cheesemaking in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Cheesemaking in Wisconsin

cheesemaking in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
Dictionary of Wisconsin History.


Most of the earliest commercial dairy operations in Wisconsin made cheese because it kept longer than milk or butter at a time when storage and transportation was limited. Charles Rockwell was among the state's earliest cheesemakers, beginning production at Koshkonong near Fort Atkinson in 1837. Using milk from neighbors' cows, Anne Pickett established a cheese factory in Lake Mills in 1841. As farmers began paying more attention to improving the quality of their herds in the 1840s, cheesemakers also began paying more attention to improvements in the manufacture of cheese and butter. At the time, it was recognized that there were almost as many ways to make cheese as there were producers, resulting inconsistent taste and quality.

In the 1850s, experts began to educate farmers on the importance of temperature and the value of proper storage but the limited level of demand locally made many farmers skeptical of the value of specialized dairy.  Interest in developing the dairy industry at the time rose and fell with the decline and rise of the wheat market: as the wheat market lagged, more and more dairy farmers appeared.  Most cheese was still made on individual farms though J.I. Smith of Sheboygan County was an early exception. Smith obtained the state's first cheese vat in 1858 and became the first cheesemaker to market outside the state, shipping barrels of cheese to Chicago. Wisconsin dairying experienced a revolution of industrial development between 1860 and 1890, moving out of the farmstead and into the factory, due to the increased demand for dairy products and the move from wheat to dairy. 

Factory organization of cheesemaking grew out of the conscious effort to improve the production of cheese. Almost all of these early factory men were New Yorkers who brought their talents with them to Wisconsin.  Chester Hazen opened what was probably the first true cheesey factory in Fond du Lac County in 1864. By the end of the Civil War, there were 30 cheese factories in Wisconsin; by 1870, the number had grown to 54. Cheese manufacturing was concentrated in three counties by the 1880s: Sheboygan, Green, and Jefferson. Much of Sheboygan County's cheese was exported to England and New York. Factory-made cheese brought a higher price because of its more uniform quality. The invention of Babcock's butterfat test in 1890 also helped to insure the quality of the milk, though the export trade had largely ended due to the tarnished reputation that had resulted from adulterated cheese.  Leaders in the cheese industry began organizing into professional organizations to promote their product in the 1870s, the most famous of which was the Wisconsin Dairyman's Association.

Wisconsin's immigrant population brought their cheesemaking traditions with them. Swiss cheese was among the first Old-World cheeses produced in Wisconsin, originating with the state's Swiss immigrants. Italians brought mozzarella, provolone, and gorgonzola. The French brought Camembert, Brie, and a variety of blue cheeses. The Germans brought Muenster and Limburger and the English brought Cheddar. Dutch immigrants brought Gouda and Edam. Wisconsin cheesemakers also developed original cheeses like Brick and Colby. By the 1920s, over 2,800 cheese factories existed in the state. Wisconsin also became the first state to grade its cheese for quality in 1921.

Wisconsin's Cultural Resources Study Units, Wisconsin Historical Society

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