What happened to the 300 cheese factories?

John Oncken

The now – the farm crops are green and growing, and if all continues at the same pace, corn and soybean production records could be threatened. Modern technology in terms of genetics, equipment and management are well understood by most all farmers, but without the cooperation of Mother Nature, they are money ill-spent. And weather-wise, it’s so far, so good.

But the era of face masks and stay-at-home is still with us, with little sign of any soon-to-happen change, so we stay home, do family things, watch TV and read.

Reading is my first choice, something sort of normal as I’ve always been a readaholic as my stacks of books (read and unread) may prove.

The book "Cheese Country: A History of the Dairy and Cheese Industry of Green County."

All about 170 years of cheesemaking

Recently I returned to studying the book "Cheese Country: A History of the Dairy and Cheese Industry of Green County," published by the National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe, Wisconsin. This 115-page (8x10) paperback publication follows the commercial cheese industry in Green County from its beginning in 1848, when the first commercial cheese factory was built by Nicolas Gerber on a farm west of New Glarus, through the building of some 340 cheese factories over the years to the current 12 factories now producing cheese.

That’s over 170 years of making cheese in a lot of cheese factories that have come and gone as farming and cheesemaking have changed. As I looked at the "Cheese Country" book and its over 100 photos and brief summaries of cheese factories, it prompted my thinking toward, "What happened to all those cheese factories after their days of glory ceased?"

Each dot in this map of Green County was a cheese factory.

Go and see

A good question – and one I figured was only answerable by getting in the car and taking a look-see. Again referring to the township maps in the book, I headed towards Albany and continued west to what is often referred to as the original Maple Leaf factory, operated as a farmers cooperative until 1994. That’s when the farmer-owners moved to a larger and newer, but empty, Jefferson Center factory built in 1948, south of Monroe. Cheesemaker Jeff Wideman became manager (and still is) and renamed the plant Maple Leaf Cheese.

Maple Leaf is one of Green County's 12 operating cheese factories today and is a consistent award-winner for its artisan cheeses. Meanwhile the original Maple Leaf factory, still unchanged in appearance, is now a residence.

The first Maple Leaf factory, west of Albany, closed in 1994 and is now a residence.

Long a house

Traveling southwest of Brodhead, I found the site of the former Keen cheese factory.  This long-closed (in the 40's) small factory has served as a private home for many years, and the current owner was unaware of her home’s history as a cheese factory. She also suggested I visit another old, closed factory on Highway S just north of Juda.

This nice country home near Brodhead was once the Keen Cheese factory that closed in the 1940s.

Health Valley Cheese

I almost missed the Health Valley factory, which lies just across the highway from the entrance to the huge Grande Cheese whey and cheese facility up the hill from the former factory. Health Valley Cheese closed in the late 60’s and became a residence, and is now apparently vacant and overgrown with tall weeds and located just feet from the probably rebuilt and raised Highway S.

Apparently Dwight Larson, the cheesemaker at Health Valley, built a new factory across the road and up the hill because of some problems at Health Valley. This new Larson Cheese factory changed hands several times and was sold to Grande in 2000, which is another of the 12 operating cheese factories in the county today. 

This 1880 cheese factory was closed, mostly forgotten and served as a junk storage building on the Blum farm from 1919 until 2005, when it got new life.

From factory to house

Seemingly the next move from being a cheese factory was becoming a residence, sometimes with many years or even decades in between. You can find today many 100-year-old cheese factories posing as modern homes. (Remember the cheese makers or owner family always lived on the second floor of the cheese making area and the buildings were solidly built.)  

You may remember my column from a few years ago featuring Silvan Blum, a cheesemaker at Deppler Cheese Factory in Monroe, who lives in a former cheese factory near Monticello that closed in 1911. It served as a junk building until 2008 when it was rebuilt into a most gorgeous home where Silvan and his wife live.  

A once forlorn and almost forgotten cheese factory built in 1880 is now the home of Silvan and Jane Blum.

Why so many?

Why would over 300 cheese factories be built over the years in Green County? Simple answer – that’s where the cows, milk and Swiss farming people were. But factories were small and came and went over the years depending on the dairy economics and expanding cheesemaking technology. 

Today, the small cheese factory is rare, but it does exist, and the large automated operations are generally not open for visitors. However, you can relive the past at the NHCC by ordering the book (with 103 photos of mostly now-closed factories), "Cheese Country: A History of the Dairy and Cheese Industry of Green County." Call 608-325-4636 or go to visit their website for full information and to order the book.

As for me, I love local history, so I will probably visit more old factories and relive more history. Can’t wait.

The Health Valley cheese factory across the highway from Grande Cheese in Juda served as a home, but is now vacant and overgrown.
The former Five Corners Cheese near Monroe closed in the early 60’s and has been the home of Bob and Nancy Faith and their former milk trucking business since 1965.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-837-7406 or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.