In the early 1900s, almost all Wisconsin dairy farmers sold their milk to local cheese factories. The introduction of the “Babcock Test” – a method for determining the butterfat content of milk – led to scaled pricing of milk based on fat content. Simply put, cheese factories were only willing to pay top dollar for milk with high-fat content. Thirteen farmers including our Great Grand Uncle, Henry Metzig, were upset that their milk was considered “low fat,” and responded by starting their own cheese factory as a co-op in Zittau, Wisconsin.
In 1911, Henry bought out the others and formed Union Star. To close that deal, however, Henry had to make a major commitment – agree to work on Sunday. Since the co-op had always been closed on Sunday, the local farmers’ wives had been left to deal with that day’s milk production themselves. This was no small task because Sundays were focused on preparing the family dinner and going to church. In the end, Henry agreed that it was better for one cheesemaker to go to Hell than all the farmers’ wives.
Back in those days, there were more than 2,800 small cheese factories scattered across Wisconsin. Today, there are only a handful of these factories still in operation. Our family’s continued success is due, in part, to the cheesemaking’s own version of women’s liberation.
Henry’s daughter, Edna, was one of the first women to become a licensed cheesemaker and work in a factory setting. It was no surprise that soon after marrying local cheesemaker Eugene Lehman, they were running the Union Star factory. What did surprise the neighbors, however, was when they opened a small retail storefront. Cheesemakers back then were not known for dealing well with customers.
My wife, Jan, and I bought Union Star from Great Aunt Edna in 1980. I had a degree in accounting and, just like my Great Grand Uncle, wanted to run my own business. The family tradition of independent cheesemaking carried the day and we’ve been here ever since. Today, our son is also part of the Union Star story.
Over the years, we’ve added new cheeses to our line and obtained new equipment. Our dedication to quality, however, has remained the same. We still purchase top-quality milk from local dairy farms and turn it into premium cheeses.
If you’d like to taste some of the finest Wisconsin cheeses, see a real cheese factory in operation, or learn more about how cheese is made, come on in and see us.