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Wisconsin: The Big Cheese
Excerpted from Wisconsin’s Hometown Flavors, by Terese Allen (1998, 2003)

Dairy farming, and certainly cheesemaking, weren't much on the minds of Wisconsin's early settlers, not even the ones who came after fur traders and lead miners had led the way to the development of the Wisconsin Territory. Wheat was king to the farmers who moved from the East Coast in the 1830s and who were soon followed by other immigrant groups: Germans, Scandinavians, Irish, Swiss, Dutch, Belgians, Poles, Italians, and many more. They came to take advantage of a lucrative crop that grew readily in the territory's lush prairies and woodlands.

Many of them brought along a cow or two in order to supply meat and milk for their families (and sometimes to provide a little muscle in the field). Many of them also brought along old-world cheesemaking skills, which would soon---all too soon for some--- come in very handy.

Decreasing yields, weather, insect problems, and unpredictable markets put wheat production into serious decline within just a few decades. Fortunately, Wisconsin's natural and human resources were ideal for the development of a sensible alternative: dairying. Those resources included: an abundance of lands capable of supporting feed crops; a plentiful water supply; a varied and fast-improving transportation system (roads, railroads, and waterways); the dairy heritage of settlers, especially those from New York, Germany, and Switzerland; and last but not least, the forward-thinking agriculturists who were the first to "put it all together."

 
Gibbsville

Dairy farming met with resistance at first---it was harder than growing wheat, and "women's work," to boot---but eventually, inevitably, it took off. And large-scale cheesemaking followed.

Since housewives were responsible for processing excess farm milk into cheese, it's no wonder that the person who opened one of the first cooperative cheese-making operations in the state was a woman. In 1841 Anne Pickett began renting cows from her neighbors near Lake Mills and selling the cheese she made in her kitchen factory. Two brothers are credited with the next break- throughs: In the late 1850s John J. Smith of Sheboygan County built a structure where he pressed curds from neighboring farms into cheese. But it was difficult to control quality with this system. His brother Hiram Smith then started an operation that collected milk rather than curds.

There were others who made important contributions to the development of cheese factories in Wisconsin, but the person most often credited with operating the "real thing" as we came to know it was Chester Hazen. The small plant he built in 1864 in Ladoga (near Fond du Lac) was a true cheese factory in that it was a building separate from the farm house, it operated separately from other farm operations, the business accepted milk (not curds) from neighboring farms, it was a relatively large operation, and Hazen shipped his product out of state. It's likely he also sold cheese directly to his milk patrons and other locals.

Hazen's success was a great impetus for discouraged wheat farmers to jump on the dairy bandwagon. New Yorkers who were making mostly cheddar cheese in the state's eastern counties were joined in southern Wisconsin by limburger-producing Germans and Swiss experts who made Swiss-type cheeses. Soon more settlers were immigrating to Wisconsin specifically to make cheese. Eventually, numerous immigrant groups, like Italians and the Dutch, popularized their own ethnic cheese specialties. Much later, Wisconsinites even invented brand new cheeses, including world-famous ones like Colby and brick.

But all this was still down the road. In the early years, the cheese factory system met with as much resistance as dairy farming had, and for much the same reasons. Carting milk to the factory twice a day was just more work, and cheesemaking was still considered a domestic (i.e. "woman's") task. What's more, Wisconsin cheese was hard to sell: first, who had ever heard of it? and second, quality control remained a problem.

But that's where the forward-thinkers came to the rescue. A group of agriculturists formed the Wisconsin Dairymen's Association to help market cheese out of state and to teach dairy farmers and cheesemakers how to produce better products. One of the organization's founders, William D. Hoard, began publishing a newsletter called Hoard's Dairyman which did much to legitimize cheesemaking as a profession (and eventually became the world's leading dairy publication). Wisconsin cheesemaking was on its way.

 

Between about 1880 and 1920,
cheese factories expanded rapidly
throughout many of the eastern and
southern counties. They also headed
north, where the land had recently
been logged over and was ripe
for agriculture.

barn
  Only three sections of Wisconsin didn't become cheesemaking areas: the extreme north, where the climate was severe; the central counties, with its poor, sandy soil; and the southeastern corner of the state, where nearby urban markets drank most of the available milk supply. The cheese industry experienced growing pains, but improvements continued, especially in the areas of quality control and marketing. By 1910, Wisconsin cheeses were winning national and international awards and Wisconsin had become the Dairy State: the leading cheese producer of the nation.

Try a recipe for Cheddar Cheese Coins.