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Searching for Swissness A taste of Switzerland in 1980s America

mall

The Salisbury Plaza sat in Salisbury, Maryland offering 600,000-square feet of shopping. 

(Christopher Moore)

If you're a child of the American ‘80s, there’s a good chance you spent a lot of your time at the mall. You bought your clothes there. You played Donkey Kong at the arcade and tossed copper pennies in the fountains. The mall of my youth provided all of that and more, for it was there that my seven-year-old mind learned there existed a country called Switzerland.

Over the next few months we'll be uncovering how Switzerland has left its mark on the United States. From small place names to forgotten monuments and distant communities, we're tracking down 'Swissness', far from home. Tim Neville is our journalist on the ground

Do you know of a Swiss connection in the US? Tell us!external link

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The Salisbury Plaza sat in Salisbury, Maryland, in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, but it could have been anywhere in rural America. Its 600,000-square foot (56,000 square metre) floor plan was laid out in an H shape. It held a Camelot music store filled with cassette tapes (and soon CDs!) and a Friendly’s restaurant that sold 30,000 calorie (give or take) Hunka Chunka fudge ice cream sundaes. Near those stood a store with a faux larch-wood chalet facade with all these shields hanging over the entrance. One had a red shield with a tiny white cross on it. Another had a black horned beast (an Ibex, I later learned). I didn’t know it then but those were the coats of arms for two Swiss cantons, Schwyz and Graubünden. 

Two saleswomen stand in front of a Swiss Colony stand, in red aprons
(Rebecca Pierce)

The store was called The Swiss Colony, even if the goods it sold bore only a distant lineage to anything sold in Switzerland. I’m sure it had “Swiss cheese” and Toblerone but I mostly remember the rows of dazzling petits fours and the orange-flavored cream cheese my mother spread on the colony’s date bread that she adored. It was impossible to walk by the store and resist the aroma of spicy, exotic goodness wafting from all those display cases. For years I’d wake up on Christmas morning to find Santa had deposited a Swiss Colony “beef log” in my stocking. 

I laugh about that now, and yet I had to know more. What is this Switzerland? And do they eat smoked-bacon cheese samplers every day? 

Goods on display in the shop, some with Christmas bows
(Rebecca Pierce)

Well, no, but the Swiss Colony does have solid Swiss roots. The company began in 1926 when a guy named Ray Kubly, a student at the University of Wisconsin, began selling cheese by mail. Kubly’s grandfather, Heinrich Kubli, as the name was spelled originally, was likely part of a wave of Swiss settlers who made their way from canton Glarus, to Green County, Wisconsin, where, in 1845, they founded what today is still one of the most “Swissy” towns in America, New Glarus. There, about 145 miles northwest of Chicago, Illinois, you’ll find the Heidi Festival, the Wilhelm Tell Festival and the Schützen Fest, among other Swiss-themed gatherings. You’ll also find lots and lots of cheese.

mall

The Salisbury Plaza mall was a hive of activity in its glory days.

(Christopher Moore)

Kubly’s idea took off and served him well until he died at age 66 in 1968, a few years before I was born, and about seven months before the mall in Salisbury opened. The Swiss Colony of my memories wouldn’t open until 1976 when the mall expanded. Today the Swiss Colony is simply known as “Colony Brandsexternal link,” a $1 billion group of affiliates that is - and has always been - based out of Monroe, Wisconsin, 16 miles south of New Glarus. The Swiss Colony arm has become America’s largest hand-decorating bakery. Sadly, it no longer has any brick-and-mortar stores like the one in the mall. Everything’s now online. 

The story of the Salisbury mall is a sad one. A new mall opened just three miles away in 1990. A few months later, a college student went into the bathroom at “the old mall” just down from The Swiss Colony and was murdered. The entire mall began to fall to pieces. A wing of the H caught on fire. The roof leaked. By 2007 every shop was gone, and the entire building was reduced to rubble. Weeds have reclaimed the parking lot. 

Dilapidated mall

This picture of the Salisbury mall was taken shortly before the building was razed. It's now a heap of rubble.

(Callie White)

I, too, disappeared from Salisbury, in 1991, when a curiosity that started in the mall blossomed into my move to the real Switzerland as an exchange student in canton Vaud. Seventeen years later, I moved there a second time, this time to Bern, where my daughter was born. 

As for The Swiss Colony in Salisbury, I heard it pops up as a kiosk in the new mall around the holidays, but it turns out that’s not true. I guess it doesn’t matter because Santa doesn’t leave beef logs anymore, anyway. Instead, he’s moved on to St Gallen sausages, which fit just fine in a stocking, too.

Tim Neville photo

Tim Neville is a journalist based in Oregon, where he covers adventure travel and business for The New York Times, Outside magazine, and other media outlets. 

His work has appeared in The Best American Travel Writing, The Best American Sports Writing, and Best Food Writing.

(Tim Neville)


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