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History of Cheese

old-time chesse making

Archaeologists tell us that as far back as 6000 BC cheese was made from cow and goat milk, and stored in tall jars. Egyptian tomb murals of 2000 BC show butter and cheese being made. The Romans turned cheesemaking into a fine art. The larger Roman houses had a separate cheese kitchen and special areas where cheese could be aged. In large towns, homemade cheese could be taken to a special center to be smoked.

As the Roman empire spread throughout Europe, so did their cheesemaking expertise. As dairy farming developed, cows’ milk became the standard raw material for cheesemaking. A hard-pressed cheese, relatively small in size, brine-salted, and waxed to reduce moisture losses in storage, proved both marketable and easy to distribute. France developed a wide range of cheeses from the rich agricultural areas in the south and west of that country. Monks in religious orders became the major cheesemakers during the Middle Ages. We owe many of the classic varieties available today to their creativity and expertise. During the Renaissance, cheese decreased in popularity but regained favor by the nineteenth century.

When European immigrants came to Wisconsin, so did dairy farming and cheesemaking. In 1841, Mrs. Anne Pickett made cheesemaking history when she established Wisconsin's first cottage industry cheese factory using milk from neighbors' cows.

Hiram Smith founded Wisconsin’s first full-scale cheese factory in 1859. He purchased milk from other dairy farmers or processed it for a percentage of the finished cheese.

People laughed at Chester Hazen when he built the first large factory in Ladoga, Wisconsin, in 1864. After just one year of operation, however, he was processing the milk from more than 300 cows. His success heralded the rapid growth of the cheese industry in Wisconsin.

In 1890, Stephen Babcock of the University of Wisconsin developed the milk fat test that allowed dairymen to determine which cows produced the richest milk, the best for cheesemaking. This test is still used today.

In 1904, local dairy farmers launched their own cooperative cheese factory in Zittau, near Fremont. Henry Metzig bought out the other dairy farmers in 1911 and formed Union Star. Wisconsin became the first state to grade its cheese for quality in 1921. This leadership role in quality assurance combined with our central location for distribution helped Wisconsin become the nation’s cheese state. By 1922, more than 2,800 cheese factories were in operation throughout the state.

More than 1,500 cheese factories in Wisconsin produced about 515 million pounds of cheese a year by 1945. Today, approximately 15,000 dairy farms, with over 1.2 million cows each produce an average of 18,500 pounds of milk per year. Cheesemakers use approximately 90 percent of this milk to produce cheese at 115 plants.

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