Archive for the ‘National Historic Cheesemaking Center’ Category

The Heirloom Murders – A Retrospective

February 13, 2018

Welcome back to the behind-the-scenes look at the Chloe Ellefson mysteries! Up today: The Heirloom Murders, second in the series.

I knew where I wanted to go after wrapping up the first book, Old World Murder—Green County, Wisconsin, famous for its Swiss heritage. My father’s parents were born and raised in Switzerland, so that was a natural draw.


Fondue dinners in New Glarus became “research trips.”

Me and Mr. Ernst, New Glarus Hotel.

Spotlighting Swiss heritage, and places like the Swiss Historical Village & Museum and the National Historic Cheesemaking Center, satisfied my wish to celebrate Wisconsin’s cultural heritage and museums.

It was great fun to learn more about sap sago and other aspects of Swiss cheesemaking. And the timing was good—staff and volunteers at the Cheesemaking Center in Monroe were restoring the Imobersteg Farmstead Cheese Factory on their grounds while I was writing the book.

I knew nothing about heirloom plants, and how much diversity we’ve lost, until I went to work at Old World Wisconsin in 1982. I was fascinated by the topic, and the role historic sites around the world play in preserving genetic diversity. As I considered what aspect of museum work to showcase, heirloom plants and rare-breed livestock seemed like a good fit.

Antique apples like these may not look perfect, but they have more taste than some types bred to look good over long transports.

I’d known about the legendary Eagle Diamond, and thought it would be fun to fictionalize the story of its discovery and eventual theft. This book was the first in the Chloe series to include a thread of historical fiction, braided with the more contemporary plot strands. Reader feedback was positive, and I’ve used this approach in most of the later books.

Eagle Diamond

Five views of the Eagle Diamond. (Wikipedia)

Many authors say that the second book in the series is the hardest to write. (The first was written on speculation, without a contract; suddenly, there’s a deadline imposed on #2.)  The Heirloom Murders wasn’t harder to write, but it was challenging to market. The overall plot involved a woman’s death, a stolen diamond, Swiss green cheese, and heirloom gardening. Try summing that up in a concise but appealing way! And that’s without mentioning the main characters’ personal lives.

My original title for this book was “Deadly as Diamonds.” My editor changed it because another author with the same press had a book coming out with “diamond” in the title. When I saw him a few months later at a conference I gave him a hard time for “stealing” my key title word. Turns out his original title hadn’t included the word “diamond” at all, but it was changed for a similar reason!

SPOILER ALERT – plot points are discussed below!

The first thing I do when planning a book is think about the main characters’ emotional growth. Just when Chloe was finally moving on after what happened in Switzerland, Markus shows up. Chloe and Markus have a great deal in common.  Chloe and Roelke, not so much. That provided some good conflict.

A number of readers let me know that they particularly enjoyed meeting Johann and Frieda Frietag, even though they had a small role. That was a good reminder that minor characters need just as much care and complexity as the main ones!

I imagined Frieda bustling about this kitchen when Chloe and Markus visit. Swiss Historical Village & Museum, New Glarus.

The main mystery plot about Bonnie Sabatola’s death came from a late-night talk I had with an Eagle police officer. I was doing a second-shift ridealong and when we got back to the station, the conversation somehow turned to cases that had packed an emotional wallop. While working for another police department, he’d encountered a situation similar to what I described—a murder made to look like suicide.

The questions surrounding the case gave Roelke a lot to work with, and showed his tenacity. I’d already heard from readers who wanted to see more of him.  I hope his fans enjoyed his role in bringing the killer to justice. However, this book also revealed his trouble with anger management. Roelke threatens Markus with physical harm, and kicks Simon Sabatola. As an author, that may have been a risky choice, but I wanted Roelke to be a complex character, struggling with real issues.

So, what did you think? If read books one and two in order, did you want Chloe to end up with Markus, or Roelke? Did you understand Roelke’s anger, or was that indefensible? Was justice served? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

You can explore relevant people, places, and the past on my webpage for The Heirloom Murders. Resources include a Google map, a Locations Guide, full Discussion Guide, a recipe for Swiss Pear Bread, and links to lots of additional background material. Happy reading!

National Historic Cheesemaking Center. Photo by Mr. Ernst.

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!