Milk strike of 1933 closed Wisconsin cheese factories, creameries

Amy Meyer

The early years of the Great Depression took their toll on farming communities throughout the country, including Manitowoc County. Dairy farmers were especially hard hit, with milk selling at $1.75 per hundred weight. Farmers became restless with reports of milk strikes in large cities like New York and Chicago.

Manitowoc Herald-Times coverage of the milk strike on Oct. 27, 1933.

The first milk strike of the year took place Feb. 15-22, 1933. The Manitowoc Herald-Times on Feb. 21, 1933, reported: “The milk strike dipped into Manitowoc County today, closed a dozen or more cheese factories and creameries in the northern and western sections, and forced a hurriedly called meeting of the farm holiday association at the courthouse.”

Manitowoc County Sheriff Herman Schuette had not received any calls for deputy aid in the county, but he was ready if needed. Cheese factories and creameries throughout the state had been set on fire and attacked with vandalism, but so far the violent protests had not been found in Manitowoc County.

With no measurable results, a second strike was called by the Milk Pool on May 13, 1933. This time, rival farmers' organizations, including the Farmers' Holiday Association, joined in blocking dairy products from getting to market.

The second strike provoked violence throughout the state of Wisconsin. On May 18, 1933, in what became known as "the battle of Durham Hill," National Guardsmen took on 300 to 400 pickets on Highway 36 in southeastern Waukesha County with tear gas and a bayonet charge into the crowd of picketers. Company E, 127th Infantry, from Manitowoc was called to patrol duty on highways in Ozaukee and Milwaukee counties to protect milk trucks.

The strike was in effect until May 19, 1933, when Gov. Alfred Schmedeman agreed to appoint a farmer-controlled committee to study the milk-pricing system.

As summer transitioned to fall, nothing had changed. A milk strike was again officially called for on Oct. 21, 1933. Groups of farmers gathered on roads throughout the area and dumped their cans of fresh milk onto the ground.

While Manitowoc County had escaped the violence of the first two strikes, the October strike would not follow the trend. Anthony Tuschel of Cato was injured in a truck accident on Waldo Boulevard in Manitowoc when he attempted to bring his milk through picket lines. Gerhard Hanson, also from Cato, was injured as he worked to dump his milk at the White House Condensery.

The Oct. 27, 1933, Manitowoc Herald-Times reported picket activity: “Militant pickets formed a cordon around all highways leading into the city [of Manitowoc], stopping all incoming and outgoing trucks and cars. They effectively blocked all milk and dairy supplies from moving.”

Manitowoc Herald-Times coverage of the milk strike on Oct. 27, 1933.

A fiery cross was planted at a farm off Lakeshore Road because the owners were supplying milk to Manitowoc dairies. The violence caused H.M. Clark, president of the White House Milk Condensary, to lose an eye as a result of a tear gas accident. Manitowoc County Sheriff Schuette signed 150 permits to deputize farmers, milk haulers and cheese makers to carry firearms.

The milk strike was called off on Nov. 20, 1933. Newspapers reported farmers lost $10 million during the strikes. President Franklin D. Roosevelt helped lay results with the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, but it was only a slight improvement. The Great Depression continued to be a struggle for many farm families.

Amy Meyer is executive director of the Manitowoc County Historical Society.