News: Colby (100 years of Colby Cheese 1983)
Contact: Kathleen E. Englebretson

Surnames: Steinwand, Fults, Eggebrecht, Harris, Telchow

----Source: Marshfield News-Herald (08 July 1983)

COLBY -- One hundred years ago, Colby cheese was first made here--and the only native natural American cheese was born.

So the city at the center of the "heart of Wisconsin" where most Wisconsin cheese is made, will celebrate its annual Colby Cheese Days from July 14-17 in conjunction with the centennial of the birth of Colby cheese.

In May 1882, Ambrose Steinwand opened a cheese factory near Colby, at the site of the recently closed Colby Cheese Factory. Steinwand's son, Joseph, developed a new variety of cheese in 1885 that would become known as Colby cheese.

To a point, the process of making the new cheese was similar to that of making cheddar. However, after the whey was drained from the curd, Steinwand washed and cooled the curd with cold water. Then the water was drained, and the curd was salted, mixed into forms and left to age from one to three months. The result was a softer, moister cheese than cheddar.

Cheddar cheese, on the other hand, is molded into slabs after the whey is drained, and the slabs are turned repeatedly to expel excess whey, resulting in a sharper, drier cheese.

After the addition of Colby cheese, the Wisconsin cheese industry overcame some quality control problems in the 1890s to eventually become a major U.S. cheese exporter.

Today, Wisconsin is the largest U.S. producer of all varieties of cheese except Swiss, said Arthur Fults, co-chairman of the Colby Cheese Days Committee. The state makes approximately 40 percent of all cheese produced in the United States, he said.

Last year, Wisconsin produced more that 2 billion pounds of natural cheese -- more than 50 percent of which is made within an approximate 75-mile radius of Colby, Fults said.

About 63 cheese factories operate within the area where the bulk of Wisconsin cheese is produced, he said. Those factories include 10 in Chippewa County, four in Eau Claire County, 25 in Marathon County, five in Taylor County and 14 in Wood County.

A few changes have taken place in the cheese manufacturing industry since the days of the Steinwands, one of the biggest automation. Jim Eggebrecht of Welcome Dairy, Colby, said the automation of cheese factories cut the cheese-producing labor force in half.

Welcome Dairy produces 6,000 pounds of natural cheese daily, and in 1953, when Eggebrecht entered the industry, "it took two or three times the present amount of labor to produce the same amount," he said.

Eggebrecht added that cheese-making used to be a 7-day-a-week operation, but with automation in the factories, it now requires only five days a week.

Although many smaller cheese factories like Eggebrecht's have closed, he said his operation has survived because it has entered into direct marketing along with cheese production.

He also stressed the importance of family members who are willing to continue in the business. Eggebrecht, who has four sons, said three of them have stayed in the cheese business. He added that after attending college, they brought back ideas in Technology and marketing that proved valuable to his business.

"It's a mechanized industry now, and it has to be treated as such," Eggebrecht said.

With the introduction of automation, larger cheese manufacturers have entered the scene, buying out many smaller factories or causing many of them to close because of competition.

You've got the big and you've got the small," Fults said, "You need them both."

"You can't say the bigger the factory, the poorer the quality of the cheese," he continued. "It isn't so."

Eggebrecht, however, cited some disadvantages of increased cheese production in the large factories. "You buyers are farther away," he said, adding it is not easy to maintain the close relations with customers that can be maintained when buyers are in the same locality.

"Prices wouldn't be as high if it (cheese) were made on the local level," he added.

He also said the small communities are hurt by the decline in the number of small factories. "It takes dollars out of the community," he said, and added that small factories provide employment and help community's tax bases.

Sylvester Harris is another small factory owner who has had to make adjustment to keep his business operating. Harris Cheese Co., Unity, like many other small factories, has had to switch from the production of predominantly Colby and cheddar to that of barrel cheese, which is sent to larger factories for the production of processed American cheese.

Harris, who produces 4,000 pounds of cheese daily, used to produce all Colby cheese, Now, 90 percent of his production is barrel cheese.

It was not easy to make the switch, Harris said. "I had the quality," he said. In 1978, Harris' Colby cheese was named World Champion in a contest involving 13 countries and 17 states. However, he said it had become too costly to produce only Colby cheese in his small plant. After making the switch to barrel cheese, "the pride wasn't there," Harris said.

However producing barrel cheese is less costly and easier than producing blocks and longhorns, he said. He can now produce six vats of barrel cheese in the same time and with the same amount of labor it took to make three vats for Colby longhorns. And he still has "some amount of that feeling of being independent," he said.

Harris still produces some Colby cheese, however, for sale in his own factory store and in several stores close to his business.

Delbert Telchow of Frankfort Cheese Factory, Edgar, and president of the Central Wisconsin Cheesemakers and Buttermakers Association, said he feels the high government dairy support price poses the biggest threat to the cheese manufacturers,

"The worst thing (for cheese producers) is that the government is the best market," Telchow said. He said because the government support price is higher than the amount manufacturers can receive in the private market, competition is not encouraged. "That's not right," he said. "it's hard to compete against the government."

Despite hardships, Central Wisconsin cheesemakers continue to produce more than 50 percent of the state's cheese annually. and they plan to celebrate that fact during Colby Cheese Days.

One of the biggest blocks of Colby cheese ever made has already been produced by Welcome Dairy. The big cheese will be cut up and samples given away during the four-day celebration, and a replica will remain on display during the event.

Profits from Colby Cheese Days will be used to help build a historical park to recognize Colby cheese and the history of Colby cheese production in Wisconsin.



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