Dupont Cheese Factory marks anniversary milestones
DUPONT TOWNSHIP – For much of the 20th century small cheese factories dotted the rural landscape throughout east-central Wisconsin.
Often factories could be found every two or three miles. Many were established by local farmers who needed a place nearby that could turn the milk from their growing dairy herds into cheese, and where they could easily haul their milk-filled cans by horse and wagon.
However, as the smaller dairy farms disappeared, so did many of the small cheese factories.
Dupont Cheese, located five miles south of Marion in northern Waupaca County, has not only survived, it has grown over its 110 years of continuous operation to provide a line of quality cheese products to consumers throughout central and northeastern Wisconsin.
The survival and success of the Dupont Cheese Factory is due to the hard work and foresight of Fred Laack and his wife, Ann, who purchased the business in 1970, and have led its expansion over the last 50 years.
It’s not surprising that Fred Laack became a cheesemaker.
“My grandfather was a cheesemaker. He had four sons, and three of his sons were cheesemakers, including my father. I guess I just got brainwashed because when I was just a little guy, and my family would get together on Sunday, they would talk about cheesemaking,” he recalled.
His grandfather and uncle operated a cheese factory near Potter, in east-central Wisconsin. Another uncle operated Wolf River Cheese Factory near Shawano. And also operated a factory at Sturgeon Bay.
“My father’s cheese factory was at Green Leaf, about nine miles south of DePere. That’s where I grew up,” Fred noted.
Fred’s first cheese factory was located between Bonduel and Cecil, which he operated for about 18 months. He sold out to the State Department of Transportation when they decided to widen the road as the factory was only about 10 feet from the highway’s shoulder.
“After my factory had been closed for a month, the man who picked up my whey cream told me there’s a women near Marion who lost her husband, and she has a nice cheese factory for sale. He said she would like somebody to buy it and keep in running because her brothers hauled milk there,” Fred explained.
He paid her a visit, and after a brief discussion Fred Laack became the new owner of the Dupont Cheese Factory.
Growth and change
In 1970, the Dupont cheese factory building had three vats for making cheese, a small cooler and a two-bedroom apartment above the factory, which served as the family’s living quarters. A new home was subsequently built across the road and is now the company office.
“At first, we were making cheese seven days a week,” Fred said. “There was a big change in 1974 when we put in a tank to store the milk so we didn’t have to make cheese on Sunday. The employees really liked having that one day off so they could go to church and spend more time with their families.”
To increase efficiency and get more from every 100 pounds of milk, in the early 1980s an ultra-filtration system was installed so the whey byproducts could be better utilized, which generated some extra revenue. Before that much of the whey was spread on area farm fields.
“When I bought the plant in 1970, Bill Springer was a cheesemaker and Bob Polzin was a truck driver who hauled 75 percent of the milk. I also had a little bulk truck and a can truck,” Fred recalled.
Back then, all the milk was picked up from farms within a two-mile radius of the factory. “We had about 30 farmers, most were small, and some were larger. Now we have 55 farmers and five times as much milk,” he said.
All milk is currently hauled by the factory’s bulk trucks, from as far away as 25 miles.
“We took on a lot of new customers but we lost a lot of farmers over the years who sold their cows. When I started in business at Bonduel there were over 66,000 dairy farmers in Wisconsin, now there are just around 8,600. I never thought I’d see so many dairy farms lost,” Laack said.
“Of all the farmers I’ve had over the years, there’s only one farm family that’s been with me for all 50 years,” Fred related. “That’s the Dan Heiman farm just a mile down the road. Dan’s father, Harold, hauled here in 1970, and when he passed, Dan took over the farm and continues to haul with me.”
Keys to success
Laack credits much of the factory’s success to his loyal employees. “Today we have almost 40 employees, including part-time workers,” he said.
Within the last few years, Fred’s son, Jon, and grandson, Trevor, have taken over responsibility for much of factory’s day-to-day operation. Fred and Jon are both licensed cheesemakers, and Trevor is interested in pursuing a Master Cheesemaker license.
“I’m 77 and have to start slowing down. My wife and I enjoy having more time to travel now,” he said.
Dupont Cheese also is noted for variety of quality cheeses that are distributed throughout much of Wisconsin.
These include Colby, cheddar pepper jack, and gouda among others. “We also make cheese curds, and deliver fresh cheese curds every Thursday and Friday," Fred said. “We go as far as Wausau, Stevens Point, Antigo, Green Bay, Appleton and Oshkosh. We deliver our full line of cheese to those, and other cities as well.”
The Dupont Cheese factory store, located at N10140 Highway 110 south of Marion, has been an important part of the company’s growth and success. “It’s like a small convenience store,” Fred said. One wall is lined with coolers featuring not only an excellent selection of cheese, but many other dairy products, including milk and ice cream.
It was started around 1984, because so many people would come on Friday or Saturday to buy one or two pounds of cheese, which would take people away from other work.
“We didn’t even advertise but soon the store got busy,” he said. “It’s now nearly twice the size of the original store.”
The store has become a destination for many people from throughout central and northeastern Wisconsin. “They like to pick up fresh colby here because much of the cheese is probably six week old after it goes through the distribution process,” he said.
A viewing window also gives visitors to the store the opportunity to see some of the cheese-making process.
Milestones and memories
Reflecting on the last 50 years, Laack said, “It was a nice journey, and very rewarding. I did make a good living, but I did put my time in – I paid my dues. What really capped it off was our anniversary celebration.”
Dupont Cheese had a 50-year anniversary celebration earlier this month that brought several hundred people to the store.
“I was so impressed with all the people who came out,” Fred said. “We had a special anniversary price on colby cheese. There were bacon samples from Nueske’s Meats and free grilled cheese sandwiches. We also gave out 50-year anniversary cupcakes.
“We had over 320 people stop at our store to buy cheese and offer their congratulations. With the customers who bought cheese and other family members they brought along, we probably had 700 here. That really made me feel good. I really want to thank the people who’ve supported our cheese factory over the last 50 years,” he added.
Fred offered special thanks for all the help he got from his wife, Ann, over the years. “She was my bookkeeper and helper with many things. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for my wife.”