Lake to Lake Dairy Cooperative legacy celebrated
A farmer-led coop following WWII helped boost the dairy economy in northeast Wisconsin.
John Poch was just looking to earn enough money to buy a car in his senior year of high school when he took on a part-time job with Lake to Lake Dairy Cooperative in 1966 at the Kiel plant.
"I started out at $3/hour at a time when most part-time jobs were paying $1.00 to $1.50/hour. It was a good place to work and they paid us very fairly," said Poch, adding that the part-time job turned into a 44-year career with the company which was later acquired by Land O' Lakes in 1981.
Poch and other former employees, milk haulers and farmers who produced milk for the cooperative gathered at the Kewaunee County Agricultural Resource and Heritage Center on May 19 for the first of a 3-part series “Our Dairy Past” celebrating the history of the cooperative which provided a living for many farm and non-farm families in northeast Wisconsin.
Diane Schuler Lutz and Stanley Binversie noted that their fathers, Ted Schuler and Henry Binversie were among a group of local dairy farmers looking for a more efficient and effective way of handling the milk produced on area farms.
"My father recalled that there was a small cheese factory on every third crossroads back in 1943, where farmers would haul their milk in cans," Schuler Lutz said. "Inspections (of the plants) were becoming more strict and cheese factories were facing upgrades in order to meet Grade A milk standards."
The core group of farmers began to recruit other supporters of the cooperative concept, and with the help of Manitowoc County Agent Truman Torgerson, a large group of dairy producers pledged to form a cooperative by the end of 1945.
The name was chosen due to the proximity of the cooperative area between Lake Michigan and Lake Winnebago.
"To sign up, farmers had to pay a $10 per cow subscription in order to provide a base for the new cooperative," Schuler Lutz said. "That was a lot of money back then, but the they did it."
By the time Lake to Lake began operations in Valders, WI., on Oct. 23, 1946, over 1200 farmers in five counties (Brown, Calumet, Door, Kewaunee and Manitowoc) had become members.
Until the newly formed cooperative built its own cheese plant, milk was trucked to a Quonset hut in Valders where it was transferred in cans to a waiting semi-truck for delivery to Chicago, said Stanley Binversie.
The need to lug 80-pound milk cans began to decline in 1953-54 as farmers began installing bulk milk coolers.
"My father was among the first farmers to make that change," Binversie said.
On the grow
Soon after the new cheese processing plant in Kiel was completed in 1948, the cooperative began its growth spurt, purchasing and opening new plants in Denmark and Sturgeon Bay the following year.
According to company archives, the cooperative continued to expand into new marketing areas and the manufacture of additional dairy products such as butter, bottled milk and ice cream through mergers with or purchases of other cooperatives or dairies, including Modern Dairy of Sheboygan, Sheboygan Falls Dairy, Northeastern Dairy Cooperative of Green Bay, Winnebago Farms of Fond du Lac, Sunlite Dairy of Oshkosh, Delwiche Farms of Green Bay, Sorge Ice Cream and Dairy Company of Manitowoc and other smaller properties.
In its heyday, Lake to Lake had expanded across eight northeastern counties—Door, Kewaunee, Manitowoc, Sheboygan, Fond du Lac, Calumet, Winnebago and Brown—and had grown from a membership of 1200 members and sales of $450,000 in 1947 to a membership of well over 2000 and sales of over $66 million in 1975.
One of those milk producers was Manitowoc farmer JoAnn Vogel. Prior to their association with Lake to Lake, the Vogel family had been shipping milk from their small dairy herd to Heinz Mills cheese factory. The plant changed hands in the early 1960s and by 1968 the plant had fallen into bankruptcy, leaving farmers with no home for their milk and worthless milk checks.
At that time the family had made the decision to upgrade their barn and milk house to Grade A status in order to become a milk supplier for Lake to Lake Dairy Cooperative.
"We were one of the first farms in our area to go Grade A, and I remember scrubbing the milk house floor on my hands and knees the night before the inspector was due to arrive," Vogel said, laughing at the memory. "That was one of our best decisions. We were always proud to ship our milk to Lake to Lake."
Although he had worked at a cheese plant before serving in the military, Roland Tess, really had no plans to resume his old occupation once he was discharged. He worked several odd jobs, even making furniture in a factory up in Kewaunee.
After marrying, Tess settled down in the Kiel area and found himself making cheese again, this time for Lake to Lake. And he was good at it, too; winning the World Cheese Championship in 1984 with his medium-aged cheddar.
"One of the most rewarding things about my 34 years at the Kiel plant were the employees who were always a joy to work with," Tess said. "We were like one big family."
The farmers along Richard Schwartz' milk routes spanning three counties became like a second family to the milk hauler.
This 55-year occupation involving milk trucks began in 1963 when Schwartz was asked to pick up milk for nine Grade A dairy farms on weekends. The 17-year-old started his route at 4 a.m. and after finishing up at 6 a.m., went back and finished chores on the neighbor's farm.
Schwartz obtained his CDL license as well as his bulk milk weigher and sampler license seven months later and began hauling milk full time.
"I always enjoyed the camaraderie with farmers. I never saw the same farmer two days in a row, and when you did see them, they always had something new to tell you," Schwartz said.
Memories & memorabilia
Throughout the years, Lake to Lake employees (and farmers) collected a fair amount of company swag including jackets, playing cards and glassware. After the company was acquired by Land O' Lakes in 1981, the familiar logo featuring the thumb area of northeast Wisconsin and the iconic Lake to Lake girl was discontinued.
Since then former employees, milk haulers and farmers have been scouring online sites, antique sales barns and garage sales looking for the familiar items that range from farm signs, thermometers, glassware, milk bottles, toys and even Green Bay Packer and Milwaukee Braves playing cards.
"In order to get those cards you would have to send in so many tops from milk containers," said collector Dale Swoboda. "Nowadays, those sports cards from the 1960s are quite a challenge to find."
A quick search on eBay shows a 1961 Lake to Lake Dairy Cooperative Ray Nitschke rookie card priced at $5200 while a 1961 Bart Starr trading card is available for a mere $3950.
Schwartz says he has a shed filled with Lake to Lake signs—175 and counting—and there are a few he's still searching for.
Some of Poch's prized finds of Lake to Lake memorabilia include a table skirt and the original curtains from the office dotted with the blue and red emblem.
"Some of that stuff would have been dropped in the Dumpster," said Poch who is also the owner of a 9x12-foot Lake to Lake sign. "I guess I'm just a lucky fellow."
Co-organizer of the event, Sue Sevcik says the series is a way to reunite farmers in Northeastern Wisconsin with their past memberships in local coops, dairies and cheese plants.
The Lake to Lake Dairy Cooperative still resonates with residents living in the multi-county area once served by the cooperative. Sevcik says both she and her husband grew up on farms that shipped its milk to the cooperative.
"So many people had a connection to Lake to Lake like we did," Sevcik said. "It was a wonderful cooperative and you don't have that anymore where the business is concentrated in one area."
Like many in attendance, Sevcik can still recall the Lake to Lake ice cream truck pulling into the farmyard.
"It was like Christmas. We would buy a 2 1/2 gallon container of ice cream and our family of nine would polish that off in no time," she said. "I miss some of their products. I still use the plastic Lake to Lake cheese spread containers to freeze my vegetables. The logo is a little faded, but it still brings back memories."