Research Thoughts

In the Beginning…The Fassbenders, the Cheese, and Wisconsin

Cheesemaking at the end of the 19th Century was very different from what we know today. Wisconsin cheese factories did not operate year round; they closed in December and didn’t open again until April. It wasn’t until farmers were introduced to silage, and began housing their herds in barns during the winter months, that they started to milk year round.Cows

As the number of cheese plants and creameries grew within the state, the need for regulation became apparent. To serve this need, the Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association was formed in 1872 to aid in the improvement of dairy products, and to promote safe lines of the dairy industry.1  By 1876 the Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association listed five dairies in Outagamie County, and by 1891 there were six creameries and 63 cheese factories listed in Outagamie County alone.2  As the number of factories in the state grew, it became apparent that if the owners wanted any control over the manufacture and marketing of a “prime product” they would be required to form an association apart from the Dairymen’s Association, and so they formed the Wisconsin Cheese Maker’s Association, which was formally incorporated in 1899. Although many of the cheesemakers were members of the Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association, they felt that “the special problems cheese makers faced required a separate association.”3  This new organization was formed to educate the farmers in the “improved techniques of milk handling and, more generally, in the ways of business society.”4  They encouraged members of the Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association to meet the following criteria to join: “Any person who is a practical cheese maker, and such other persons as are directly or indirectly interested in the manufacture and sale of unadulterated cheese may become members of the corporation by paying one dollar annually in advance of signing the roll of membership.” ((Apps, Cheese, 96))

The Association ensured a quality cheese product, but much work was now needed to educate the farmer in how to deliver clean milk, as “farmers were reluctant to adopt procedures ‘dictated’ by factory men.” Farmers were paid for their milk by weight, the richer the milk, the more it would weigh. In order to increase weight, some farmers were adding water to their milk, or mixing the milk of the more productive Holstein cows with the richer milk of the Jersey or Guernsey cow to create a heavier load. This created such inconsistencies in the quality of the milk brought to the factories that in some counties “the cheese makers were obliged to set up ‘protective associations’ in order to compel the adoption of the Babcock test as the official basis for milk payments. ((Lampard, The Rise of the Dairy Industry in Wisconsin, 253))

The Babcock Test, developed in 1890 by a professor at the University of Wisconsin named Stephen M. Babcock, allowed cheese makers to easily and inexpensively determine the amount of butterfat in their milk. His invention, which he never patented, ensured that farmers were paid fairly for the milk they were selling, and that dairies were able to manufacture and market the “prime product” they desired.

The need for a protective union was soon seen in Outagamie County, and so on December 27, 1894, a protective association which they called the Cheese Makers’ Protective Union was organized with G. Lightheart, president; J. L. Murphy, secretary, and P. Fassbender, treasurer. The object of the union was to “protect cheese makers against cutting of prices; to prevent the violation of contracts, and to fight filled cheese.” The association was to “remedy the abuses in the way of contract breaking, unfair competition and dishonest cheese-making which have begun to be felt in the trade here.” ((Appleton Weekly Post, Appleton, Wisconsin, “Cheese Makers Organize,” 2 December 1894, front page)) ((Ryan, History of Outagamie County, 458)) Filled cheese was cheese that was made from skim milk, and then had lard or stale butter added to make up for the lack of butterfat. Filled cheese when fresh was hard to distinguish from whole-milk cheese, but aged poorly, losing its flavor with time.

During the years 1894-1895 the Cheese Makers’ and Dairymen’s associations were “absorbed” in the lobbying for the anti-filled cheese bills at both the state and federal level. In 1895 the “Wisconsin legislature outlawed the manufacture and sale of cheese from skimmed milk.” The following year in 1896, a federal statute was adopted taxing and branding all filled cheese. ((Lampard, The Rise of the Dairy Industry in Wisconsin, 253)) One of the men who proposed this bill to fight filled cheese was Samuel Andrew (S.A.) Cook a U.S. Representative from Neenah, Winnebago County, Wisconsin, and the bill that he introduced “became a law by his efforts against great opposition.” ((Richard J. Harney, History of Winnebago County, Wisconsin, and Early History of the Northwest, (Oshkosh, Wisconsin: Allen & Hicks, 1880), 914))

With the regulations provided by the protective associations insuring a quality product, and farmers now milking year round, the cheese industry in Wisconsin was growing. Production reached 60 million pounds in 1900 and by 1915 the state was producing nearly 235 pounds annually. How did this compare to the rest of the country? in 1899, Wisconsin produced 26.6% of the nation’s cheese, in 1909 it was 46.6%, and by 1919 the state was producing 63.1%. Wisconsin cheese production was so high that it overtook New York as the leading cheese producing state in 1910. ((Apps, Cheese, 31))

Over the next 60 years technology would dramatically change the way that cheese was produced. In 1913 pasteurization of milk began on a commercial basis, by 1916 all Wisconsin cheesemakers were required to have a cheesemaker’s license, and in 1921 Wisconsin became the first state to institute mandatory grading for all major cheese varieties. Rural America was rapidly changing as trucks and cars replaced horses, tractors began pulling plows, and most importantly, electricity became available to provide light, power equipment, and to run refrigeration. All of this new technology made life easier, yet it was to change the way cheese was manufactured to such a degree that it was to affect the life and the business practices of both the cheesemaker and the farmer.

SOURCES:

  1. Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association, Wisconsin Historical Society, (www.wisconsinhistory.org: accessed 26 Mar 2014).
  2. Gordon A. Bubolz, Managing Editor, Land of the Fox: Saga of Outagamie County, (Appleton, Wisconsin: Outagamie County State Centennial Committee, Inc., 1949), 132-134.
  3. Jerry Apps, Cheese: The Making of a Wisconsin Tradition, (Amherst, Wisconsin: Amherst Press, 1998), 31.
  4.  Eric E. Lampard, The Rise of the Diary Industry in Wisconsin: A Study in Agricultural Change, 1820-1920, (Madison, Wisconsin, The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1963), 253.
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