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Your Gateway to Cheese Country

National Historic Cheesemaking Center -- Cheese History

Brief History of Cheese

Old roman coin

Nobody knows for sure just when or where cheese making originated. The practice is closely related to the history of the domestication of milk-producing animals (particularly sheep) which began about 8 to 10,000 years ago but its true origins are perhaps forever shrouded in mystery. We do know that by the time of the Roman Empire, cheese making had become a widespread and highly-varied process practiced throughout Europe and the Middle East. Of course, as with many cultural innovations; Rome had a hand in further spreading cheese making techniques across its vast empire during its time as a trading super-power (not to mention its ability to affect the relocation of entire populations). Cheese is mentioned in ancient Greek mythology and evidence of cheese making has been found on Egyptian tomb murals dating back over 4000 years. It is interesting to note though, that many of the popular cheeses we eat today (such as Cheddar, Parmesan and Gouda) are relatively new to the cheese story, having only appeared in the last 500 years or so.

It is possible (but by no means certain) that cheese was discovered accidentally from the practice of storing milk in containers made from the stomachs of animals. In this scenario, rennin, an enzyme in stomach lining caused the milk to separate into curds and whey. Another possible explanation for the discovery of cheese stems from the practice of salting curdled milk for preservation purposes. Regardless of the origins of cheese, it is clear that by the time of Julius Cesar; literally hundreds of varieties of cheeses were being produced and traded across the Roman Empire and beyond.

Cold Cheese Storage in Switzerland

Still, cheese has never been a worldwide phenomenon. While cheese production flourished early in Europe and the Middle East, in places such a North and South America, the art of cheese making was completely unknown and didn't appear until much later when it was introduced by European emigrants.

European expansion and later American influences are also generally credited for introducing cheese to much of Asia though cheese is still not considered a usual staple in the regular diet of most Asian cultures. European influence aside, there is also evidence that, while not a typical Asian food, at least one type of cheese called "rushan" has been produced in China since the time of the Ming Dynasty and is a staple in the diets of the Sani and Bai peoples of China to this day. The Tibetans and Mongolians also have a long history of producing cheese and may have had an influence in Chinese cheese making.

For most of the history of cheese making, the industry has been predominately an at-home or on-the-farm industry. This started to change around the time that the first cheese producing factory came online in Switzerland in 1815 but it wasn't until cheese making came to America that the mass-production of cheese in factories really took off.

The Rise of Cheese in America's Dairyland

Family of Cheesemakers
Cheese has been produced in America since the early 17th Century when English Puritan dairy farmers brought their knowledge of dairy farming and cheese making with them from the Old World to the New England colonies. Puritan woman were the artisans of cheese during this period just as they were in their previous homeland of East Anglia (a peninsula of eastern England). From this point up until the early 19th century, cheese making in America was almost entirely a farmstead industry centered primarily in New England and along the East Coast. On the farm, it was almost always the role of women to make cheese and carry on the tradition. While the role of women in cheese making decreased significantly after the birth of the "cheese factory," it would be impossible to tell any realistic story of cheese in America without paying tribute to the countless contributions made to the industry by America's pioneering women. Before the industrialization of the cheese industry, milk on the farm had to be consumed fairly quickly or processed in some way just to help preserve it. Early settlers would often use the cream which naturally floats to the top of the milk to make butter which left the rest of the milk (skim or skimmed-milk) for making cheese. From the milking of the cows, to the hauling of the milk, to the churning of the butter and the processing of the cheese, the work was anything but easy and it was just a small part of the duties performed primarily by women on the farm in early America.

There was no such thing as an American cheese factory in the early1800's but as our fledgling country's population continued to swell with the arrival of new emigrants from Europe, civilization was beginning to expand westward toward the Great Lakes and the art of cheese making was spreading right along with it. The onetime household science of making cheese was now just a few short generations away from becoming BIG business in America and that meant big business and economic success was on its way to Wisconsin. By 1831, Wisconsin's first cheese factory was operating in Koshkonong, and by 1846, Swiss immigrants in New Glarus were able to begin making cheese on the farm with the milk of dairy cows recently imported from Ohio. While cheese making was primarily an on-the-farm industry through the first half of the 19th Century, within a few generations, small, often family-operated, cheese factories would begin popping up like weeds across the Southern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois landscape as well as elsewhere in America.

Prior to the rise of the dairy industry in Wisconsin, farmers experimented with a variety of crops but there was a decided emphasis on trying to grow wheat early on. It soon became apparent though, that the local soil was easily depleted by the crop and that wheat farming also exposed the land to the very serious and long-lasting effects of erosion. Farmers came to realize that the land was much more compatible with raising grazing animals and subsequently, the primary focus of agriculture in Southern Wisconsin gradually shifted to maintaining crops and pastures for an ever increasing population of cows and other livestock. It's interesting to note that, even to this day, some counties in Wisconsin can boast a higher population of dairy animals than humans.

Farmers bring milk to area cheese factory on horse drawn wagons
Eventually, farmers in close proximity to each other, started banding together to have their milk processed in some centralized location, often on one of their own farms. Processing milk into cheese, made it possible to convert a perishable liquid into a truly solid commodity that could be stored for future sale and/or transported to distant markets. In 1868, Nicholas Gerber opened the first Green County, Wisconsin cheese factory in a small log house southwest of New Glarus. Five local farmers initially supplied the milk for the factory which was a resounding success, providing a much needed boost to the struggling local economy. From that point forward, things would never be quite the same again in Green County where turning milk into cheese soon became the local equivalent of turning lead into gold. The only difference being that the process actually works with milk.

As with the role of women in cheese making, the role of farm-based cheese makers in America would eventually diminish with the coming of automation and improved transportation systems.

A "Second Industrial Revolution" was sweeping the world during the latter half of the 19th Century that would have a profound impact on America and the cheese-making industry. The coming of the railroads to Wisconsin would open up new markets to local farmers and, as the demand for cheese grew, so would the fortunes of one economically depressed county on the Wisconsin-Illinois border.

Cheese Puts Green County on the Map

Trucking cheese gave way to the railroad hauling cheese.In August of 1845 Swiss immigrants from the canton of Glarus in Switzerland, came to Green County Wisconsin and settled the village of ‘New Glarus” with little more than the clothes on their backs and a strong determination carve out a new life in the New World.  Within a year or so, the settlement boasted a small herd of dairy cattle that had been brought west from Ohio and women on local farms were producing cheese primarily from skim milk (the cream was most often reserved for making butter). An inventory of livestock in New Glarus Township during 1846 included 18 cows, 15 heifers and 3 calves. It was a humble beginning for the cheese-making industry in Green County but the period from 1845 through 1850 was a period of rapid expansion for the area and the stage was being set for a few enterprising individuals to put Green County on the map in a big way. In 1845 the county had a population of 933 but by 1950 that number had swelled to 8,566 souls and the number of dairy animals on local farms was growing right along with the human population. The first Green County cheese factory wouldn't fire up for almost another 20 years but the area was already becoming well stocked for an explosion in the dairy industry that would make cheese-making history in the valley of the Little Sugar River and across the rolling hills of the surrounding country-side.