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‘I CAN’T BREATHE’: Mars Cheese Castle, a Wisconsin way station for Chicagoans, takes a stand

After George Floyd’s death, travelers viewing the cheese shop’s towering LED sign along I-94 in Kenosha saw a rare, topical message that spawned an outpouring of responses.

The Mars Cheese Castle sign blazed with an unusual political message in recent days, prompted by the killing of George Floyd.
The Mars Cheese Castle sign blazed with an unusual political message in recent days, prompted by the killing of George Floyd.
Matthew MacCarron / Instagram

Kenosha’s Mars Cheese Castle is a lactose landmark where generations of Illinois residents heading to Wisconsin or coming back home have stocked up on bratwurst, beef jerky and, of course, hundreds of different cheeses.

But in recent days, in what’s believed to be a first for the 73-year-old family-owned business, the iconic cheese shop used its towering outdoor sign just off of Interstate 94 to take a strong and public stand on a social issue. Its giant LED sign blazed with three words:

I CAN’T BREATHE

Social media exploded in response, largely with positive comments. Among them:

“Welcome to the Resistance, Mars Cheese castle”

“Even Mars Cheese Castle is speaking up”

“Stay woke”

“home of fine cheeses, an excellent selection of Wisconsin-made sausages, and compassionate people. Well done, @MarsCheeseCstle

”Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha, WI is showing better leadership and integrity than the @WhiteHouse.”

“You know the dawn of change is on the horizon when the Mars Cheese Castle of Kenosha, WI, takes a stand. “

“When you’ve lost the mars cheese castle, you’ve lost the nation.”

Matthew MacCarron photo on Instagram.
Matthew MacCarron photo on Instagram.

“I guess it comes back to our grandparents who started the business, Mario and Martha Ventura,” said Michael Ventura, along with his cousins Natalie Broussard and Tyson Wehrmeister the third generation operating the family business. “They valued their fellow human beings and treated them with dignity and respect. They would say: Everybody gets treated like family at Mars. We couldn’t stay silent on this because we value our fellow human beings.”

He said his family was heartbroken by the images of George Floyd, killed last week by a now-fired Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck.

Matthew MacCarron, a trucker, spotted the sign around 5:45 a.m. Monday and took the photo that’s been widely circulated on social media.

“Seeing that particular message was completely unexpected,” MacCarron said. “It was solid black-and-white, never changed. My first thought was: Weird, didn’t expect that. And the juxtaposition of that over-the-top sign and the castle-shaped building and those words was kind of jarring in a good way. It was brave of them, as a private company with a lot of prestige, to take a bold stance.”

Mars left the message up from 7 p.m. Sunday to 11 a.m. Monday.

“We were kind of overwhelmed with the response, and we felt it had done its job,” Ventura said.

He said the store got just one call unhappy about the sign, asking whether it was sending an anti-law enforcement message.

The rest of the calls and messages, he said, were to say thanks to the owners for their stand, including a call from a woman, 60, in tears.

“This woman called us from Kenosha, and she said she was enormously proud of Mars,” Ventura said. “We received quite a few phone calls and people supporting the business by placing orders. We didn’t do it for the orders. It was just a genuine love for our fellow human beings.

“This issue that we’re talking about is not a political issue. It’s a human rights issue.”