Seventy years ago, a Wisconsin cheese factory wasn't just a cheese factory. It was a destination, the crossroads center of a community. Farmers waiting in line with their wagons and horses to unload their can of milk passed the time by catching up on neighborhood news. Younger farmers helped older farmers unload the heavy milk cans and cheesemakers used their noses to determine the quality of milk.
Cheesemaking was a lot less technical back then, too. Everybody made cheddar, and cheesemakers would use a hot iron to determine when their curd was ready to mill - in fact, the curd had to string out a certain distance before the cheesemaker knew it was ready for the next step.
How do I know this? I discovered an amazing website today: In our Own Voices, courtesy of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, who is working with Ed Janus, a freelance radio journalist (pictured above).
Ed's been busy traversing the Wisconsin countryside, interviewing young and not-so-young Wisconsin cheesemakers, as well as dairy farmers such as Dan and Shelly Truttman, grass farmers working with Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman to make their own artisan and specialty cheeses out of their grass-based milk.
I gleaned the opening statements of this post from an audio interview with Sam Cook, 92, retired cheesemaker and father of Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook, of Carr Valley Cheese fame. Of the eight audio features on the website, the interview with Sam Cook is my favorite. The man knows how to tell a good story.
Another favorite audio piece is with Master Cheesemaker Jeff Wideman at the iconic crossroad cheese factory in Green County: Maple Leaf Cheese Cooperative. Although Maple Leaf typically lists its address as Monroe, it is actually in the "thriving metropolis" of Twin Grove -- home to a tavern, lumberyard, cheese plant and 14 houses.
"If there are two cars at the stop sign in the morning, that's a pretty busy morning," Jeff says in the audio piece.
Jeff is man "with milk on his shoes" (listen to the audio to get the full meaning of this statement) who states matter-of-factly: "Cheesemaking isn't a job, it's a way of life." It's been a way of life for Jeff's family for generations, as his dairy farmer father, grandfather and great grandparents were all patrons of the Maple Leaf Cheese Cooperative.
Accompanying each audio feature is a series of photos that you're welcome to click on at your own pace. It's a wonderful package and great way to learn more about the old and new of Wisconsin's cheese history.