Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Wisconsin Legend: Dave Small

Carr Valley Cheesemaker Dave Small is a Wisconsin industry legend whom you most likely have never heard of. And, as a matter of fact, that's been just fine with Dave. I have no doubt that if he would have had his way, he would have probably preferred to remain completely anonymous until the day he retired (if that day ever actually arrives, that is).

You see, Dave has spent the past 50 years making cheese for the same company at the same cheese plant in tiny LaValle, Wis. And for a cheese geek like me, that's just too good of story to pass up. So when I found out that Dave was being honored at a dinner last Saturday night at the infamous Jimmy's Del-Bar in Wisconsin Dells, I jumped at the chance to go. For two hours, I got a glimpse of what it was like to work with Dave for 50 years, as 30 of his closest friends, co-workers and family members gathered to celebrate a big-hearted guy named Dave Small.

Dave's boss, Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook, his fiancee, Lisa, and senior administrator Patty Koenig, hosted one of the nicest dinners I've ever seen in the private Garden Room, and presented Dave with a one-of-a-kind crystal cheese trophy, thanking him for his 50 years of dedication. After talking with Dave and his co-workers, one begins to wonder if, in another 50 years, Sid will be handing Dave another trophy.

At age 69, Small - like most cheesemakers who work in a cheese sauna for 12 hours a day, does not look anywhere near his age - started working for the Mueller Brothers (what Carr Valley was called before Sid Cook bought it in 1986) as a 19-year-old back in 1960. (Former owners Don and Bernice Mueller were at Saturday night's dinner and looked to being enjoying themselves). I asked Dave, if at age 19, he ever thought he'd be working for the same place for five decades. He gave me a perplexed look and said, "I guess I've always enjoyed it, so I stayed. When you work with good people, you don't look for another job."

Actually, it turns out that both the Mueller Brothers and Sid Cook must be amazing people to work for, as nearly everyone in the room Saturday night had worked for them for decades. After making polite conversation with the man sitting across from me, I learned Mr. Louis Nachreiner had been working for the LaValle plant for 53 years -- yes, 53 years -- as the dairy field rep. He had actually started as the dairy field rep for the Sauk Milk Improvement Cooperative back in 1957, when there were 11 cheese plants in the Sauk County area. Today, only three remain - Carr Valley, Cedar Grove, and Mill Creek - and Louis still services them all.

And, while many of the people in the room were close to retirement, one guy caught my attention, as he had to be at least 30 years younger than most of the others sitting around me. I asked him his name and found out that at age 22, Mr. Bob Koenig, had already been working for Carr Vally for nine years (yeah, I know, do the math).

Bob helped out at the cheese plant after school for a few years, and then earned his cheesemaker's license at age 16 under Dave Small. He's been making cheese for Carr Valley ever since. Turns out Dave's trained quite a few cheesemakers over the years, and still works 12 hour days fairly often. Sid says it's hard to get him to go home, as Dave lives in a house literally 100 feet from the plant.

"He's a hard worker, a dedicated cheesemaker and a good friend," Sid said about Dave on Saturday. "He's one-of-a-kind and I'm lucky to have him." And from the sounds of it, Dave will be making cheese for a few more years. He has no plans to retire.

No comments: