Symbols of our Cheese Making Heritage
“Cheese Head”. Here in Wisconsin we embrace this term as a badge of honor. From our foam cheese hats to the milk cans holding up our mailbox or decorating our garden, cheese is deeply engrained in our culture. The production of cheese in Wisconsin has changed dramatically along with our growing population, advances in transportation and the growth of our economy. It is estimated that there were once 3,600 cheese factories in Wisconsin with the number reaching 106 in Manitowoc County in 1927.
During the period of our settlement, primary agricultural products were timber and wheat. As timber became less plentiful and wheat production faltered, farmers looked to diversify. Hay crops grew well here and dairying began to catch on.
To care for their growing dairy herds, farmers erected the beautiful barns and silos that accent our landscape. The barns provided shelter for the herd during the winter months and silos were erected to store a year-round food source for the thousands of Holstein, Guernsey, and Jersey dairy cattle that were being raised by area farmers. While we take it for granted that these iconic symbols are here, many may have never paused to consider why.
As the dairy industry grew, surplus milk was purchased by an increasing number of cheese makers at local factories. During the 1870’s and 1880’s the number of cheese factories grew dramatically alongside the explosion of dairy farming. Another reason for the large number of cheese producers was that milk could not be refrigerated to be moved long distances by horse and wagon.
Early each morning, farmers would gather with their milk at the local cheese factory where the milk was weighed and tested for fat content. The milk was poured into a chute called a conductor and emptied inside to the cheese vat. When the vat filled, it was heated to around 84 degrees and a compound called rennet was added. Traditionally, rennet is derived from the stomachs of young mammals such as calves. It is essentially what allows them to solidify their mother’s milk. With the rennet added, curds form and are then cut into smaller pieces. The whey is drained and the curds are salted and pressed into large round molds. The large cheese rounds were cured for several weeks then stored in a round wooden box for shipment and sale.
This scene took place in the many cheese factories here in Manitowoc County for decades until the decline of the local factory. As transportation improved and standards increased, it became increasingly difficult for small cheese factories to survive. Many of these buildings have disappeared over the years, yet some have been converted to homes. A restored cheese factory is located at Pinecrest Historical Village, showing the variety of tools and equipment used by an early Manitowoc County cheese maker.