According to one account, written decades later, there was a woman—“a farmer’s wife”—in Independence who fell ill with severe sinus congestion, and her doctor’s recommended treatment was a good huff of Limburger, the logic being that the stink would help clear things up. This was far from the most alarming entry in The 1930s Book of Quackery, but it doesn’t seem especially wise. WebMD does not recommend curing a head cold by smelling a rancid fart.
But, big caveat here, the only place I’ve read this specific part of the whole odd story is Uncle John's Slightly Irregular Bathroom Reader, which is not exactly the Encyclopedia Britannica. I’ve spent many hours over the past week trying to find other sources for this detail, read countless newspaper articles from the time, and found no other mentions of this scene-setting nugget, so take it with a pinch or two of smelling salts, which Burkhard also brought along to Dubuque. A local history book about Monroe, published 1976, says merely that the cheese was “prescribed for a patient’s diet,” which makes slightly more sense, and indicates that possibly, maybe, a doctor was involved at the outset.
In any case, the established fact is that sometime in January 1935, someone in Independence, Iowa ordered a block of Limburger from Monroe, Wisconsin, which was and remains the nation’s premier manufacturing spot for that potent product. The company prepared it for shipping—some accounts say there were two layers of paper and foil, others say it was a full seven. According to Miller, when the package arrived in Independence, the carrier who received it “was unable to ride in his automobile with the cheese ordered by a patron on his route without becoming ill.”
“Aroma of Limburger cheese brings complaint from Iowa postmaster,” read the first news story about the whole thing, which ran in the Freeport (Illinois) Journal-Standard on February 7, 1935. Miller sent the cheese back to Monroe, explaining that it violated postal service rules about mailing foul-smelling—and potentially toxic—items and that it was, as one reporter later put it, “contaminating the less flamboyant parcels in the vault.” The stuff was stinking up the joint.
Burkhard took offense. Monroe was a cheese town, and he happened to think the Limburger had a nice rosy aroma to it. He added a bit more wrapping, then mailed the cheese back to Miller, who decreed it was still too stinky. The many newspaper reporters who told this story delighted in finding vivid ways to describe it: one said the smell “resembles escaping sewer gas or a dead cat or what have you”; another said it could fell an ox.
So Miller escalated the problem all the way to the top: U.S. Postmaster James Farley, in Washington, DC. But Farley’s office wasn’t interested in picking sides or making official judgments. They didn’t rule on whether Limburger could be mailed at all but took the Well, it’s all subjective route, advising the Midwest postmen that “Limburger cheese is mailable only when the parcel does not have an offensive odor.”
And this led things right back to where they started: Was paper-wrapped Limburger a nice thing to sniff, or was it, in fact, a dead-cat-like assault on the sinuses? Burkhard, still angry, decided that if Washington wouldn’t hand down a ruling, there was only one way to resolve the dispute: a smell-off.
* * *
Miller and Burkhard made their way to a table in their parlor room at the Hotel Julien. Next to them was Dubuque postmaster Tony Schrup, who they had recruited to be the referee. Two men from Badger Brodhed Cheese in Monroe brought out a block of Limburger for the dueling postmasters.
Of all the articles I’ve read from the era, my favorite might be the dispatch from Milwaukee Journal reporter Richard S. Davis, who described the scene with a militaristic flourish. Please appreciate his commitment to the bit.
Neither contestant wore armor of any sort, except an opulent napkin placed immediately below the second chin. Both were standing stoically as they advanced to shake hands. A hush fell upon the gathering …
The formalities over, Chevalier Burkhard drew his knife and cut a thick slice of Badger Brand. He placed the aromatic ammunition upon a slice of rye and thrust it into the dauntless right hand of Leftenant Miller. General Anton F. Schrup, who was serving as referee, spoke the signal that had been agreed upon, ‘Allons, Messieuers,’ said General Schrup. ‘Go to it!’
Leftenant Miller took a large and manful bite. His grim expression changed. He took another bite and a smile appeared on his ruddy countenance. He took a third bite, which meant the end of the sandwich, and his battle-scarred face turned positively beatific.
In the meantime, Chevalier Burkhard had been loading again, and when Leftenant Miller completed the final swallow, another charge was given him point-blank. Again he took it full in the mouth, and again he gave every evidence of full enjoyment.
A FEW OTHER CHEESE-RELATED POSTS
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It should come as no surprise that anyone would feel so strongly about a specific food and its links to a sense of place and regional identity. True champagne, famously, comes only from the Champagne region of France, but if you spin the globe and point to any inhabited speck of land, you’re almost certain to centuries worth of proud traditions wrapped up in a few specific dishes or ingredients, things that symbolize local life—in a region, a country, a village—in ways that no pesky outsider could ever understand. Food is intensely personal, always, but it’s also a collective announcement of shared history, values, and joys, from a small-town clam festival in Maine to the oddly contentious lists of official state foods to culinary diplomacy at the international level.
In Monroe, Limburger isn’t just cheese. It’s a story of the Swiss immigrants who were among the first white settlers in the area and built the town as we know it. One of those immigrants, Rudolph Benkert, first started making Limburger in 1867, establishing the local cheese industry. Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Monroe is, to this day, the largest manufacturer of Limburger in the USA, according to a 2018 story in Madison Magazine, and a Limburger-and-raw-onion sandwich is a local staple with near-mythic status, served at Baumgartner's Cheese Store and Tavern over on 16th Avenue. The high school mascot is the Cheesemakers and the big event in town is the Cheese Days festival, which started in 1914 and, according to organizers, is “the oldest food fest in the Midwest.” There’s music, a parade, contests, a pageant, and lots of things to eat. The mascot is an adorable triangle of Swiss named Wedgie, who has his own song about cheese, to the tune of the polka classic “Roll Out the Barrel.” (This year’s Cheese Days was held last weekend; you just missed it.)
In 1933 and 1934, the years just before the big sniff-off, Cheese Day (then just one day) was canceled due to the financial tumult of the Depression. It was a blow to Monroe’s spirit, as Burkhard surely understood, so Miller’s unintentional insult—return to sender, package absolutely reeks—came at an especially touchy time. You can see why Burkhard would be pissed that some random dude from Iowa—Iowa!!—with no appreciation for the flavors and traditions and culture of Wisconsin, would disrespect a local delicacy like that. The audacity! Have you no decency, you damn Hawkeyes?
You can also see why reporters and readers across the country would pay attention. The duel made headlines from Washington, DC to Brownsville, Texas to Salt Lake City, and around the Midwest. The USA was in the grips of the Depression and there was trouble brewing over in Europe, but here was some offbeat content, its high emotions and low stakes familiar to any modern observer who’s weighed in on a Twitter argument about hot dogs or a debate about which hole-in-the-wall makes the best version of the iconic local lunch.
People love to argue about food. This is a timeless, universal truth. They love to argue about it on its own terms, as something that is at once nutritionally essential and nuanced enough to be deliciously subjective, and they love to argue about it as a proxy for and distraction from more urgent disputes. When we’re feeling feisty and hungering for a tussle that doesn’t cause too much damage, we reach for another serving of culinary confrontation.
(The easy analysis here is that people have always been distracted by frivolous things in the media—amusing ourselves to death is nothing new, it’s just that we’ve shifted the mediums through which we do it. And, sure, there’s something to that, but also, that splitting of attention is part of the human condition. We contain multitudes and always have. We can appreciate both Neil Postman and fart jokes at the same time. It’s fine, it’s good; all things in moderation, including stinky cheese. )
* * *
Even as the two postmasters were sniffing and scarfing during the Duel in Dubuque, they kept up the trash talk. During the third round of sandwiches, Miller made a request: “I’d like to read a poem that the man who received the Limburger cheese out of the Independence office gave me just a few minutes before I left Independence.” The referee agreed and Miller read:
Mr. Kayser had a cheese;
The cheese was rich with fat;
But every time he smelled it,
He up and kicked the cat.
At some point during all this—accounts vary on when—Miller made a confession: he’d lost most of his sense of smell ten years earlier, so the Limburger didn’t actually bother him. It seems like a jarring admission, given how all of this started and the various insults Miller had lobbed at the culinary pride of Monroe, but it paused the proceedings for only a moment. The men had a job to do, a battle to undertake, photos to mug for, crowds to appease.
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The end goal of the duel doesn’t seem to have been spelled out at any point. Basically, it seems that they planned to keep going until Miller agreed that Limburger wasn’t too stinky to go through the mail, or Burkhard keeled over from the toxic reek. More unclear details: some reporters claimed the men went through three rounds of sandwich-eating before Miller gave in, while others gave blow-by-blow accounts of ten rounds of sniffing culminating in Miller giving up and the two men finally eating some of the cheese. Here’s one AP summary of the final moments:
Miller had trouble breathing again in the seventh [round] and judges had to warn him against taking air through his mouth. The eighth was mild.
The ninth round was interrupted when a practical joker shouted “cheese it, the cops.”
Miller came out for the tenth round virtually on his feet, but Burkhard was gaining strength from the Limburger. The finish for Miller came when his Wisconsin opponent, no longer able to content himself with merely sniffing, sank his teeth into a sample of the Monroe cheese product, and ate it with obvious enjoyment.
They were both conscious at the end.
When Miller conceded, he suggested the men break out the beers—a celebration and, presumably, a much-needed palate-cleanser. The men from Monroe offered poetic toasts to Limburger, comparing it to a beautiful woman who “bears her own perfume,” Richard S. Davis reported, and Miller and his entourage promised that the next time the cheese made its way to their post office, “she will be royally received.”
* * *
Postmaster Burkhard returned to Wisconsin a hero. He had defended their cheese, their honor. The U.S. Postal Service made it official policy that Limburger could go through the mail, if it was well-wrapped and, far more important for Monroe pride, all the attention helped boost sales for the local cheese industry.
On October 4, 1935, Cheese Day made its triumphant return to Monroe. Some 50,000 people showed up to watch the parade and eat copious amounts of the good—and stinky—stuff. Officials credited John Burkhard with the event’s success, and he was treated as royalty, a living legend among the revelers, accompanied by his equally popular guest of honor, Warren Miller, from Independence, Iowa.
Special thanks to reader Jonathan Beers for suggesting this topic. If you have an idea for a future issue of Snack Stack, email me at email@example.com or find me on Twitter.