COLUMNISTS

Immerse yourself in the history of cheese in Green County

John Oncken
Red dots on the map of Green County represent the locations of cheese factories that once produced cheese long ago.

Did you know that well over 300 cheese factories were built in Green County Wisconsin, most of them between the last half of the 20th century  until the mid-21st century?  Or, that today, there are but 11 cheese factories in that county? 

Only one of each

Did you know that many, probably most of them, made Swiss (Emmanthaller) cheese wheels weighing about 200 pounds each? Or, that today there is but one factory making that form of cheese in Green county and the whole US?

Did you also know that in 1949 – the 80th anniversary of cheesemaking in Green county – there were 11 cheese factories making limburger in that county? Or that today there is just one factory remaining in the US that produces limburger, which also happens to be in Green County.

A final question: How was it possible for a 150pound cheesemaker to turn over a 200 pound Swiss cheese wheel several times a day and finally put it on a shelf?

If you ever visited the National Historic Cheesemaking (NHCC) Museum in Monroe you might know the answers and have an inkling of what was involved in “The era that was. that will never be again.”

The National Historic Cheesemaking Center has called the former railroad depot in home since 1995.

Making Swiss cheese the old way

Last Saturday  three Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers, Steve Stettler (Decatur Dairy), Dave Buholzer (Klondike Cheese) and Gary  Grossen (Pleasant Hill Cheese and UW -Madison Center for Dairy Research) made a 90-pound wheel of Swiss cheese the way it was done a 100 years ago and they did it in a cheese factory that dates back to at least 1902.

Master cheesemakers, left, Dave Buholzer and Ron Buholzer of Klondike Cheese lend their cheesemaking talents in the old factory.

That old cheese factory was used by Swiss immigrants and farmers Alfred and Anna Imobersteg in Stephenson County, Illinois. The Imobersteg family produced Swiss, Brick and Limburger cheeses from milk produced by their own cows and those of their neighbors until 1917. That history was “lost” in a building that was used for storage, as a workshop and laundry room. But over the years the cheesemaking equipment remained intact.  

For many  years – 92 years actually – the cheese factory “slept” on the farm now owned and still farmed by the Imobersteg’s son Arnold, until early 2009 when NHCC Director Mary Ann Hanna learned of it. 

In short order: The Center's Directors visited the old building and were overwhelmed by this historic gem; Arnold 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.

On the second Saturday in June, the Imobersteg cheese factory awakens and cheese is made using the family's original equipment.

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 – just ask the three cheesemakers – began about 9 a.m. with some 1000 pounds of milk poured into the original copper kettle. Nearly 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), moved to a round form, pressed and turned several times.

The 90 pound wheel was then taken to Edelweiss Creamery at Monticello for brining and curing and sampling. 

A 900-lb. wheel of Swiss cheese made on June 8 under the watchful eyes of many visitors.

Although cheese is made only that one day a year, the Imobersteg factory is open and on display for visitors who can use their imagination and marvel at the ingenious display of devices used to move cheese from kettle to press. 

Lifting 40,000 pounds before breakfast 

Two of the interested spectators were Ivan and Marlene Gobeli who made cheese at the now-closed Franklin Cheese Factory, southwest of Monroe. Ivan worked as an employee for five years from 1957-1962 before serving as cheesemaker until 2003. 

Note: Franklin was a cooperative cheese factory with the dairy farmers owning the land and building and providing the milk and the cheesemaker owning the equipment and making and marketing the cheese. 

A full-scale exhibit details the historical process of cheesemaking from milk to cheese.

Gobeli remembers washing Swiss wheels which meant moving 100 200-pound wheels twice. That’s lifting 40,000 pounds before breakfast, twice a week. 

“The top shelves were nine feet off the floor,” Gobeli says. “We stood on a table about four feet high that was built with wheels on one end, like a big wheelbarrow. The cheese was on the shelf for seven to eight weeks.”  

Can we even imagine that?

He says they made 13 wheels of Swiss a day during the flush season with eleven total employees at most. Ivan Points out that his wife Marlene was as good a cheesemaker as anyone, but “she didn’t wash and lift the wheels.”

Director Donna Douglas has welcomed visitors from 36 countries since opening on May 1.

Swiss cheesemaking at Franklin ended in the late 1960’s as the factory moved to Muenster and other soft varieties.  

The factory closed in 2009 and like so many cheese factories across the state, now serves as a residence. 

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 goes back to the 1970’s 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.

The book that tells the story of the cheese industry in Green County, Wisconsin.

After a failed start to set up a Cheese Hall of Fame in the mid-1970’s, the twosome eventually gathered support, some financing and a working partnership with Historic Monroe, and an opportunity to buy the shuttered Monroe railroad depot that had to be relocated for $1.

In April 1993, the old depot was moved, renovated and opened to the public in July 1995. The long discussed dream had come true!

In 2008, the Historic Cheesemaking Center added the word “National” to its name and “aspires to become a repository of cheesemaking artifacts, reference materials and cheesemaking stories from all of the US. It's mission is to preserve “An era that was and will never be again.”

A destination

While those aims are ongoing, the NHCC is well on its way and is a destination that should be visited by everyone with even a bit of interest in the history of cheesemaking and its people.   

Why?

To learn about the people who worked so hard and produced such good products for so many eaters who consume about 35 pounds per person each year. Wisconsin’s 124 cheese factories produce 2.8 billion pounds of cheese, nearly 26 percent of the US total.

Cheesemaking as it was done decades ago, and still is in a few factories across the state, was hard work. But as cheesemakers will tell you it was satisfying to see milk move from a can or bulk truck to a finished product and know it was the result of science and their skills.

The small cheese factory is ever more rare and the large automated operations are generally not open for visitors. However, you can relive the past at the NHCC and by ordering the new book (with 103 photos of mostly now closed factories), “Cheese Country, A History of the Dairy and Cheese Industry of Green County".  Go to www.nationalhistoriccheesemakingcenter.org or call 608-325-4636 for more information or to order the book. 

Make plans, visit and enjoy.

John F Oncken can be reached jfodairy2@gmail.com