Collection of photos - each has a story and a memory

John Oncken
In my early visits to California, the corrals with hundreds of cows, sided by side in the Chino Valley were a surprising sight.

As we enter July 2020 Wisconsin farms are in the midst of the bad conditions (coronavirus) and the good cropping conditions (maybe the best in a long time) as they  can almost see the corn grow. 

The weekly NASS report sums it up nicely:

“The summer weather conditions continued to push crop development to levels not seen in years in Wisconsin. According to the state's agriculture department, farmers made hay between showers with some already starting to cut second crop. Reporters also noted that the corn was knee- to waist high in many fields. The weekly summary put topsoil moisture conditions at 78 percent adequate and 14 percent surplus. With all of the corn now emerged, reports estimate the corn crop to be good to excellent. 

There aren’t many things that are as satisfying to farmers as seeing their field crops grow and prosper – there’s a long way to go but optimism is not out of place.  As for the corona virus, farmers – like everyone else can only wait, watch and hope for the best.

Borden gets life

In the wide, wide world of moving milk from cows to people, it’s apparent that the Borden Company will live on as they announced Friday the sale of all assets to Capital Peak Partners and its affiliates following a court-approved sale process. The $340 million transaction includes all plants, branches, routes and the Borden brand. Borden CEO Tony Sarsam says, “We are exiting Chapter 11 as a thriving company that is meeting and exceeding its performance forecasts, making our outlook very promising."

About a month ago Borden, was awarded the USDA’s largest contract through its new Farmers to Families Food Box Program as part of the Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program (CFAP). “The contract will enable Borden to supply 700 million servings of fresh fluid milk for free to qualifying 501(c)3 organizations in the Southeast, Southwest and Midwest regions. Through the CFAP, the USDA is purchasing and distributing up to $3 billion of agricultural products, including fresh produce, dairy and meat, to those in need."

The Golden Cheese Company at Corona, California was the “biggest cheese factory ever” then, only operated from 1985-2007. It died when the cows moved north and remained empty for a dozen years.

Looking back

On occasion I get immersed in my computer photo files that go back to about 2008 (when I got my digital camera) usually looking for a photo taken maybe decades ago, as I did recently. As often happens, I see pictures of things I’d almost forgotten about but were important and interesting at the time.  

One such photo dates back to 2012, it pictures the long vacant Golden Cheese Co. factory in Corona, California. I remember the cheese factory well because I also photographed it in about 1984 as it was being built. (I was visiting ABS bred dairy herds in the Chino Valley, then the most concentrated area in the world.)  

The new factory was being built by a California Dairy Cooperative and was portrayed as “the biggest cheese factory in the world. It began making cheese in October 1985 and reached 500,000 pounds of cheese a day. As the dairies moved out of Chino and north to the Central Valley the nearby milk supply decreased markedly and about 90 percent of the milk was coming from dairies in Bakersfield or farther north, a four-hour haul.

I’ll never forget the most scenic dairy ever  - the Verwegh Dairy in Fresno county, California.

Dermot O'Brien, the last plant manager said Golden Cheese had lost money most years. The biggest handicap, he said, was the heavy debt the founding investors had incurred to finance the $140 million project. Mid-America Dairymen Inc., a dairy cooperative, bought an interest in the financially troubled plant in 1993 and in 1997 became the sole owner. Mid-Am and other dairy cooperatives later merged to form Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) who then became owners.  

By mid 2007, DFA announced that it would close Golden Cheese by year end, which it did.

In the 1990’s boarded up dairies in the former big dairy area at Chino were increasing in number as the cows moved to Tulare.

For a dozen years the huge cheese factory sat forlorn, empty and for sale. Twenty five years is a short life for a cheese factory. Wisconsin has many that are 50 to 100 years old and still going strong. Golden Cheese was a modern and efficient cheese plant, perhaps built in the wrong place at the wrong time for too much money. 

My call to DFA a couple days ago brought forth the info that the plant and property had been sold a year and a half ago and the plant was since demolished. 

Jackie Sperle and Barney Lambert owned the Utica Store for 27 years and now live in Stoughton while the store remains empty.

Utica Store lost forever

Another interesting photo (to me) was of Barney's Utica Store, a longtime general store located between Stoughton and Cambridge that dated back to 1872. This was a local “destination” where local farmers bought odds and ends from groceries to tobacco paper. 

After minding the store for 27 years, Richard “Barney” Lambert and Jackie Sperle decided to sell the store and move on. The store was ultimately sold in the mid-2000’s to two men who were not familiar with the rural scene and did not make it work. The store soon closed and has remained so. It continues to stand at the four corners gradually falling but so well remembered and missed by the community.

Can’t believe

Then there are the many pics of bicycle rides. It’s hard to believe I pedaled about 1500-2000 miles a year over some 20 years. I do know the yearly bike trips with the Wright Riders drew more comments from readers than any subject. But time passes and age expands and the bikes are now unused and lonesome in my basement.

My 20-plus years of logging 1500-2000 miles annually on a bicycling across a multitude of states is a treasured memory. Here the Wright Riders pause for a photo about ten years ago. Columnist John Oncken is pictures in the center wearing a bright yellow shirt.

My 100,000 photos each have a story and a memory. The past which we lived is fascinating, the unknown future not so much.  

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