Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Historic Cooksville Cheese Factory by Larry Reed

The prize-winning Cooksville Cheese Factory was established in 1875 adjacent to the village on the present State Highway 59 (then called “Union Road”), just to the west of William Porter’s farm. The multi-talented Cooksville resident Benjamin Hoxie bought the land that was part of the large Dow farm and erected the small building, obtained the necessary apparatus, and began manufacturing and selling cheese on May 10, 1875.

Hoxie had tested the interest in the Cooksville area for a cheese cooperative business with meetings in the schoolhouse and by canvassing the community in March of 1875. The results were favorable with many “patrons” willing to send their milk to the new factory.
Hoxie House etching 1873

Hoxie was, among other things, a very active architect, carpenter and builder of a number of houses and structures in Cooksville, including the Cooksville Congregational Church, as well as buildings and churches elsewhere in the area. He was also a maker of bee hives and butter churns and had a keen interest in agriculture and horticulture.

The Evansville Review reported on Hoxie’s venture into cheese-making as follows: “Cooksville Cheese Factory. This Institution commenced operation Monday morning with even better prospects than what it was expected it would have. The building is 18 x 28, two stories high, with an ell 20 x 26 one-story high.  The main building is provided with a fine basement which can be kept at good temperature for curing cheese at any season, when the weather is not suitable for the two upper rooms. The building is well made—closely boarded, papered and sided, which gives a substantial effect, and preserves a more uniform temperature for the business.  The pumping is done by hand; but the heating is done with steam apparatus.”

To ensure “a perfectly fine flavored cheese, the factory’s walls were double-thick and plastered, and the basement had stone walls and ‘cemented’ floors, with every precaution taken to have an even temperature in the curing rooms.” Probably a well-cured “English” cheddar cheese was produced or perhaps the new Wisconsin brick, or maybe a purely local variation.

George H. Kemp, an Englishman and “a gentleman who has worked at the business a year or two…thoroughly experienced…will have charge of the business.” The newspaper continued:  “A meeting of the patrons was held at the Factory Saturday and resulted in the election of the following officers. Harrison Stebbins, President; J. T. Dow, Secretary and Treasurer; B. S. Hoxie, salesman; W. M. Porter, Isaac Wright, Josiah Sperry, Associates. B. S. Hoxie, Proprietor.” The farmers’ cheese cooperative was up and running.

Benjamin Hoxie (1827-1901)
 The Cheese Factory initially received about 3,000 pounds of milk each day, and samples of the cheese were ready to be distributed locally in June. Over 200 wooden cheese boxes were made in Evansville and delivered to the factory in August, and business increased rapidly.  Near the end of October, the factory closed for the season, the patrons were paid off, and the remaining cheese was moved from the factory to the cellar of William Porter’s nearby farmhouse.

The next year, after hauling in many loads of wood in March (“A big wood pile at the cheese factory, means business again this summer…”),  the Cheese Factory opened for the season on May 1, 1876, having been “overhauled  and put in thorough trim for business, and looks as neat as a maid’s parlor,” the Evansville newspaper reported.  “There is certainly not a neater looking, or more thoroughly appointed cheese factory, for its size, in the State than the Cooksville factory.” 

The first shipment of cheese was sent to St. Paul, Minnesota, where the local St. Paul Press newspaper gave “the Cooksville cheese a marked notice, for its excellent qualities.” Later in the summer, a Montreal, Canada, cheese buyer shopping in the area gave “especial praise of the curing rooms of the Cooksville factory—being so cool that July cheese are about as mild in flavor as ordinary August cheeses are,” according to the Evansville paper. “Wisconsin butter and cheese stands as high in the market as any made at the east.” The cheese did “not become old and hard.”

The factory was now using about 4,170 pounds of milk a day. In an experiment with the milk at the factory, it was discovered that it took 26 ¼ pounds of milk to make one pound of butter, and with the cost of milk at 90 cents per hundred pounds, it put the cost to produce butter at about 24 cents a pound.  Cheese was selling at about 7 cents per pound; more could be produced; and cheese could safely be shipped long distances without refrigeration.

In 1877, the little Cooksville Cheese Factory won second prize at the Wisconsin State Fair—but only after a tie vote that was settled by the toss of a penny, giving the top prize to a Sheboygan factory.  The prize was won competing with over twenty other more established factories from throughout the state.

The Cheese Factory flourished for the next few years, with cheese shipped to such places as Chicago, New York, and Lawrence, Massachusetts. Wisconsin was becoming famous as a quality cheese producing state, and the new Cooksville factory was contributing to the state’s early prominence in the growing agricultural enterprise of cheese-making.

In 1878, Hoxie added another vat and during the year used 1,189,081 pounds of milk to make 114,242 pounds of cheese.  At the beginning of 1879, the cheese factory closed out its entire lot of last season’s cheese at 7½ cents per pound, and at the end of that season, cheese was selling at ten cents a pound. Mr. Kemp, the cheese-maker, called one of his products “Young America” cheese, each of which weighed about eight pounds.

 But by 1880, although there were favorable prospects for a good supply of milk and efforts to ensure that “the reputation will be maintained” were favorable (“Wisconsin cheese is commanding a better price in New York’s market than New York cheese”), some of the cheese-makers—as well as some of the dairy farmers—began moving west to the Dakotas.  George W. Kemp leased the factory from Hoxie for the season, and although he had to temporarily close it down in mid-season for lack of milk, the local newspaper reported that he intended “to buy the cream and fresh butter from the farmers as soon as suitable arrangements can be made for regular delivery.”  Business declined; there was greater competition for milk from other local cheese makers. At the end of 1880, Kemp married Mary, the daughter of Hoxie, but that didn’t help his business prospects.

In January 1881, Hoxie placed the Cooksville Cheese Factory up for sale.  “He will also sell his house and lot in connection with the same, if desired,” reported the Evansville Review.   By the next year, the cheese factory was “used as a dwelling house by two families.”  Larger cheese-making operations elsewhere diminished the supply of milk. Hoxie, it seems, was headed for retirement, as was his cheese factory.

“The Dakota fever has broken out afresh,” reported the Evansville Enterprise, and cheese-maker George Kemp (who had been making cheese in Lodi by 1882) and Frank Newman left Cooksville to visit the “beautiful land” of Dakota, the new Western Frontier.

The Dakota Territory had been established in 1861, and the federal Homestead Act of 1862 (160 acres of free land if you remained for five years) made farming prospects there rather appealing.  The Black Hill Gold Rush of the mid-1870s made Dakota even more appealing to the adventurous.  But what ensured a more massive exodus of people to the new Western frontier of Dakota was the completion of the Chicago and North Western Railroad and the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad in 1880 to the Dakota Territory.

 Early in 1883, Kemp and Newman went for another visit to Dakota, this time joined by several other Cooksvillians.  By the middle of 1883, the Stoughton Hub newspaper reported that the wives of Kemp and Newman “expect to ship their household goods to Dakota this week, for the ‘boys’ write they have the shanties ready…”

A rumor was reported, both in 1883 and 1884, that the Cooksville cheese factory might be started up again, either for cheese or as a creamery.  The Stoughton Hub hoped “the farmers will look to their interests and be ready for their patronage. Dairying will pay and must be the measure of our success in Wisconsin.”  But in March 1884, Hoxie sold all his cheese fixtures to a Mr. Fish of Lone Rock in Richland County.

The Hub also reported on April 3, 1884, that “Mr. B. S. Hoxie has sold his house and lot in the village to Julius Savage, and has taken a temporary residence in his factory building until he decides for a change of location or business. He will sell his fruit farm of fifteen acres, with the building, which can be made into a fine residence at a trifling expense.”  Hoxie retired to Evansville in 1884, and in 1886 he sold the cheese factory building, but he kept his hand in his design business and in his horticultural interests.

Hoxie had been very active in the Wisconsin State Horticultural Society for many years, and in 1893 he managed the Society’s exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Many years later, Hoxie’s unusual apples from his fruit farm behind the cheese factory would be re-discovered and re-cultivated. Apples and cheese must have been an especially tasty combination for him.

Today, the prize-winning Cooksville cheese factory has become a simple residence and survives                                  as one of Cooksville’s historic structures.

The Cooksville Cheese Factory