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Copper Swiss Cheese Kettle | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Copper Swiss Cheese Kettle

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Copper Swiss Cheese Kettle | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeCopper cheese kettle

Copper cheese kettle, c. 1910 - 1969

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #2004.64.1

EnlargeErnest Hilfiker in the "making room"

Ernest Hilfiker in the "making room", c. 1950

Ernest Hilfiker with copper kettles in the “making room” of the Tuscobia Cheese Factory, c. 1950. Source: Image courtesy of Mary Hilfiker

EnlargeCurd scoop

Curd scoop used at the Tuscobia Cheese Factory, c. 1945-1969

Curd scoop used at the Tuscobia Cheese Factory, c. 1945-1969. Hilfiker family members used this scoop to turn the curds in the kettle before they were heated. A similar scoop, if not this very one, hangs on the edge of the front kettle in the image above. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #2004.82.4

EnlargeTuscobia painting

Making room - Tuscobia, 1973

Painting of the Tuscobia Cheese Factory by Mae Powers, 1973. This shows the factory as it appeared in the early 1960s. The “making room” (seen in a photo above) was on the lower level at back. The Hilfiker family lived in the upper level at the front. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #2004.82.4

Copper kettle used to make Swiss cheese at the Tuscobia Cheese Factory near Rice Lake, Wisconsin, c. 1910 to 1969.
(Museum object #2004.64.1)

Swiss cheese was traditionally made in round, copper kettles because the metal heats quickly and uniformly. This kettle is made of copper sheets riveted together and attached to a steel rim. It rests on an enclosed steel stand into which the cheese maker piped steam to heat the milk for cheese making. This kettle is slightly over five feet in diameter and held about 2500 pounds of milk, or enough to make one 200-pound wheel of Swiss cheese. (A 200-pound wheel of cheese would measure roughly three feet in diameter and six inches thick). It was made by an unknown manufacturer in the first decade of the twentieth century and used for decades in the Tuscobia Cheese Factory near Rice Lake, Wisconsin.

When this kettle was made, almost every crossroads town in Wisconsin's dairy regions featured its own cheese factory. Local cheese factories and creameries were an essential component of the dairy farm economy in the early twentieth century. Before the development of good roads and refrigerated trucks, getting a perishable commodity like milk to market was difficult. Milk that could not be consumed locally was turned into cheese or butter, which could be preserved and shipped more easily.

By 1900, Wisconsin's growing dairy economy had gotten a foothold in the two tiers of counties of northwestern Wisconsin opposite Minneapolis, including Barron County. Although the factory where this kettle was used may have been built as early as 1902, "Tuscobia Cheese Factory" as a business name first appears in a 1913 report from the Wisconsin Dairy and Food Commissioner. The Tuscobia factory - named for a lake several miles north of the town of Rice Lake - changed hands several times before Ernest and Hulda Hilfiker bought it during World War II.

Ernest Albert Hilfiker (1905-1993) was born in Boswil, Switzerland near Zurich, and apprenticed as a cheese maker to his brother at age 15. He immigrated to the United States in 1924, and worked at cheese factories in several states before settling in Monroe, Wisconsin. In 1937, Hilfiker married Hulda Roelli (1914-1993) of Darlington, Wisconsin, whose family was also Swiss and cheese makers. Ernest worked for several different cheese cooperatives in Monroe, but always dreamed of being his own boss. That opportunity came in 1942, when he and Hulda bought the Tuscobia factory.

According to family tradition, Ernest and Hulda added three additional kettles after buying the factory, bringing them from Ohio to Rice Lake by train. This kettle is unmarked, which probably means it was one of the factory's original kettles, dating from about 1910. (Other kettles from the Tuscobia factory are marked "D. Picking and Co., Bucyrus, Ohio.")

Swiss and other "foreign type" cheeses like Limburger, got their Wisconsin start in Green County, where an immigrant population created a local demand for them. As Wisconsin's cheese industry grew to supply a national market, production of these "ethnic" cheeses spread throughout the state. First licensed for Brick and Limburger manufacture, by 1920 the Tuscobia factory was making Swiss cheese as well.

Because of the complicated fermentation process that produces the cheese's characteristic holes or "eyes," Swiss - called Emmental in its home country - is considered a very difficult cheese to make. Three bacterial cultures are added to milk to begin. Rennet (a dried extract made from a cow's stomach lining) is added to the milk to produce curds, which are cut into small pieces with a curd cutter or "Swiss harp," then turned with a scoop and cooked, stirring, for one to two hours. The cheese maker then lifts the curds from the kettle, draining off the whey, and places them in a hoop for pressing. Once they have been pressed into a wheel, the curds are soaked in salt brine for several days to develop a rind, and are then placed in a warm cellar for three weeks to develop the eyes. Finally, the cheese is stored in cold cellars for at least three months of aging to develop its flavor.

Ernest and Hulda were happy to continue their families' ethnic cheese making traditions, but they also made a variety of other cheeses to meet market demand. Originally a supplier to the Kraft Foods Co., the Hilfikers opened a retail store at the Tuscobia factory in the late 1950s, which took advantage of a brisk tourist trade in Wisconsin's north woods. The Hilfikers stopped manufacturing cheese at the Tuscobia factory in 1969, but continued to operate the site as a retail cheese store until 1984.

Cheese making was always a family operation for Ernest and Hulda; each of their five children worked in the factory while growing up. Although none of the family followed their parents into cheese making, the Hilfiker children all recall the factory warmly. According to daughter Mary Hilfiker, who donated the kettle, "My dad came here with $14. He and my mom . . . fulfilled every dream they ever had. That little cheese factory gave them everything. They put five kids through college." This kettle helped the Hilfikers achieve a classic immigrant success story.

[Sources: Lamphard, Eric E. The Rise of the Dairy Industry in Wisconsin: A Study in Agricultural Change, 1820-1920 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1963); Frandsen, J.H., ed. Dairy Handbook and Dictionary (State College, PA: Nittany Printing and Publishing Co., 1958); Wisconsin cheese factories, creameries and condenseries by counties: and dairy statistics (Madison: Dairy and Food Commissioner, 1913].


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Posted on June 22, 2006