Dairy Production in Early Washington County
In early Washington County, dairy was considered the greatest agricultural resource, and fittingly, Wisconsin was the greatest producer of dairy up until California surpassed us in quantity in 1993. Today, Wisconsin is still renowned for its dairy products, specifically, cheese.
And while we are generally familiar with the final product, cheese curds, ice cream, and butter of all varieties; how these ingenuitive processes spread throughout early Washington County and Wisconsin for that matter, is not as often explained. So, what was it like when our dairy was so plentiful that Carl Quickert, a local writer from the early 1900s, described Washington County as our own land of milk and honey? And how prominent was Washington County in Wisconsin’s booming dairy industry?
The Dairy Industry
Before Wisconsin, New York claimed the title of the Dairy State. Around the 1840s and 1850s, many New Yorkers came to live in Wisconsin, bringing along with them the skills from the commercial trade of dairy farming. As an alternative to the risky and temperamental wheat crops, dairy farming quickly became popularized in Wisconsin. Of the dairy products, cheese became the most successful, even though it was more difficult to make than butter because it lasted longer.
As dairying expanded, farmers recognized one essential truth, for good dairying, you need good cows. The well-bred and well-cared-for cows were undoubtedly better producers. Farmers traded cows, made breeding agreements, and boasted their best producers in contests. These cows were treated every bit as esteemed as racing horses in Kentucky.
As dairy farming increased, so did the creameries and factories of production. Wisconsin perfected its dairy processing techniques, making some of the finest, select cheeses, butter, cream, milk, ice cream, and other delicacies. In Washington County alone, there were 50 cheese factories and creameries.
For more information about old-world cheesemaking, check out the National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe, Wisconsin and their comprehensive guide to the history of cheese.
Eureka… We Struck Dairy??
From 1900 to 1910 the number of cows in Washington County doubled. In that time there was a 70% increase in the production of butter and an 86% production increase of cheese.
Wisconsin’s dairy industry was booming. Wisconsin claimed about half of the cheese factors and a sixth of the creameries in the United States.
The profits of Wisconsin’s dairy products exceeded several million dollars yearly compared to the silver and gold profits of California, Nevada, Alaska, and Colorado combined. Just imagine all the fortune-seeking folks moving out west to test their luck in searching for gold. They should’ve gone North and bought some cows.
The Wallau Dairy Company
The largest dairy company in early Wisconsin was home to West Bend. Known for its quality, efficiency, and innovative techniques, the Wallau Dairy Company is a prime example of the accomplishments and tenacity of past dairy farmers and producers.
Located in a functionally designed cement building, the Wallau Dairy Company was a prominent place of production. Through most of the first and second floors ran troughs of cream, as if the place was flowing in dairy. The cream was provided by local dairy farmers and was quite literally la créme de la créme. From there the cream led into a churner cemented to the floor of the building. It could produce up to 800 pounds of fine, quality, butter at a time. By the end of the day, the company would produce 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of butter. During peak butter season, the company would easily ship out a carload of butter each week. Additionally, on the lower floors of the building, was an ice cream freezer, where about 100 gallons are produced a day.
On the upper floor of the Wallau Dairy Company was the cream testing department. All of the Wallau Dairy Company’s products were subject to the Babcock test, used to discern the quantity of butter fat. The test was adjusted according to what the customers had paid. Small, test bottles with long graded tubes are used to test the dairy. By adding a certain quantity of sulphuric acid, the fat would separate and could be read off the graded bottles.
The creamery was founded by Carl H. Wallau. He was known to be a kindly fellow and dedicated to his work. Early on he dreamed of owning a creamery, while the techniques and management of creameries were relatively new and undeclared. Wallau attended a course at the dairy school in Madison. He kept close ties with the school, sharing advancements and accomplishments. His dream of opening a dairy company was more successful than anticipated.
The creamery expanded to also operate in Cedar Creek, Trenton, and Barton. The company produced vast quantities of cheese, ice cream, butter, and other dairy products each year. Its reputation was honorable, and the company helped initiate many of the dairy production standards and methods that we abide by today.
The Wallau Dairy Company is one example of the many creameries that populated the state of Wisconsin. These distinctive local fixtures fluctuated with the market, paving the way for our current local dairy companies. And from the combined efforts of cow breeders, dairy farmers, entrepreneurs, dairy scientists, cheese makers, and production workers, Wisconsin earned its glorious reputation as the Dairy State.
Quickert, Carl. Washington County, Wisconsin: Past and Present. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 2008. Previously published as Washington County, Wisconsin: Past and Present (1912).
Sisney, Jason and Garosi, Justin. “California is the Leading Farm State.” Legislative Analyst’s Office. December 4, 2014.
“The Rise of Dairy Farming; How Wisconsin became the dairy state.” Wisconsin Historical Society. Accessed September 2, 2022.
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