Thursday, June 26, 2014

Got Cheese History? 100 Cheese Factories Now Documented

Newcomer cheesemaker Anna Landmark shares cheese with veteran
cheesemaker Willi Lehner, whose father emigrated from Switzerland
and managed Rysers Cheese Factory in Mt. Horeb for 21 years.

More than 100 cheese factories in southwestern Dane County are now mapped and remembered with extensive information and photos online, thanks to the Mount Horeb Area Historical Society.

The Society unveiled the new cheese factory website on Sunday in downtown Mt. Horeb on the site of the former Henze cheese warehouse, now Zalucha Studios. Next door is the former Rysers Cheese Factory, today home to the Grumpy Troll Brew Pub, where Bleu Mont cheesemaker Willi Lehner's father - also Willi Lehner - was the managing cheesemaker for 21 years. It seems downtown Mt. Horeb, similar to much of rural Wisconsin, was once a cheese mecca.

The website is extensive, noting the years each factory operated, the types of cheese crafted, each cheesemaker's name and the years they made cheese at the facility, as well as extensive notes on what was happening throughout the years at each location. It's a literal treasure trove of cheese history.

So what makes someone want to create a website detailing all the cheese factories that were once in their area? Well, sometimes to understand the present, it's helpful to understand the past. So this past winter, Society volunteers created database inventories of the area’s schools, cheese factories, churches and cemeteries.

“We found a map where it was just black with dots,” archivist Shan Thomas said of an early 20th century map that located factories in the areas surrounding Mount Horeb. “They were everywhere.”

The web resource actually began with the Society mapping schools in the area. Volunteers identified 52 - yes, 52 - schools in the area that now makes up just the Mount Horeb Area School District. Amazingly enough, 40 of them still stand, and were photographed for the project.

The Society’s schoolhouse project was the subject of an article in the Wisconsin State Journal last year, and the article piqued the interest of Doug Norgord,  a Mount Horeb resident who owns a mapping solutions company. Norgord contacted the Society and offered his services for free.  Through the technology of his company, Geographic Techniques LLC, the project took on further life.

Norgord was part of a perfect storm of people, all Mount Horeb area residents, qualified to pull off this project: Thomas, a former archivist at Luther College; former Mount Horeb school administrator and principal John Pare; computer programmer Merel Black; and Brynn Bruijn, an international photographer whose work has appeared in books and in magazines such as National Geographic and Town and Country. The volunteers also worked with the Mount Horeb Landmarks Foundation and the historical societies of Blue Mounds and Perry township.

Pare and Bruijn scouted the countryside for former schools and sought permission from homeowners who now live on those properties to photograph and document the properties. Once the volunteers got going, they saw a pattern – clustered with the schools were cheese factories, churches and cemeteries. Ask anyone who has grown up in a small town in Wisconsin, and they'll tell you the most prominent features are the school, the bar, the cemetary, and the old cheese factory on the edge of town now turned into a house. In fact, most former cheese and butter making facilities have today become private residences and are easy to spot because of their elongated style of architecture.

“What we notice is that these little areas were communities,” Black said. “They rode on horseback, they’d drop the milk off and drop the kids off at school.”

Cheese makers at the Mount Horeb Creamery and Cheese Company, taken
on Sept. 15, 1939. The creamery building now houses the Grumpy Troll Brew
Pub. Photo courtesy of the Mt. Horeb Historical Society.
On hand Sunday to celebrate the revival of cheese factory history were several area cheesemakers, including Willi Lehner, who said he often helped his dad clean at the Rysers Cheese Factory in downtown Mt. Horeb. "My dad would often remind me that for the first two years of his apprenticeship in Switzerland, all he did was clean. He didn't get to actually make cheese until year three."

Also in the crowd was southwestern Wisconsin native Diana Kalscheur Murphy of Dreamfarm, who now makes amazing goat's milk cheeses on her farm near Cross Plains, Anna Landmark of Landmark Creamery in Albany, who is making sheep, cow and mixed milk cheeses at both Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain and Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee, and Tony Hook of Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point, home to world champion cheeses including an array of aged cheddars and blues. In fact, Hook’s brother, Jerry, and sister, Julie, both cheesemakers at Hook’s, are actually alumni of Mount Horeb High School and Jerry still lives in Mount Horeb. Yes, it is a small world.

Each of the cheesemakers spoke for a few minutes, talking about their operations and remembering their family histories. A crowd of about 75 people noshed on local cheese and drank local beer, reminiscing of all cheesy things past and present.

One cheese not represented at the gathering was the stinky granddaddy of them all. The crowd got a chuckle when one attendee asked Tony Hook his favorite cheese. "The answer might surprise you," Hook said. "It's Limburger, made today at only one plant in the nation - Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Monroe." Just goes to show you that no matter how many things change, one of the oldest cheeses in Wisconsin is still front and center.

1 comment:

Jeff @ Cheese-burger.net said...

Wow! Those are a lot of cheese factories in one place. And with such history and pride in cheese making.