Archive for the ‘National Historic Cheesemaking Center’ Category

The Old Cheese Factory

November 29, 2010

First, thanks to everyone who hosted or joined me on my recent blog tour. It was a whirlwind, but great fun. Still, I am glad to get back to my own blog!

I’ve had two wonderful opportunities this fall to see cheese being made as it was back in the day when little cheese huts could be found on many farms in Green County and surrounding areas. I’m doing research for The Heirloom Murders, Book 2 in the Chloe Ellefson/Historic Sites mystery series. (I know, tough gig.)

In September, Scott and I attended Green County Cheese Days in Monroe, WI. This community festival honors the early European settlers—many of them Swiss—who settled here. Several retired cheesemakers demonstrated the art of making cheese.

This sign says it all.

The cheesemaking demonstration was well attended.

Young cheesemakers giving the process a try.

And I got to try my hand at stirring the curds, too!

I took lots of notes, but my favorite thing about attending Cheese Days was watching the intergenerational sharing that took place in the spirit of honoring, preserving, and passing along tradition.

In October, I had another chance to learn about traditional cheesemaking when the National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe celebrated the grand opening of the restored Imobersteg Framstead Cheese Factory. (See my August 29 post for more information about the factory.) For the first time in over a century, a fresh batch of cheese was made in the old building.


Historically, several local farms often banded together to process milk into cheese. Men brought their milk to the nearest factory in pails, and it was passed into the building through a trap door.

Several cheesemakers helped process the milk into curds and whey.

Current and retired cheesemakers cooperated to get the job done.

The demonstration at the Imobersteg Cheese Factory had a different feel than that at the Cheese Days Festival. I wished for a moment that someone had been assigned to interpret the process for visitors. Then I looked around and realized that the tiny factory was crowded with retired cheesemakers, and farmers who had taken their milk to a neighbor’s farm for processing. These people needed no explanations.

I heard elders reminisce about the time, decades ago, when they too had made cheese in a tiny “cheese hut” on their property. One man told me how a neighbor sometimes brought bad milk, spoiling an entire batch. Another talked of numbering the milk cans to be sure the right ones got returned to the proper farm.

When the curds had been taken from the kettle, one gentleman stepped up and helped himself to a drink of whey. Several more did the same, as they had doubtless done many times over the years.

Around here, quite a few artisanal cheesemakers still buy local milk and carefully process it into fine cheese. As a consumer, I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful that people like me can watch and learn about this important aspect of the region’s cultural legacy at Cheese Days. And I’m grateful that those who remember when had the chance to revisit the process at the Imobersteg Cheese Factory. All too often, old traditions and processes are rescued only when at the point of extinction. Not so here.


August 29, 2010

The National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe, WI, has always been a great place to learn about one important role aspect of culinary history.

A lot of history, a little whimsy.

About a year ago, someone told the Center’s director that a tiny cheesemaking  plant was sitting untouched and virtually unknown on a nearby farm owned by Arnold Imobersteg, a retired dairy farmer in his nineties. Now, thanks to Mr. Imobersteg’s generosity and an extraordinary effort by volunteers, cheesemakers, and contractors, the century-old facility will produce cheese again, very soon.

Once, farm families made their own cheese from their own cows. In south-central Wisconsin, Swiss women made alpekäse and other cheeses in their kitchens. In time, it became common for loose cooperatives to form among several local farms. Every morning farmers loaded cans of milk into their wagons and delivered it to a neighbor with a small cheesemaking facility.

Men like this unidentified maker took over much labor when cheesemaking moved from the kitchen into small farmstead factories. (National Historic Cheesemaking Center)

This change had an enormous impact on domestic chores for local women.  Mrs. E.P. Allerton (I don’t have her full name, unfortunately!), speaking at the 3rd annual meeting of the Wisconsin Dairymens’ Association, put it this way:  “In many farmhouses, the dairy work loomed up every year, a mountain that it took all summer to scale. But the mountain is removed; it has been hauled over to the cheese factory.”

I’ll admit to a slightly romantic view of historic cheesemaking because on my father’s side, I am of Swiss descent. I love the image of cheesemakers and herdsmen moving to high alpine pastures each year. I also made cheese a number of times while working at Old World Wisconsin. Other than the need for rennet (which comes from the stomach of an unweaned calf, and yes—one year we did obtain what we needed to make our own), it was fun.

But the truth was, of course, that for immigrants trying to establish farms in the new world, the need to make cheese on an ongoing basis was simply one of many  necessary chores. Many of the first Swiss families to settle in the New Glarus-Monticello-Monroe area were not farmers in the old country. Agriculture of any kind represented a huge change.

In any event, small farm-based cheese operations were once common. The first known cheese factory in Green County, WI, was opened in 1868 in a small log home southwest of New Glarus. Five local farmers hauled their milk to Nicholas Gerber’s operation. The cheese produced was a boon to the local economy.

In 1902 Arnold Imobersteg’s parents purchased their farm (just over the border in Illinois), after immigrating from Switzerland. Anna and Alfred made cheese in the plant, which had no electricity or running water, until 1917. Farmers were then required to take their milk to a nearby commercial operation so it could be processed and canned for soldiers. Anna Imobersteg did laundry in the huge copper kettle, and hung clothes from the wooden beams once used in the pressing process.

Original equipment, still in the Imobersteg cheese plant.

The grooves in this pressing table allowed the whey to drain from the cheese curds.

The cheese plant has been moved to the cheesemaking center, and is being restored.

“This is a one-of-a-kind find,” said Mary Ann Hanna, Executive Director at the National Historic Cheesemaking Center. “We are absolutely ecstatic that we’ll now be able to demonstrate how cheese was made in the late 1800s and early 1900s. We’ve never had the equipment or facility to do that before.”

Thanks to Mary Ann, for giving me a sneak peak at the facility. I hope to visit again when it is in operation!