I ask for your patience, kind reader, because although this post is about the St. Marie creamery, it will take me some time to get there.
First, I had to brush up on creameries, which came to prominence in the 1890s as Wisconsin moved from being America’s Bread Basket to America’s Dairyland. Led by the Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association, the state’s farmers slowly, and often hesitantly, adopted New York’s system of “associated dairying.”
Here is how John D. Buenker explained how principles of the industrial revolution were applied to Wisconsin’s newborn dairy industry in “History of Wisconsin, Vol. 4: The Progressive Era 1893-1914” (1998, State Historical Society of Wisconsin): “Milk processing was gradually transferred from the farmstead to the cheese factory, the creamery, and the condenser. In that way, the skills of a single cheese maker or butter maker could be placed at the service of numerous dairy farmers, enabling them to concentrate on producing as much high-quality milk as possible. Technical skills, efficiency, and economies of scale would translate to higher prices. …”
“The industrialization of butter making developed more slowly than that of cheese,” Buenker found. “It accelerated most rapidly in the 1890s, the ‘creamery decade,’ when Wisconsin’s cheese reputation declined and butter making mechanization improved, prompting many dairymen to switch from cheese to butter. Widespread use of hand separators to divide their products between market milk and creameries led to a 340 percent increase in butter production in ten years. … The adoption of the centrifugal separator, the power churn, and the milk fat tester moved more rapidly and on a larger scale in creameries than mechanization in cheese factories.”
In 1889, 76.7 percent of all Wisconsin butter was still produced on farms. By 1909, the percentage had dropped to 20, according to Buenker. The number of creameries, meanwhile, increased from 753 in 1895 to the all-time high of 1,005 in 1910.
That’s the big picture.
Most of what we know about early creameries in this area comes from a local historian perhaps remembered more for his bicycle and black hosiery than his research. He was Princeton’s best known “paper boy” for over 20 years and my family’s Milwaukee Journal carrier my entire childhood.
Winfield Scott “Scotty” McCormick was born in April 1906 in Buena Vista Township in Portage County. His father, Edgar, had started the Eau Pleine creamery near Dancy in 1902 and operated the Buena Visa creamery from 1903-1918. Edgar’s brother Fred operated the Hetzel creamery near Almond and the Arnott creamery from 1909-1917. Another of Scott’s uncles, Otto, ran the Bancroft creamery until 1912, as well as creameries in Stockton and Plover with another brother, George.
Edgar moved his family to Princeton about 1929 and operated the creamery in the village of Mecan about seven miles southwest of Princeton for about three years.
Although he showed keen interest in all things steam-driven in the early 20th century, I don’t know if Scott McCormick ever had a driver’s license or owned a car. The bicycle seems to have been his preferred mode of travel even in his 20s.
Princeton Republic, August 1, 1935 – “Scott McCormick went to Buena Vista, Stevens Point, Wild Rose and Saxeville last week, where he visited relatives. He made the trip with his bicycle.”
When he wasn’t working or traveling, McCormick wrote about the things he knew best from his childhood: creameries, trains, and threshing rigs. He was published in magazines such as “Badger History” and “Creative Wisconsin,” as well as area newspapers. Some of his articles and photos can be found today among the Wisconsin Historical Society records.
Following his father’s death in May 1956, McCormick shared memories of his father and uncles and their creameries with H.E. “Jamie” Jamison, who penned a human-interest column, “Jaunts With Jamie,” in the Milwaukee Sentinel in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“Who among our readers remembers driving along Wisconsin roads in the early 1900’s and hearing insistent blasts of steam whistles,” Jamison queried in an August column. “Not to be confused with the easily identifiable train whistles, these whistles were distinctive, each having its own personality to the initiated. They were the whistles of the creameries, urging tardy farmers to hurry up with their cream. The weary farmers, like the day, not quite yet awake, would slap the reins on their horses’ backs and giddyap them into a trot in order to get the creamery before the day’s churning began. And if the roads were rough and rutty, which most of them were, the cream would be partly churned by the time they arrived. …
“We venture a guess that every time Scott McCormick hears a steam whistle, he will remember his father and uncles pulling the whistle cords to hurry the tardy and often tired farmer. Scott McCormick remembers ‘when my Uncle Fred was at Arnott, I heard him blow six long blasts on the whistle one morning for a farmer who was lingering. This creamery had a high-pitched chime whistle. There was another creamery to the south of us that used to blow its low-pitched chime whistle quite a bit.’”
St. Marie creamery
The Princeton Times-Republic on September 25, 1952, reported that the St. Marie creamery “was built by farmers in 1897 and was the first creamery anywhere near Princeton.” (Cheese factories had operated for a brief time earlier than 1897 in Princeton and Neshkoro.)
I assume the information and accompanying photo came from McCormick although he did not include St. Marie in any of the other articles I have found. Formation of the St. Marie creamery was documented by the Princeton Republic.
Princeton Republic, March 4, 1897 – “The St. Marie farmers are moving in the matter of erecting a butter and cheese factory some two miles northeast of this. A company is organizing and will be ready, probably in a few days, to push matters right along to a working basis.”
John Flowers was elected president of the creamery association. He was joined by N. Pfeifer as vice president, F.W. Luedtke as secretary and Carl Ahrens as treasurer. Bert Whiting, John Schneberger and J.W. Kohnke served as directors.
Wohlwend Bros., who also had a creamery in Berlin, operated the plant.
“The Wohlwend Bros. furnish the machinery and will manufacture butter at the present time,” the newspaper reported on March 21. “These gentlemen have other creameries in the state and are said to understand the business completely. The company will erect their building on the southeast corner of Carl Ahren’s farm, being on a main traveled road and more central than any other point the patrons could secure. The main building of the creamery will be 26 by 40 in size, with a boiler and engine room attached 18 by 22 feet. It will be erected and completed ready for business by the 15th of April. Those who have the matter in hand are reliable, square men, farmers, who are well known. The Republic is glad this enterprise has been started, and although we would have been glad if the patrons could have seen proper to have had their buildings erected at or nearer Princeton, yet the projectors of the scheme had their own interests to serve, and it was their duty to serve them. That is business.”
Princeton Republic, May 20?, 1897 – “The president of the St. Marie butter and cheese factory, Mr. John Flowers, informs us that they now have a force of fourteen men at work on the building. Their well is now nearly completed, and it is expected that everything will be in working order in a couple of weeks.
The creamery opened in June. “The proprietors are good and there is no reason to doubt its success,” the newspaper said. “The lateness of the season prevents making the best of records for the first year.”
Princeton Republic, July 29?, 1897 – “Saturday last, accepting a kind invitation from Mr. John Flowers, a representative of the Republic visited the St. Marie butter factory. An early start brought us around in time to witness the delivery of a good many hundred pounds of milk and to those who have not been familiar with butter factories this part of the business is interesting. The cans are taken from the wagon, the contents poured into a large receptacle and weighed, the pounds each patron sends marked down. After being weighed a phaucet is opened and the milk is conveyed to a strainer through pipes, and from thence into a large cauldron or vat. The small quantity of milk for testing is taken while being weighed. But now comes an interesting part of the business to a novice – and that is the separating of the cream from the milk. The separator is a little insignificant machine, but it is mighty in results. The milk is carried into that separator and comes from it in two streams, one a stream of golden cream and the other a stream of blue milk. This skim milk is returned to the patron in the proportion of 85 percent of weight he a few minutes before brought to the creamery, which he can take home and feed to his pigs and calves. But we will go back to the separator in just a moment. It certainly beats our grandmothers’ skimming milk. And no wonder! Here is a little rotary concern that reaches up into that machine and revolves at the rate of 6,000 revolutions a minute – 100 a second That is what does the business, and that is all we can say about it. It wasn’t open so we would see it splashing around in there, but the commotion it makes does the business. This extracted cream soon goes into a huge churn and in a short time is made into a palatable article of butter. Mr. Wohlwend has charge of the creamery, and we believe is proprietor of the machinery. A steam engine drives the machinery pumping cold water into every place where needed, through interminable crooks and lengths of piping. The building was erected by stockholders early this season, and the whole outfit is said to be the most complete in size and convenience of any in the county. The building cost somewhere near $800. Mr. Wohlwend appears to be master of his business, and we see no reason why the enterprise should not prove an unqualified success. To be sure at the start in the spring unseen obstacles sprang into the path of the projectors that delayed the completion of the work at the time desired but is proving a success. The creamery is now receiving about 4,000 pounds of milk daily. Next season this among will unquestionably be more than doubled.”
Butter makers at the plant included Ed Golz and Richard Ponto.
The cutline accompanying the St. Marie creamery photo in 1952 indicated that the creamery was destroyed by fire about 1911. I have been unable to find a report of the fire. There was still a building on the corner of the Ahrens property in a 1914 map of St. Marie Township; it was not there in a 1923 map.
Rather than farmers and teams of horses bringing milk to the creamery, fleets of trucks were soon traveling improved roads to pick up milk at the farm and haul it to the cheese factories and creameries.
Princeton Times-Republic, May 16, 1946 – “Ray Mlodzik says that a lot of money was wasted on cream separators and a lot of time on operating them. He claims that he has the only system. He puts his cows to sleep on their backs. Naturally the cream comes to the top. Turns the cows over in the morning and takes off the cream and lets the skim milk go.”
McCormick, who tucked the legs of his overalls in black hosiery to avoid getting tangled in his bike chain, gave up the Milwaukee Journal route after he turned 62.
Princeton Times-Republic, June 20, 1968 – “Scott McCormick, after 20 years of delivering the daily Milwaukee Journal, is retiring. He has just turned 62 years and feels he should retire so he ‘can do some of the things’ he likes to do. Scotty is an all-around errand boy and paper boy. He is a familiar figure on the streets of Princeton with his bike. For the past 26 years he has delivered at least five different papers. He has broken in Jay Gruenwald for the afternoon Journal route but will still deliver morning papers because he can’t ‘just sit.’ Another service he offers the community is the distribution of handbills to every house in the city. … He said it takes about six hours to cover over 300 houses in the city.”
McCormick was seriously injured when he was hit by a car while crossing Mechanic Street on his bicycle in October 1971 but recovered.
He lived at the 232 Canal Street house he occupied with his mother and two brothers until about a year before he passed in July 1996 at age 90. (All three of Scott’s brothers served in World War II.)
McCormick’s reports about the early creameries remain must-reads for 21st century local historians.
A detailed history of the Princeton creamery and first cheese factory are included in my history of Princeton published in 2020.
Thank you for reading and caring about local history.