Krohn family cheese legacy still standing in Kewaunee Co.
In 1902, cheese plants and creameries dotted the rural landscape across northeast Wisconsin. The little plants were located in small communities every few miles apart to accommodate farmers that delivered their cans of milk in horse drawn wagons.
Back at the turn of the twentieth century, there were 50 small cheese plants and two creameries located in Kewaunee County. Today, the only remnant of the once flourishing cheese industry remaining is owned by Agropur, a North American dairy industry leader headquartered in Canada.
But just 19 short years ago, the modern plant located on the corner of County Trunk AB and Cherneyville Road outside of Luxemburg was owned by the Krohn family, who operated the plant for over 100 years.
Albert started it all
Jean Krohn Doell says her enterprising great uncle Albert Gruetzmacher decided to build his own cheese factory in 1892 in the town of Montpielier on land he had purchased for $1,400. While Albert never made cheese himself, the dairy farmer built the farm not only as an investment, but to have a place that he and his neighbors could haul their milk.
Doell's grandfather, Charles Krohn was the first cheesemaker in the plant and when Albert died in 1902, Charles leased the plant from Albert's widow for two years before buying it for $3,300.
"Our father, Leo, was the only surviving child in the family, and when he graduated from high school during the Depression, my grandfather offered to sell the cheese plant to pay for my father's education," said Doell during the second program of "Our Dairy Past" featuring Krohn Dairy. The event was hosted by the Agricultural Heritage and Resource Center in Kewaunee.
In an earlier interview, Leo said at the time he was undecided on which path to take.
"There were a lot of college graduates walking the streets and looking for jobs in the 1930s," said Leo, adding that he opted to stay home and learn the business in the one-vat factory under his dad's supervision.
After his father died, Leo and his wife, Virginia, took over running the business. When the old plant failed to meet state standards in the mid-1940s, Leo chose to build a new plant on the corner of AB and Cherneyville Road. At this time, Krohn Dairy began expanding and buying out other cheese factories.
During the 1960s, most cheese plants were producing cheddar cheese. The cheddar market had become very competitive, said Doell's younger brother, Roger Krohn.
"Everyone was making cheddar, especially in this part of the state," Krohn said. "Pizza was becoming popular and my dad decided to take a gamble and start making Italian cheeses—provolone and mozzarella."
By switching to mozzarella, the dairy was able to skim the cream from the cheese and sell it on the butter market for a good price, Krohn pointed out.
Other family members stepped to the forefront in 1971 when Leo Krohn suffered a heart attack. Doell's husband, Arlie (who was also a cheesemaker), took over managing the plant. Doell, who had been teaching at the high school, left her job to take on more bookkeeping responsibilities at the plant. Doell said her younger brothers, Roger and Carl were just 15 and 12 at the time.
After high school graduation, Roger obtained his cheesemaking license and joined the operation full-time. Business was booming at the plant as the consumer demand for pizza continued to grow.
"We began acquiring a lot of small plants in the area that either had no succession plan, were struggling or they wanted to get out of the business," Krohn said. "We mainly purchased them for the milk supplies and the work force."
The original plant continued to grow with a major expansion occurring in 1977 that included the addition of a enlarged make-room, new cooler and receiving room for milk, a retail cheese store and an office area. In 1982 new 40,000 lb. cheese vats were installed.
Just five years later, another addition made Krohn Dairy one of the most automated modern plants in the country, which also included a new brine room, new packaging equipment and a new mozzarella making machine.
The plant's rural location also presented a challenge. In 1988, the family was tasked with building the cheese plant's own wastewater treatment plant. Krohn's younger brother, Carl, took over that part of the business as well as working in the shipping department.
Doell says her younger sisters, Sandy and Sue, also helped out at the plant during their high school and college years, but decided to follow careers into the field of nursing.
Time of transition
By that time the plant was producing mainly provolone and mozzarella which was sold under a private label across the Midwest and from New York to Florida and Arizona. A small vat was still used to make cheddar cheese curds and string cheese for the retail store.
Active until he passed away in 1990, Leo helped to develop an improved brine-handling system, which at the time, promised to set new standards for all cheese plants in the country using brining systems.
In April of 1990, Leo suffered a second, and fatal heart attack while working in the cheese factory.
"He was born in the old factory and died in the present factory which is probably the way he would have wanted it," said Doell, "staying active and involved until the moment of his death."
In 2000, the Doell and Krohn families found themselves at a crossroads: was it time to get bigger or step away. The company that once had five employees in 1960, had grown to over 50 workers and was drawing in 70,000 pounds of milk a day from 335 farms.
"It was a very difficult decision to sell the business because it had been in our family for 108 years at the time," said Doell. "We sold it to someone because we wanted it to grow and everything was getting so big that it was difficult to do it on our own."
Roger Krohn says the new addition to the plant that sits on the original site cost $120 million.
"As we grew through the 70s and 80s, we kept adding on and on to the plant as technology changed," Krohn said. "And it's hard to come up with that kind of financing for expansion when you're not a big company."
The plant was sold to Weyauwega Milk Products and Simons Specialty Cheese with the three plants operating under their own names until 2003 when the brand was changed to Trega.
During that transition time, Krohn entered a three-year program to obtain his master cheesemaker license in provolone and mozzarella. Doell's son, Patrick Doell, followed in his uncle's footsteps a few years later and obtained his master cheesemaker certification as well.
The business again changed hands in 2008 when it was purchased by Agropur. Both Krohn and his nephew work for Agropur as licensed cheesemakers. Patrick's brother, Tim, also works in the wastewater treatment plant.
Today the plant employs over 150 workers and collects 70 truckloads of milk each day from 160 farms.
"The new cheese plant (in Luxemburg) is huge and we're making about 375,000 pounds of cheese a day," Krohn said.
Agropur also owns the former Simons plant in Little Chute where they make mozzarella sticks for appetizers, as well as the plant in Weyauwega that produces cheddar and feta cheeses.
Although the family no longer owns the little retail cheese store located on the premises, Krohn says the company has opted to keep the name of Krohn's Cheese Store.
"The store has a link to the community and it's a nice way to keep that connection locally," Krohn said.
The plant has come a long way since Charles Krohn bought the plant 117 years ago.
"I wish our dad and grandfather could see the plant now," Doell said. "Even though we sold it, we're still very proud of it. We wanted to keep it going to provide farmers a place to bring their milk and to provide employment in the county. And I think we achieved that and then some."