by Maureen Boughey
Growing up, my family and I would drive up to Wisconsin every summer for a family vacation. As we left our home in the Northern suburbs of Chicago and drove up North on I-94, intense anticipation would build inside me leaving me racked with excitement. I, of course, couldn’t wait to get to our actual destination of Green Lake, WI for a trip full of swimming, BBQ, and sunburns but during the drive there was another thing I was looking forward to as well. I couldn’t wait until we got to the Illinois-Wisconsin border. I realize that this sounds so boring and makes me seem like I was a weird little kid (which I was) but there is an explanation for my odd fascination. I was so excited to get to the state line because of two roadside attractions. One of which being two Vietnam War (I’m guessing?) era tanks [Probably not. Not a lot of tanks in the Jungles of Vietnam] that were placed on the side of the road on a big hill for seemingly no reason and the other being Mars Cheese Castle. For those of you who don’t have to pleasure of knowing about Mars Cheese Castle, it’s a building with the façade of a castle on the side of I-94 just past the Illinois border in Wisconsin surrounded by almost nothing except for a huge colored sign that reads, “MARS CHEESE CASTLE.” One of these two attractions still exists to this day and thankfully it’s Mars Cheese Castle. No hate on those tanks, though. They were pretty cool; you just got he picture after the first 10 times you saw it. No need for more. *
During these road trips I would ask my mom or my dad year after year if we could please please please pull over and go in to The Cheese Castle. They would always reply, “No, we’re not pulling the car over for damn cheese,” but now I’m a grown ass individual with a driver’s license so CHEESE PLEASE!
The first time I went to MCC was a few years back. I was living at home in the suburbs and one afternoon I had plans to hang out with my friend, Alanna who lived in the city so I drove out to her apartment to meet up and hang out. After just a couple minutes of taking, Mars Cheese Castle somehow came up. We talked about how amazing it looked and how we were both bummed and surprised that we’d never been. The next thing I knew we were in the car driving all the way to Kenosha for our maiden MCC voyage. We walked in and the motherfucker was gorgeous. SO much bigger than I was anticipating and so much classier! I thought it was going to be kitschy and fun but overall low quality and good just for novelty’s sake but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was kitschy but in a good way and the quality of everything was top notch. They have artisanal cheeses, wines, beers, and meats. Really anything a white person could ever dream of.
When you first enter MCC, you immediately realize that everybody is happy. And I don’t mean happy like in a contented or just appeased way; I mean happy. People are freely smiling and laughing like they’re at a party they actually want to attend. The people are into it and that feeling is infectious. You walk through the place and begin to feel like everything in your life could be better if I just bought some parmesan and herb cheese curds with some nice smoked meats and finally hosted that dinner party you’ve been meaning to throw. And honestly, it might be. Just buy the damn things. They’re delicious.
The MCC doesn’t stop at food though. They also sell t-shirts that say things like “Cheese, Cheese & More Cheese” and “Wisconsin: The land of cow shit and beer farts” or the classic “Eat Cheese or DIE”. I like this one because it gives me a clear and simple direction I can really follow.
But back to my original MCC trip. After some free samples, a few actual purchases, and a lot of browsing we were thoroughly satisfied with our visit and hopped back in the car. I drove all the way back to Alanna’s place in downtown Chicago to drop her off and then went North all the way back to my mom’s house in Northfield. All in all, I drove over 150 miles essentially just to be nice and eat some cheese. It was by far the most Midwestern thing I have ever done and I’ve played hockey on a pond.
Driving past the Mars Cheese Castle for years really geared up my anticipation and set up some high expectations for what the MCC would bring. This first trip surpassed my expectations and now I truly look forward to going whenever I’m in the area. Some of the items can be a touch expensive but the food is good and the attraction is weird, what more could you possibly want? It’s definitely worth a visit the next time you’re headed to Wisconsin. Or really just have an afternoon free. Trust me, it’s worth the drive.
*Fun fact: In the mid-late 90s there was also a small, family run zoo not far from the border that had a large group of groundhogs in an unenclosed sandbox, a free-range peacock, and an actual, living liger (half lion-half tiger) behind a standard chain link fence. Thankfully this no longer exists as well.