Cheese: A State Tradition

how cheese came to play the role it does in Wisconsin

Marni Kaldjian

Wisconsin, as any native knows, is rife with distinguishing factors. Namely the Packers, beer, brats, and most of all, cheese. In fact, cheese is so prevalant that people wear Cheeseheads to the Packer games, make beer-cheese soup, and eat cheese-filled brats. You don’t need to be told, you see it every day. But do you know how it all began?

Long, long ago, at the beginning of time (really the last Ice Age), glaciers cut through modern day Wisconsin. When they receded, they had created a countryside of luscious pastureland and rolling hills. Some time later (a few million years), as Western Europeans began to immigrate to the Americas, the Wisconsin territory reminded many immigrants of their homelands. These famers began by growing wheat and other grains, but quickly realized that dairy farming produced high-quality milk in great abundance.

Initially, commercial production of cheese in Wisconsin started out slowly. Cheese was usually made because it was difficult to preserve extra milk, and was then eaten at a purely subsistance level. The first small factory (aka cottage factory) was established by Anne Pickett in 1841, and during the 1840s farmers began to pay more attention to the manufacturing of cheese. Around this time, Wisconsin’s wheat market began to lag, encouraging more farmers to pick up dairy farming instead. (We have Iowa and Kansas to thank for that. Their wheat market was booming.) In 1858, John J Smith instituted the marketing of cheese outside of Wisconsin. Known as a cheese hot spot, immigrants began to bring their own artisan cheese traditions to Wisconsin, furthering the cheese culture and industry success. Swiss, Mozzarella, Brie, Muenster, Cheddar, Edam and more were brought from Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany, England and Holland. Wisconsin cheesemakers also developed original cheeses like Brick and Colby.

Between 1860 and 1890, Wisconsin cheesemaking experienced the industrial revolution, with cheesemaking moving from the farm to the factory. By the end of the Civil War, there were 30 factories.

By 1874 there were 54. Factory made cheese created higher quality, uniform cheese, resulting in the raking in of more dough for Wisconsin. This was now an agricultural industry the state’s economy depended on, and such an important industry called for continuity and quality control. In 1886, the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture offered courses for cheesemakers and dairy farmers. Professional organizations began to form, and the Wisconsin Dairyman’s Association began to lobby for rights, securing a 60 percent reduction in freight rates. This contributed to the efficient and cheap marketing of cheese to other states. By the 1920s, over 2,800 factories existed. In 1921, Wisconsin became the first state to grade its cheese for quality. This step ensured that Wisconsin would have a central role in the cheese industry’s parameters, variety, and location. By 1945, Wisconsin cheese factories were producing about 515 million pounds of cheese per year.

Nowadays, certified craftsmen produce over 2.6 billion pounds of cheese a year, which is over 25% of all cheese produced in America, and over 6% of the world’s cheese.

So really, what we should thank for our domination of cheese culture comes down to an Ice Age, some homesick immigrants, and Iowans’ and Kansans’ mid-19th century success with wheat.