A story published in today's The Capital Times (view it here - credit to John Oncken for photo at right) about Silver Lewis Cheese Co-op in Green County, Wisconsin, brought back good memories of the first time I walked into the 109-year-old cheese plant.
It was the summer of 2004 and the plant was for sale. Owner and longtime cheesemaker Bob Gmur was looking to retire after a long and succesful career in the business and a colleague and I were trying to help him find a new owner.
No one wants to see a Wisconsin cheese plant close, no matter how big or small, and this one was tiny. But it was and remains part of the heart of the Monticello dairying community, with 12 area dairy farmers depending on it to purchase their milk at a premium for making cheese.
When you walk into the Silver Lewis plant, you know right away the place has soul. It's old - and I mean old as in ancient. Built in 1897, the last major remodel was finished in 1948. The "retail store" consists of a counter directly outside the make room. You can view cheese being made, packaged and ready to ship without moving a step.
Turns out someone else not only felt the plant's soul, but is adding their own story to its history. Josh & Carla Erickson successfully purchased Silver Lewis in August 2004 and are now making 40 vats of farmer's, brick and muenster cheese a week (up from 14 vats when they bought it).
The Ericksons have developed a loyal following, too - while much of their cheese ends up on the East Coast and Texas, I'd say a fair share of it gets eaten locally. Just try finding a better "day-old Brick" - a mainstay at area church dinners, weddings, funerals, family holiday gatherings, and yes, my fridge.
Keeping with the soul of the place, the Ericksons are not only crafting Old World cheese, they sell it that way too: by word of mouth. As John Oncken writes in today's story: "The Ericksons don't produce a holiday catalog. They don't have a website. Yet they get calls from cheese lovers across the country. They can be contacted at 608-938-4813."