The Limburger Cheese War

The following is an article from Uncle John's Slightly Irregular Bathroom Reader.

From the "Dustbin of History" files, here's the pungent tale of two midwest states whose pride and honor were once a slab of stinky cheese.


It began in the winter of 1935 when a doctor in Independence, Iowa, prescribed an odd medicine to an ailing farm wife: Limburger cheese. The doctor figured the heavily aromatic cheese would help clear the woman's clogged sinuses. (If you don't know what Limburger smells like, give it a whiff the next time you're at the supermarket.) So the order was put through to Monroe, Wisconsin, to send some Limburger cheese-post haste.

Why Monroe? Swiss cheesemakers first arrived there in 1845. At the time, Wisconsin was in the depths of an economic depression and cheese helped pull them out of it.By 1910, Wisconsin had become the cheese-making capital of the United States, producing more cheese than any other state. And Monroe was the Limburger capital of Wisconsin.


Monroe's postmaster, John Burkhard, approved the delivery and sent it on its way. But the mail carrier in Independence, Iowa, who delivered the Limburger was so offended by the stench wafting through his roadster that he refused to deliver it. Citing a postal rule that said mail would only be delivered if it "did not smell objectionable," Independence's postmaster, Warren Miller, concurred without examining or even smelling the cheese. He had it sent back to Monroe on the grounds that it could "fell an ox twenty paces."

Burkhard took it personally; to insult Limburger is to insult not just Monroe, but all of Wisconsin and its proud cheese heritage. So Burkhard rewrapped the package and sent it back to Iowa. Miller promptly returned it to Wisconsin. War was brewing.


Burkhard took his gripe all the way to the United States Postmaster General in Washington, D.C. At first, he couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. So Burkhard sent him some Limburger.  The Postmaster general then decided that, yes, the cheese smelled bad, but no, it wasn't hazardous. And the war was over, right? Wrong.

By this time the press had sniffed out the story. At a time when the nation was mired in the Great Depression and Hitler was rising to power in Germany, a story about smelly cheese was a breath of fresh air. And unwilling to give in, postmaster Burkhard challenged postmaster Miller to a "cheese-smelling duel"-if Miller could sit at a table and not wretch from the stench of freshly-cut Limburger, then he would never again raise a stink about Wisconsin and its cheese. Miller accepted. Dozens of people from each town-as well as a throng of reporters-showed up at the Julien Hotel in Dubuque, Iowa, on the cold afternoon of March 8, 1935, to witness the standoff.

A Duel to the Breath

The two sat across from each other at a table. While flashbulbs flickered and onlookers whispered, Burkhard placed a box on the table, unwrapped it, and produced a very strong sample of his state's pride and joy, praising not only its medicinal qualities, but boasting that nothing on Earth tasted better with beer. The tension was so thick that you could cut it with a knife. Famed Milwaukee Journal reporter Richard S. Davis sent out a dispatch, calling it a "duel to the breath."

As Burkhard prepared to push the slab of cheese over to Miller, he offered Miller a clothespin and a gas mask. But Miller just shook his head and meekly surrendered. "I won't need that clothespin," he lamented, "I haven't any sense of smell."

The crowd gasped. The battle was over before it began. Burkhard was immediately declared the winner, and Miller had to agree to allow any and all Wisconsin cheese safe passage through Iowa's postal routes. The next day newspapers in 30 states ran a picture of the olfactorily-challenged Miller looking bewildered next to a piece of steaming Limburger. And now the war was over, right? Wrong. The final battle was yet to come.


While Burkhard was basking in victory, something he'd said about Limburger at that table in Dubuque-that nothing tasted better with beer-was churning through Miller's head. Every good Iowan knew that the best food to eat with beer was smoked whitefish, not some stinky piece of cheese. Miller just couldn't let it go. So he challenged Burkhard with another contest: a fight for the title of "Best Snack in the World." Once again the press got whiff of the food feud, and they convened at the neutral site chosen for the contest: the American Legion Hall in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin.

This confrontation was even more serious than the first-now there were judges. And with so much at stake, both sides used underhanded tactics; they bribed the judges with beer. The fish-heads bought a round, then the cheese-heads. And once all palates were properly whetted, the showdown began.


First came the sliced Limburger with beer. Then the Iowans gave the judges smoked whitefish...and more beer. The battle raged on: Limburger and beer, whitefish and beer. Limburger and beer, whitefish and beer. Finally, when the judges could eat or drink no more, they sent the least-inebriated member of their panel to the podium: "The judgeth have reached a dethision. It was unamus... unans... they all said the same darn thing! Cheese'n beer s'wunnerful. Fishes'n beer s'wunnerful, too. But when you have Limburger cheese and smoked whitefish and beer, heck, it don't get no better than that!"

Both sides were declared victorious, Burkhard and Miller retained their respective states' honor, and Limburger cheese had risen from  being referred to as "hazardous material" to holding the co-title of "Best Snack in the World."


That October, Monroe, Wisconsin, held its annual Cheese Day parade. All the press coverage from the Limburger cheese war made it the biggest Cheese Day ever. Fifty thousand people showed up to bask in the glory-including the farmer's wife (who had healed quite nicely). Warren Miller came all the way from Iowa and was given a place of honor in the parade-right next to his friend John Burkhard.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Slightly Irregular Bathroom Reader, a fantastic book by the Bathroom Readers' Institute.

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Lou and Peter Berryman (the slightly off-kilter singing duo from Madison WI) wrote a song about this event. Entitled "The Limburger Ballad", it can be found on their 2002 CD "Yah Hey".
A video of the Berrymans performing the song can be found as a .ram file on the "Wisconsin Stories" website:
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I'm from Beaver Dam and I had never heard of this story before reading this.
However, I do have memories of my childhood watching my parents get ready for the fall deer hunt and making sandwiches with Limburger cheese to take out in the woods to snack on. I will never forget the stench in our house. It was many years before I got up the nerve to taste it. To my surprise, if you could get past the stench it was mighty taste.
Thanks for the trip down memory lane and the history lesson of my hometown.
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I worked in a gourmet cheese and wine shop for a few years and Limburger cheese is not the worst smelling cheese out there. It's a toss-up between Stilton and Cheshire. The warmer the cheese gets the worse it smells. The odor hangs in the air and doesn't dissipate. All wrapped cheeses will eventually get moldy. One of our jobs was to have to scrape off the mold and repackage cheese. No one wanted to touch the Stiltons and the Cheshires and the swearing that went on from the customers when they walked into the store while we were 'at it' was remarkable...
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They will probably have the limburger well wrapped at the store. They do here in Minnesota anyways.

I bought it once and tried it. Worst cheese ever. It tastes like stinky feet smell.
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