Millions of years ago, glaciers receded from Wisconsin and left behind a lush, green pastureland. The glaciers probably didn’t know it, but their departure set the stage for Wisconsin to claim the mantle of cheesemaking mastery. Wisconsin Cheese has a legendary reputation around the world, but just how did Wisconsin actually become America’s Dairyland and how did fromage become our forte? Today we’re going to take a look at five people in Wisconsin history who pushed the envelope and helped to build Wisconsin’s cheese making heritage.
1. Anne Pickett – 1841, Jefferson County
Seven years before Wisconsin earned its statehood and just as the would-be state was experiencing an influx of immigrants, Ms. Anne Pickett opened the first cottage industry cheese factory operation in America by renting her neighbor's cows. While cheesemaking had been done prior, Ms. Pickett’s operation was the first to sell its cheese statewide. Nothing was cheddar than that.
2. John J. Smith – 1858, Sheboygan County
Over the following 17 years, little cheesemaking operations sprouted on street corners and in strip malls (if there had been strip malls) all over the state. One such fromagerie was owned by John Smith, who bought Wisconsin’s first industrial scale cheese vat. Smith was also the first to sell his cheese beyond Wisconsin’s borders. To be certain, it was nothing to cheese at.
3. Hiram Smith – 1859, Sheboygan County
John’s method was deemed unsatisfactory by critics and he abandoned the business after a year. His brother Hiram picked up where he left off, opening the first full-scale cheese factory operation. Hiram purchased milk from farmers in exchange for a percentage of the cheese rendered. Gouda job, Hiram Smith. You done gouda.
4. Chester Hazen – 1864, Ladoga
Perhaps no one pioneered cheese in Wisconsin quite like Chester Hazen, who built the first cheese factory that was unattached to a farm. Critics called it “Hazen’s Folly,” lampooning its plan to make cheese from milk of several different herds. One year later, Hazen proved them wrong and was churning out curds from over 300 cows.
By 1875, Sheboygan County alone had 45 cheese factories producing over two million pounds of cheese. By the turn of the century, this rose to over a hundred factories making over 8 million pounds. Wisconsin’s cheese supremacy had begun in earnest. It was the curd heard 'round the world.
5. Stephen Babcock – 1890, Madison
Stephen Babcock — a University of Wisconsin professor — developed the first milkfat test. This helped dairy farmers determine which cows were making the best milk for cheese, and the test is still in use to this day. He is also the namesake of my favorite ice cream shop in Madison. Since then, our state's cheese scene has been feta than ever.