For a guy who’s 92, Arnold Imobersteg has got a lot of living left. Still farming just over the Wisconsin border near Orangeville, Illinois, Arnold recently took a look inside a building that’s sat on his family farmstead for more than 100 years and decided it was time to share the wealth.
So on Thursday, June 24 at 4 p.m., (the public is invited) Arnold will host a groundbreaking at the National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe, where his century-old wooden farmstead cheese plant that’s sat unused and undiscovered for nearly 100 years will be moved, and where it will once again be making cheese by year’s end.
Unbeknownst to just about everyone in the dairy industry (probably because he’s about 5 miles shy of being a Wisconsin dairy farmer), Arnold is donating his farm’s cheese plant to the National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe. The plant has sat unused on the Imobersteg Farmstead since 1917 and contains all of the original cheesemaking equipment, including the copper kettle, press table, huge intake wheel and wooden press bars.
“This is a one-of-a-kind find,” says Mary Ann Hanna, Executive Director at the National Historic Cheesemaking Center, who was kind enough to go with me to interview Arnold at his 400-acre farm last week. “It’s just unheard of to find something like this with all of the original equipment intact. We are just thrilled.”
Hanna says the Center will now be able to demonstrate how cheese was made in the late 1800s and early 1900s, which is especially exciting, as they’ve never had the equipment or facility to do that before. She’s got several Green County cheesemakers chomping at the bit to make cheese the old fashioned way – by hand, without electricity or running water – in the factory once it’s moved.
Turns out that Arnold’s farmstead cheese factory (calling it a factory is a bit of a stretch by today’s standards – it’s actually a 20-by-20 foot wooden shed with brick chimney, but in its day was state-of-the-art) has a long and storied history, some of it unknown even to the current owner. Arnold says the facility was probably already on the farm when his parents, Anna and Alfred, bought the small dairy in 1902, after immigrating from Switzerland. His parents made cheese, and later hired a cheesemaker to make Brick, Swiss and Limburger twice a day from the milk of the family’s 40 dairy cows, all milked by hand. The cheese was then shipped to Monroe by horse and wagon and sold to a number of cheese buyers, including Badger Cheese Company.
“My parents also had neighbors bringing in their milk with horses and wagons, and would make cheese for them,” Imobersteg said. “They made a lot of cheese by hand with no electricity and no running water. I sure wish I’d had been here to see it.”
Imobersteg never witnessed cheese being made on the farm, because the year before he was born, the Imoberstegs and all of their neighbors were required to start shipping their milk to the nearby Borden Factory in Orangeville, Ill., where it was processed into condensed milk and shipped to soldiers overseas serving in World War I.
By the time the war ended, a larger, more modern cheese factory had been built just up the road, and the Imoberstegs instead sold their milk to that facility. Their farmstead cheese plant was transformed into a storage and laundry room. As a child, Arnold can remember his mother heating water in the copper kettle, washing clothes, and hanging them to dry from the wooden beams and press bars.
Over the years, Imobersteg said he’s used the wooden cheese factory as mostly a storage shed, and never really considered the historic value of the building and its contents until last fall, when folks from the National Historic Cheesemaking Center learned of the factory and asked if they could visit.
“I guess I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about,” Imobersteg said, after he watched Mary Ann Hanna become speechless after taking a glance inside the cheese plant, and seeing the copper kettle still hanging from a wooden arm that swung on and off to go over a wood fire. She later brought back experts from the industry, including area Wisconsin cheesemakers who agreed to help restore and move the facility to Monroe.
“I’m glad it’s going to be restored and I’m sure looking forward to watching cheese be made in it again,” Imobersteg said. “That’ll sure be something to see.”