Plymouth's climb to "Cheese Capital of the World"
Plymouth was incorporated as a city in 1877 and was first known as “Hub City.” The name came from the manufacture of hub and spokes for bicycles, not its central location in the county as is often thought.
As the city grew, many different types of industry sprang up; cigar makers, furniture factories, producers of phonographs and breweries among them, but it proudly gained a moniker as the "Cheese Capital of the World" sometime in the 1930s.
The story of cheese began when dairy farming firmly took root in the 1870s. Milking shorthorns which produced only a small amount of milk, gave way to milking Holsteins who were bigger producers, which led to excess milk. Cheesemaking originated in farm kitchens, led by farm wives, as a way to use up that surplus milk. Cheese had a longer shelf life, and gave the farm family a treat.
Plymouth’s first cheese factory was built around 1863 by Hiram Conover, and within 50 years, a score of cheese plants flourished in Plymouth along with hundreds located elsewhere in the county.
Seth Conover stands out as a pioneer in the field. After learning the cheese maker’s trade in a wood shed built on his father’s farm, he was sent to Utica, N. Y., by his father to study scientific cheesemaking. He returned in about 1870 and after operating a cheese factory in the town of Lima, he came to Plymouth, where he became a prominent cheesemaker and dealer. It is said that he made the first overseas export of Wisconsin cheese and made several trips to Europe on business.
Conover’s business was ideally situated, located just south of the depots between the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific and the Chicago & Northwestern railroads. As the rail lines provided transportation for the abundance of cheese products being produced, it was only natural that this area become the hub of the industry; ergo the name Cheeseville was coined. It soon became the common name for that southern section of town where cheese was manufactured, collected, stored, cured, graded, packed and shipped all over the world.
An abbreviated list of companies located there include the following:
Phenix Cheese Company was based in New York and Chicago, but had a branch plant in Plymouth. Phenix produced five-pound boxes of fancy American cheese, wrapped in tin foil and packed in large loaves. They also made Philadelphia brand cream cheese, the best selling packaged cheese in the world. Kraft Foods continued the tradition after they absorbed Phenix.
Pabst-Ett produced cheeses like Blue Label American and Cook Cheese. Beginning in 1934, they produced loaf or processed cheese in the Kraft-Phenix factory, which had just been vacated by Sheboygan Cheese. They employed 130 people at the time. A side note -- at the same time Plymouth Box Company opened its doors in the former Plymouth Phonograph building on Cold Storage Street. Plymouth Box made five-pound cheese loaf boxes for Pabst-ett and Lakeshire Cheese. Pabst-ett employed a full-time nurse to take care of the employees and their families. The factory also had a cafeteria, where meals could be obtained for a cost by the workers.
Four men, Henry Wheeler, Magnus Brinkman, H. Murray Scott and W.F. Hubert, moved their cheese operation to Plymouth in 1923, first calling their company the Brookshire Cheese Co. but changed it later to Lakeshire Co. The founders of Lakeshire Cheese patented a flash pasteurization process that enabled them to cook cheese in 45 seconds instead of the 45-minute process that had been required. Their success with the new process soon drew the interest of the Borden Co., which bought Lakeshire and Carl Marty Cheese Co. of Monroe, combining them into the Lakeshire-Marty Co.
After World War II, Borden consolidated its local cheese production in a new manufacturing plant built on South Street, just east of Cheeseville. Borden Foods eventually sold its cheese facilities to American Dairy Brands, which closed in 2016.
Also, within Cheeseville, mainly on Cold Storage Street, were located such prominent cheese concerns such as Bamford Cheese Co., H. Blanke Cheese Co., C. A. Straubel Cheese Co., The Federation and Brookshire. Other concerns were the popular Bond Pickle Company, and cheese support companies, Plymouth Bandage, Plymouth Box and Special Products Company.
Close to, but not quite in Cheeseville, was Plymouth Cheese and Cream Company. Located in downtown Plymouth at 46-48 Stafford Street, this was one of the small dairy and specialty cheese product companies that appeared and disappeared over the years as the industry grew and consolidated. August Stoll was the owner.
As cheese making grew in Plymouth, the demand for specific products needed in the making, packaging, storing and shipping of cheese grew as well. The Reinhold & Meyer Co. of Plymouth manufactured cheese vats that were widely used not only by cheese companies in Plymouth but throughout the nation.
In 1895, the first cold storage facility was built to take care of perishable products with accommodations for 75,000 pounds of cheese. In 1899 another cold storage was built. In 1892, the first warehouse was built and by 1899 three more were erected and rented to cheese dealers.
Although that southern portion of the city was known as Cheeseville, Plymouth also had a secondary area located in the northwestern part of the city that could also be called Cheeseville. From North Milwaukee Street to Factory and Schwartz on the west to Caroline on the east was a sort of Vee-shaped area that was home to others.
Within this area were the Wisconsin Cheese Producers’ Co-operative, Cleveland Container, the Land O’ Lakes creamery, Plymouth Creamery and Plymouth Dairy products. Sartori, the only cheese producer remaining in the city, sits at the confluence of Main, North Milwaukee and Western.
Plymouth’s cheese industry has evolved over the years, but it is no less impressive. Cheeseville has a different look. Most of those old industries are gone or have moved, but cheese and cold storage remain two of Plymouth’s most important employers.
Dippel is executive director of the Sheboygan County Historical Research Center.