The actual time and place of the origin of cheese and cheesemaking is unknown. The practice is closely related to the domestication of milk producing animals; primarily sheep, which began 8-10,000 years ago. The art of cheesemaking is referred to in ancient Greek mythology and evidence of cheese and cheesemaking has been found on Egyptian tomb murals dating back over 4000 years. Cheese may have been discovered accidentally by the practice of storing milk in containers made from the stomachs of animals. Rennet, an enzyme found in a stomach of ruminant animals, would cause the milk to coagulate, separating into curds and whey. Another possible explanation for the discovery of cheese stemmed from the practice of salting curdled milk for preservation purposes. Still another scenario involved the addition of fruit juices to milk which would result in curdling the milk using the acid in the fruit juice.
Despite the fact that the origin of cheese and cheesemaking is shrouded in mystery, we do know that by the time of the Roman Empire, cheesemaking had become a widespread, highly valued process practiced throughout Europe and the Middle East. By the time of Julius Caesar, literally hundreds of varieties of cheese were being produced and traded across the mighty Roman Empire and beyond. The Roman influence though documentation and trial and error also aided in refining and improving the techniques employed to make cheese.
Many of the popular cheeses we eat today, such as Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan and Gouda, are relatively new to the cheese story (appearing within the last 500 years). In its early history cheese was never a worldwide phenomenon. As cheesemaking flourished in Europe and the Middle East, North and South America were completely void of cheese and the art of cheesemaking until much later when it was introduced by European immigrants.
European expansion and later American influences are generally credited with the introduction of cheese to Asia. Cheese is still not considered to be a regular staple in the diet of most Asian countries. However, there is evidence of a cheese called “rushan” that has been produced in China since the time of the Ming Dynasty. This cheese is a primary component of the diets of the Sani and Bai people of China to this day. The Tibetans and Mongolians also have a long history of producing cheeses and may have had a role in the development of Chinese cheesemaking.
Cheese has been produced in America since early in the 17th century when English Puritan dairy farmers brought their knowledge of dairy farming and cheesemaking with them from the Old World to the New English colonies. After the introduction, the manufacture of cheese in America moved from east to west mostly in the northern part of the nation.
The colonies of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Eastern Massachusetts were the dairymen of our nation’s early period. As settlements moved west, colonists from western Massachusetts, Vermont, and upstate New York provided cheese to the growing colonies. Following the Revolutionary war, New York State (especially the Mohawk Valley) superseded New England as the great new cheese state. Likewise, the New Englanders who settled in the western region of Ohio established an area that was very important in the American cheese industry. This western region of Ohio was nicknamed “Cheesedom” for over 50 years. During a period of 150 years, New York and Ohio contributed the bulk of cheese manufactured in the United States.
The southeastern portion of Wisconsin was settled in the 1830’s and 1840’s by eastern pioneers who came by the way of the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes waterway. By 1850 foreign immigrants from Germany, Norway, and Switzerland had arrived and started several communities in the interior of Wisconsin. The immigrants coupled with American pioneers from the east engaged in farmstead cheese manufacture almost as soon as they settled in their perspective towns. The 1850 census records reveal 400,283 pounds of cheese made on Wisconsin farms in 1849. Cheese development in Wisconsin moved from southeast to west and later to the north and northwest.
In August of 1845 the first settlers arrived in Green County, Wisconsin from the canton of Glarus, Switzerland. These pioneers established the community of New Glarus in southwestern Wisconsin. These people had experience making cheese in the Alps but quickly realized that almost everything necessary for cheesemaking was lacking in the New World: no milk or cows, no implements to make cheese, and little or no money. It took some time for these dairymen and their families to accumulate cows (usually one to five) so that cheese could be made. Procuring the cows was only the first hurdle. Equipment could be procured from Europe, Switzerland or possibly Ohio but this would take some time. In the meantime a common wash boiler had to serve as a kettle. Hoops were made of hickory or white oak splint. A gunny sack or piece of linen had to serve as cheese cloth. A heavy beam filled with stones was used as a press, and bare hands were used to mix the cheese and act as a thermometer in the warming process to make cheese. Although the pioneers are of different descent, the story of cheesemaking in all of Wisconsin mimics this Green County primitive scenario.
Making cheese was a very effective way to preserve milk which was very perishable. A typical farmstead cheese producer would skim off the cream to make butter and then use the rest of the milk for making cheese. From the collection of supplies by oxcart, to the milking of the cows, to the hauling of the milk, to the churning of the butter and the pressing of the cheese, cheesemaking in the early days: at home on the farm all across America was and still remains today difficult, hard work. Until the birth of the “cheese factory” across America, the role of women was to carry on the difficult cheesemaking tradition of making cheese at home on the farm.
As the American population grew west, so did the cheese industry in southern Wisconsin. The amount of dairy herds grew primarily from internal growth and imports from Ohio and New York. Equipment arrived from Europe, out east or was manufactured locally. The household science of making cheese was now just a few generations away from becoming a big business in America which meant economic success was coming to Wisconsin.
In 1831 Wisconsin’s first farmstead cheese factory was opened in Koshkonong. In 1841 Mrs. Anne Pickett established Wisconsin’s first “cottage industry cheese factory” using milk from neighbors’ cows. Seventeen years later John J. Smith obtained Wisconsin’s first cheese vat and made cheese at home in Sheboygan County. Swiss immigrants opened a farmstead cheese factory in New Glarus (a small community in southwest Wisconsin) in 1846 with cows imported from Ohio. Cheese was manufactured at this point by women on the farm.
Prior to and during the expansion of cheesemaking in the 19th century, Wisconsin agriculture was primarily focused on crops such as wheat, barley, and hops. During the Civil War, Wisconsin was considered “the granary of the north”. By 1862 over 1 million acres and 30 million bushels of wheat were harvested in Wisconsin and Milwaukee led all wheat markets in the world. Cheese and cheesemaking were important in Wisconsin but in many areas the development of the cheese industry was subordinate to the wheat culture. Several factors influenced this emphasis on wheat in Wisconsin agriculture. Wheat acreage increased to over 2 million acres by 1878 but yields were rapidly declining. Soils were significantly depleted by the long lasting effects of erosion and one crop agriculture. Chinch bugs infested the crops for several years and various diseases and winter kill dramatically influenced wheat yields. By the end of the 19th century Wisconsin wheat farmers could not compete with the wheat grown in the plains of the west. Because of the rolling hills originally caused by the Ice Age, farmers realized that the land across southern Wisconsin was much better suited to cultivate crops and maintain pastures for the ever increasing population of cows and other livestock. Along with the increase in cow population, more people were settling in Wisconsin from Europe, New York, Ohio, and other New England states who continued to bring their knowledge and experience of cheesemaking to the Wisconsin frontier.
Agricultural emphasis again shifted to dairy farming and cheesemaking. Farmers began to see the value of working together and pooling their resources into a centralized cheese processing facility to convert their milk to cheese and other dairy products. In many instances the farmstead cheese factory was built on one of their farms. In 1868 Nicholas Gerber opened the first Green County, Wisconsin cheese factory in a small log house southwest of New Glarus. Five local farmers supplied the milk for the factory, which was a resounding success and a boost to the local economy. This factory was the first limburger cheese factory in Wisconsin and one of 53 cooperative cheese factories built in Wisconsin from 1864-1874. Nicholas Gerber was a Swiss immigrant who had spent time in the commercial Mohawk Valley of New York making limburger cheese. In 1869 he started the first Swiss cheese factory in Wisconsin located between Monticello and New Glarus. After 1874 things in Green County and the rest of the state would never be quite the same again. Turning milk into cheese was equivalent to turning lead into gold. The only difference is that the cheese process worked. By 1899 Wisconsin contained 1500 factories located at rural crossroads where farmers would deliver their daily morning milk. Cheese production was 77,848,600 pounds. The top producing cheese state at the turn of the twentieth century was New York. Wisconsin had already passed Ohio (1880), and eventually surpassed New York by 1910, to become number one in cheese production in the USA.
In 1900 the foreign type cheese region (Swiss, Brick, and Limburger) was established in southwest Wisconsin and had over 300 factories dotting the countryside. In Green County (epicenter of the Foreign Type Cheese Region) this correlated to one cheese factory for every 2.8 square miles. Monroe, county seat of Green County, was the marketing center for the three Foreign-type cheeses and Plymouth in Sheboygan County was the marketing center for American cheese and Cheddar cheese varieties.
The number of cattle increased consistently from 1900 to 1950 where it reached 2.5 million. During that time the amount of milk produced per cow also increased to 5500 pounds per year or about 20% more than the national average. Cheese production rose to 148 million pounds in 1910, 363 million pounds in 1925 and 561 million pounds in 1950. The number of rural crossroads commercial cheese factories in Wisconsin peaked at 2807 in 1922. A steady decline in total number of cheese factories occurred over the next 80 years due to consolidation, elimination of marginal plants during the depression and World Wars, retooling of cheese plants to process condensed milk and butter for the Chicago/Milwaukee milk shed, and improved, more efficient technology, and ability to pick up and truck milk for longer distances.
In 1950 the foreign type cheese region (Green, Lafayette and Dane counties) produced 83% of the total Swiss in the state (53,260,050 pounds produced in Wisconsin). As stated earlier, this region had a higher concentration of farmstead cheese factories than any other region in the state of Wisconsin. Consolidation and significant expansion resulted in 87 factories in this region in 1950. Limburger Cheese was also produced in this region and today 100% of the United States production of this cheese comes from this region.
Midway through the twentieth century there were seven distinct regions of cheese production in Wisconsin including the Southwest Foreign type region mentioned above. Geographically speaking the specialized cheese producing regions formed a crescent in the state, with the horns in the Southwest and Northwest, and the body along the eastern lake shore. During this period cheese and cheesemaking became a major part of Wisconsin agriculture and Wisconsin cheesemakers began to take a leadership role in the future success of this industry in the world scene. Part of the energy which enabled Wisconsin’s cheese industry to maintain its focus from the very beginning was the continued influx of people immigrating to the United States from foreign lands. These men and women represented almost every country in Europe and they chose Wisconsin because of its place in the world of cheesemaking. They arrived with a strong work ethic, determination, treasured family secrets, and a desire to continue the tradition of making popular cheeses from the old country.
Wisconsin’s leadership in dairying and cheesemaking continued in the latter part of the twentieth century and into the 21st century. Improved breeding and livestock nutrition have resulted in large increases in the quality and quantity of the milk supply: approximately 11,000 dairy farms with 1.27 million cows each producing an average of 21,436 pounds of milk annually. Wisconsin cheesemakers use 90% of this milk supply to produce over 2.8 billion pounds of cheese at 126 plants.
Wisconsin has more skilled and licensed cheesemakers than any other state. To become a licensed modern day cheesemaker in Wisconsin, the prospective candidate must complete a course in dairy and food science and pass a comprehensive exam. Cheesemakers in training are also encouraged to work with an existing cheesemaker as an apprentice. Modeled after programs in Europe, Wisconsin is the only state to offer a cheesemaker the opportunity to become a Master Cheesemaker.
Wisconsin’s cheesemaking history spans over 180 years. It has become an integral part of the state’s economy and the rich heritage and time honored traditions have resulted in the development of over 600 varieties and types of high quality American, international style and Artisan cheeses that have won more awards than any other state or country. Currently Wisconsin produces over 25% of all domestic cheese in the United States and is poised to meet the present and future demands for quality and variety cheeses from Wisconsin where “Cheese is our Culture” in Americas Dairyland”.
In the summer of 1845 immigrants from the canton of Glarus in Switzerland came to Green County, Wisconsin and settled in the village of “New Glarus”. These settlers had little more than the shirts on their backs and a strong determination to carve out a life in the New World. Within a year or so the settlement boasted a small herd of dairy cattle that had been herded west from Ohio and women from local farms were producing cheese primarily from skim milk (cream was used to make butter) at home in farm kitchens. An inventory of livestock in New Glarus Township in 1846 included 18 cows, 15 heifers, and 3 calves. It was a humble beginning for cheesemaking in Green County but the period from 1845-1850 was one of rapid expansion and the stage was being set for a few enterprising individuals to put Green County on the Cheese map in a big way. In 1845 the population of Green County was 93 and by 1850 that number swelled to 1866. Today the Green County population is over 30,000. Because of the importance of the dairy industry in Green County the population of dairy animals on local farms was growing right along with the human population. Much of the early cheese made in cheese houses was called Schola Zieger or “Green Cheese”. These small firm cheese cakes were salted down and were primarily produced for home consumption.
There were four individuals who played a very important role in establishing the origin of the Foreign Type Cheese industry of Wisconsin. Nicklaus Gerber born in Canton Bern, Switzerland came to Green County, via New York and Ohio. He is credited with the establishment of the Farmer Factory system in Wisconsin where farmers would deliver their milk to a local cheese factory for purchase. His first factory was located southwest of New Glarus in a log house in 1868. Five farmers hauled milk to the factory to make limburger cheese. Later (1869) Gerber opened up Wisconsin’s first Swiss cheese factory in Washington Township. Over the next several years Mr. Gerber visited his factories on a white horse and buggy and was well liked by the farmers and cheese factory workers. He continued his role until 1893 when he moved to Laverne, Iowa to develop the cheese industry in that area. After several years in Iowa, Mr. Gerber moved back to Monroe and died in 1903 at the age of 67.
Several other cheese promoters from Canton Bern, Switzerland followed Nicolas Gerber in developing Green County’s Foreign Type cheese business. The cheese business experienced its greatest expansion in 1870-1919 with the leadership of these four gentlemen. Jacob Karlen was a stone mason and cheesemaker who came to Green County in 1872 via New York and Rock County, Wisconsin. He opened a cheese factory in Jefferson Township. After several years Mr. Karlen dominated the local Green County cheese factory scene as an owner, operator and cheese wholesaler. Karlen was a stern negotiator and was noted for his marketing connections which produced very large orders with wide distribution. He built cellars in Monroe to accumulate orders and take advantage of market fluctuations. Karlen was very successful; over the 30 years he spent in Green County, he owned, operated, and wholesaled the production of over 32 factories. He retired in Monroe in 1913 and died at age 80 in 1920.
John Boss came to Green County in 1874 via New York, New Jersey, and Watertown, Wisconsin. He was associated with Nicklaus Gerber but also represented other factories as a likable, shrewd wholesaler. His headquarters was located on the farm and he stayed there until he retired in Monroe in 1913.
Jacob Regez was a Berner but he spent time as a youth in Normandy and France. After a short stint in Iowa and Green County, Regez returned to Europe to work at a cheese factory owned by his father in France. To avoid the Franco Prussian War, he returned to Green County in 1875 full of youthful enthusiasm and opened a cheese factory in New Glarus. For him to expand his business he needed to concentrate on expanding the region of influence of cheesemaking as all the current factories were controlled by others. He did just that.
He organized factories to the west and north of Monroe as well as available areas in the little Richland Valley. He teamed up with his brothers: Ernest, Rudy, and Herman, to eventually own or control 35 cheese factories. After several years Jacob transferred his operation from a farm in Washington Township to Monroe where he continued his business activities until he retired in 1909 followed by his death in 1913.
Many other cheesemaking achievements were happening in Green County and Wisconsin during the period from 1870-1919. The railroad came to Monroe and other towns in Green County in 1857 and it played an important role in the cheese distribution from Green County. Growth of the industry required skilled cheesemakers, equipment, farmers with the appropriate livestock financial acumen and a market.
There was a continuous influx of motivated immigrants from Switzerland and the eastern states to provide the skilled personnel for both cheesemaking and farming. At the beginning farmland was relatively inexpensive. The majority of the cheesemaking equipment and supplies came by sailing ship from Switzerland. In 1873, Knute Olson of Monroe made the first local cheese vat, replacing cans, dishes and boilers. That same year Green County produced over 12 million pounds of cheese and was the leading cheese producer in the state. Financing was always available as long as the profits were predictable and the market continued to grow. The local dairy herds continued to grow and additional cattle came from the east. First National Bank president Arabut Ludlow accumulated 6-7 wagon loads of Limburger cheese at his bank on the square in Monroe. When customers complained about the aroma of limburger he told the crowd: “This is your future. If you don’t take advantage of it, you will regret it. …This smelly cheese came into Green County and will make our community famous.” Marketing was hard at first as it diluted the effort of the farmer/cheesemaker. With the advent of the cheese factory the marketing aspects were shifted to the buyer/producer. Gottlieb Beller was the first cheese dealer in Monroe and he was followed by many, most of whom had their headquarters in Monroe.
In 1877 Monroe was identified as the largest hog shipping point in the state. Local farmers would feed whey, a free or inexpensive cheesemaking byproduct, to their hogs. This improved local farm profits benefiting the local economy. The cheese industry continued to grow but overproduction in 1879 forced prices to drop dramatically.
With the price drop some factories could not make it and others were forced to consolidate and change the way business was done. One successful change was the farm/cheese factory co—op. The farmers collectively own the cheese factory and employ the cheesemaker who supplies the equipment and supplies. The cheese is sold and the cheesemaker earns a percentage and the farmer also earns a percentage based on his farms contribution of the quality and quantity of milk. Despite consolidation and poor prices in the 1880’s the Green County cheese industry continued to grow. By 1898 ten million pounds of cheese were produced in Green County.
By 1910 more consolidations and failures occurred, but there were still 222 factories in Green County (number one county in the state) and 195 more in the surrounding counties of Lafayette, Dane, Iowa and Grant. Another important factor at this time was the introduction of some national companies into the scene: Pet, Phenix, N Dorman Co., Armour, J. S. Hoffman Co., Kraft and Borden all had their footprint in Green County. The addition of condensaries in Brodhead, New Glarus, Browntown and Monroe as well as a large creamery in Twin Grove and a milk plant in Monroe diversified the dairy business in the area but diluted the milk supply which made less milk available for cheese factory expansion. Eventually all these non-cheese plants closed. To improve marketing exposure further consolidation occurred. The Badger Cheese Co., headquartered in Monroe, was a consolidation of seven companies and the sales office for Badger was in New York City.
The Golden Age of the crossroad and farmstead cheese factory was ending. At various times in the twentieth century the role of supply vs. demand became apparent, causing prices to dramatically fluctuate. In addition the U.S. economy went through a severe depression and two world wars. For survival cheese factories had to become more efficient and in order to accomplish this it was necessary for factories to concentrate their efforts. Larger, more efficient factories evolved by consolidation and new construction. Less skilled labor was needed as one skilled worker could handle multiple vats. As roads were improved, transportation to and from the factories became easier and faster. Milk routes could be made much farther from the factory.
Long term storage facilities were made away from the factory to enable the cheese factory to minimize overhead and allow the factory to concentrate on making cheese and maximizing the yield. Marketing and selling the cheese was in many cases done by cheese dealers. These dealers would develop the markets and coordinate the production and delivery of cheese from factories and/or storage facilities, owned by the cheese factories or others, to maximize profits. Instead of the cheese factory obtaining equipment and supplies solely from Europe, companies were locally created to supply the expanding cheese factory all the necessary consumables and equipment. Lastly, large U.S. firms and talented local entrepreneurs continued their interest in Monroe and Green County, introducing new technology to improve cheesemaking.
In the Golden Age and today cheesemakers exhibited great creativity and hard work. Their dedication and determination to succeed has earned them a significant place in U.S. cheesemaking history. On October 28, 1914, the first Cheese Days was held in Green County (Monroe) to honor cheesemakers and the rich industry making Monroe and Green County, Wisconsin famous. The festival included historical and cultural encounters as well as unique entertainment and fun instructional cheese and dairy experiences. In 1916 a ton of Swiss cheese was used for cheese sandwiches at this festival. Over the years Cheese Days has been a resounding success. By 1935 total attendance was recorded at 50,000. The 100th anniversary of Green County Cheese Days in Monroe hosted over 100,000 visitors.
By 1925 Green County had 63,418 cows, one cow to 5 ½ acres and three cows per person. Within a 40-mile radius of Monroe cheese factories produced 84% of the Swiss, 92% of the Limburger, and 10% of the Brick manufactured in the United States. Although area cheese factory totals were reduced from 152 in 1929, to 125 in 1938, 85 in 1948, 25 in 1976, and 16 at present, production and demand increased. This Foreign Type cheese scenario was similar in all of the cheese regions in Wisconsin.
The depression dramatically affected cheese prices. By 1934 Swiss cheese had already hit a low of 10-13 ½ cents per pound and Limburger at 9 cents per pound. That same year Swiss production in the Foreign Type cheese region was 23,200,000 pounds and Limburger production was 5,843,0000 pounds.
The cheese brokers helped expand the market for cheese throughout the United States. Their presence in Green County reached 18 registered by 1928 and 21 in 1948. In addition to continued expansion of the cheese business, other opportunities were created by research and development and technology improvements during the period of 1940-1965. Cryovac vacuum packaging introduced for cheese replaced waxing or other wrapping films. The first Haysen machine (automatic wrapping machine which allowed nitrogen gas flush to improve shelf life) was used in the industry. The rindless Swiss process developed by Kraft allowed Swiss to be made in blocks, and the production of processed cheese by Kraft and club cheese by Swiss Colony created a cheese market for cheese spreads and fully used trim caused by individual cheese wrapping. All of these discoveries and enhancements in technology enabled local factories to further process locally produced cheeses by cutting and wrapping them into consumer sized packages ready to be shipped to the market place. Although nontraditional at the time, these wrapping processes also benefited a local company, The Swiss Colony, to expand shipments of gift mail orders of cheese throughout the USA.
New, larger, and more efficient cheese factories came on the scene in the latter part of the twentieth century. In addition, other factories made investments to improve their operations. Unable to compete, some factories failed. And finally some factories concentrated on creating an extremely unique cheese that was not available elsewhere (artisan cheese).
In 1950 the Foreign Type cheese region, of which Green County is the core, produced 44,205,800 pounds of Swiss cheese and 3,479,000 pounds of Limburger cheese. Monroe was considered the marketing center for Foreign-type cheeses and was the center for quoting prices on Swiss, limburger, and brick cheese. Monroe was also known by the nation to be “The Swiss Cheese Capital of the USA.”
The Green County cheese factories and dairy plants exhibited great flexibility and innovation as the needs and desires of the later 20th century consumers changed and cheese factories were developed in the western part of the United States. In the last 30 years unique artisan style cheeses and dairy products have been in demand and Green County cheese factories have continued to consistently provide the hard work, leadership, quality, and superior product offerings that we have been known for over the past 180 years.
Today there are 16 cheese factories in Green County and the surrounding area, in addition to several conversion factories which cut and wrap. There are several factories that make cheese spreads. The owners and cheesemakers of all of these factories continue to provide the leadership, pride, hard work and innovation that have made the Green County area a premiere representative of the cheese industry in the USA. The cheese factories in the Green County area have won countless state, national and international awards on the unique quality products they produce. All their efforts have resulted in over 200 varieties and types of cheese and a combined total annual production of 200,000,000 pounds of cheese.
Cheese factories of the area have remained very flexible to respond to continuing changes in consumer demand. Swiss, Brick and Limburger cheese continue to be produced in the Green County area; however, other traditional and artisan cheeses now have an important role in the overall cheese offerings of the area. The dairy industry has been in the Green County area since 1830 and today and tomorrow it will continue to carve out its place in cheesemaking history. Through the National Historic Cheesemaking Center, the Green County area and Monroe are honored to represent the national cheese industry and preserve the memories of the early dairy industry and its very humble beginnings in the country.
At the National Historic Cheesemaking Center, the past comes alive as a testimony to….”an era that was …..that will never be again.”
Apps, Jerry, Casper Jaggi – Master Swiss Cheese Maker, Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2008.
Bingham, Helen M., History of Green County, Wisconsin, British Library Historical Print Editions, 1877.
Durand, Loyal, Jr. (University of Tennessee), The Cheese Manufacturing Regions of Wisconsin 1850-1950 , Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, Vol. 42, pp. 109-130.
Hamilton, D.C., The Story of Monroe. . . Its Past and Its Progress Towards the Present, The Print Shop, Monroe Public Schools, Monroe, Wisconsin, 1976.
Norton, James and Becca Dilley, The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin, 2009.
Odell, Emery A., Swiss Cheese Industry, Monroe Evening Times Company, Monroe, Wisconsin, 1936.
Tschudy, Kim Images of America, Green County, Acadia Publishing, Charleston, South Carolina, 2010.
Zwygart, Doran, Cheese Central USA, A Chronological History of the Cheese Industry in the Green County, Wisconsin area, Monroe Cultural Coalition, Monroe, Wisconsin, 2008.