National Historic Cheesemaking Center: Visit an era that will never be again

John Oncken

We Americans eat a lot of cheese, some 37 pounds per year which is double that of 1980. The rise in pizza consumption over those same years has certainly been a major factor in that rise in cheese eating but a host of specialty cheeses hitting the market, along with the longtime standby cheddar has boosted U.S. cheese eating,

Most cheese eaters probably never stop to think about how cheese came about over the years and it certainly did not happen fast or all at once. The National Historic Cheesemaking Center (NHCC) in Monroe offers a look at cheesemaking in Green County as it happened over the years and leading to the county often being referred to as “the Swiss cheese capital of the state.” I last visited the site five years ago and thought it about time to do so again — and did. 

The recently reprinted book “Cheese Country — A History of the Dairy and Cheese Industry of Green County” ($20)  tells the story well.  

On the second Saturday of June the Imobersteg factor awakens and cheese is made with its original equipment.

Women were clearly the first cheesemakers in the county as some were making cheese in their kitchens as early as 1863, the history begins.  However, the first male cheesemakers are unclear. 

The first 

Nic Gerber, a Swiss immigrant, built the first commercial cheese factory in Green County on a farm west of New Glarus in 1868. He bought milk from five area farmers and hired a cheesemaker to make limburger cheese. (The factory site has an historical marker.)  Gerber built a second factory, the county’s first Swiss Cheese factory northwest of Monticello and eventually had eight factories. 

By 1876, Green County had some 29 cheese factories making mostly Swiss and limburger cheese and by 1902 the number of factories had grown to 195 and in ensuing years there were 345 factories operating (not at the same time). Most of the factories were farmer-owned with a hired cheesemaker. 

Twelve remain

Most of them were built between the last half of the 20th century until the mid-21st century. Today there are but 12 cheese factories operating in Green County.  Of the 12 operating cheese factories only one — Chalet Cheese Co-op, located on County N north of Monroe, is the only factory in the U.S. to still make limburger — the cheese that with Swiss cheese, nurtured the industry in Green County. 

A 90 pound wheel of Swiss made June 8th with many watching.

Five co-ops 

Of the remaining cheese factories, five (Chalet, Decatur, Deppler, Maple Leaf and Silver Lewis) remain pretty much in their original cooperative form with the farmer patrons owning the land and buildings and the cheesemaker making and marketing the cheese. 

In the early days of Green County cheese making, most of them made Swiss (Emmanthaller) cheese wheels weighing about 180 pounds each. Today there is but one factory (Edelweiss Creamery at Monticello) making that form of cheese in Green county (and the whole United States).  

An often asked question is: How was it possible for a 150-pound cheesemaker to turn over a 180-pound Swiss cheese wheel several times a day as it cured?  Note - during the days of dozens of Swiss cheese factories, there were a few men who did this for a living. 

Dave Buholzer, one of the owners, with his brothers Ron and Steve, of Klondike Cheese. says, “I did this as a youngster — it’s a matter of leverage.”

Making Swiss Cheese the old way

Last Saturday, a small group of Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers made an 80-pound wheel of Swiss cheese the way it was done 100 years ago, and they did it in the Imobersteg cheese factory that dates to at least 1902. That old cheese factory was used by Swiss immigrants and farmers, the Alfred and Anna Imobersteg family in Stephenson county, Illinois, to make Swiss, brick and Limburger cheese from milk produced by their own cows and those of their neighbors until 1917. 

Pictured are (from left) Master cheesemakers Dave and Ron Buholzer of Klondike Cheese nnuallt make cheese in the old factory.

Lost for 100 years

It then became sort of a "lost" building that was used for storage as a workshop and laundry room, but the cheesemaking equipment remained intact for many years — 92 years actually — as the cheese factory "slept" on the farm now owned and still farmed by the Imobersteg's son, Arnold until 2009 when Mary Ann Hanna, a director of the NHCC, heard about it. 

In short order the owner of the ancient factory OK’ed a visit from the NHCC directors who visited the old building and were awestruck by this historic relic and its cheesemaking contents still in intact.  Arnold Imobersteg who appreciated the organizations efforts to preserve cheesemaking history offered them the building and contents. In June 2010, the old building was moved to Monroe and restored and in October, cheese was again made in the old factory.

Every second Saturday in June, a wheel of Swiss cheese is made with the public invited to view and participate, as they did last Saturday. The labor intensive project began about 9 a.m. with some 1,000 pounds of milk poured into the original copper kettle. Some three hours later, after the milk was heated, curd was formed, cut and removed from the 120-degree whey by using a dipping cloth (bare armed), it was moved to a round form, pressed and turned several times.

Full scale historic cheesemaking "From milk to cheese" is one exhibit.

The 90-pound wheel was then taken to Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello for brining and curing and later sampled by experts.

Although cheese is made only that one day a year, the Imobersteg factory is open and on display for some tours where one can use their imagination and marvel at the old but ingenious display of devices used to make cheese and move it from kettle to press.  It again proves that there were very smart and ingenious people innovating methods and equipment to do things like making cheese long, long ago.

Reliving and learning history

You can relive the history of Wisconsin cheesemaking at the National Historic Cheesemaking Center, a not-to-be-missed attraction that has a history of its own. The idea for a cheese history center got its start when Larry Lindgren, Green County tourism director, and John Bussman, a cheesemaker who demonstrated cheesemaking at Monroe's Cheese Days, were concerned about losing the history, tools and people of early cheesemaking.

National Historic Cheesemaking Center Director, Donna Douglas, has welcomed visitors from 36 states since opening May 1.

After overcoming many challenges, some financing, a working partnership with Historic Monroe and an opportunity to buy (for $1) the closed Milwaukee Road Depot that had to be relocated, worked out and in July 1995 the National Historic Cheesemaking Center was opened to the public. 

A destination

The NHCC is indeed a destination that should be visited by everyone with even a bit of interest in the history of cheesemaking and its people. So far this year from its May 1 opening, Center Director Donna Douglas reports about 700 visitors from 36 states along with local school and organization groups.   

Why not make a visit and take a tour? May 1 – Oct. 31...Tuesday – Saturday 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.and Sundays 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Admission adults $5, under 16, free with parent.  Visit and take a look at an era that was and will never be again ... You’ll enjoy!

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.