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Wisconsin Dairy History

and Heritage Project

Generations of Wisconsin dairy farmers, cheesemakers,
and others who shaped the dairy industry have come and
gone. Sadly for us, they left little record of their lives,
and today they are mostly forgotten. This is our loss.

The Wisconsin Dairy Project will ensure that the voices

of today’s generation of dairy men and women will not
be lost! Our historians will travel the state to record their
memories so we can add their stories to the great history
of Wisconsin. This is something long overdue.

Join us to help them write the history of dairying.


hroughout the 150-year history of dairying in Wisconsin, thousands of men and women have
milked cows, put up hay, made cheese, invented labor-saving machines, and built up the
fertility of the soil and the wealth of our state. Unfortunately, we can no longer ask them to
tell us about themselves — they are gone, and with them, much of our own heritage.
The Wisconsin Dairy History and Heritage Project will ensure that we no longer lose these voices.
Our historians will record interviews at farm kitchen tables, and in cheese factories, corporate and
co-op boardrooms, rural bank offices, county fairs, extension offices, and all the other places where
the men and women of dairying can be found. These conversations will capture the human history
of dairying in our state.
The Wisconsin Dairy History and Heritage Project will publish the stories it collects so that both
urban and rural audiences around the country can better understand Wisconsin’s essential industry
and the men and women who built it.
By underwriting our work, you will help preserve Wisconsin’s rich rural heritage and ensure it is
not lost.
Why dairy history and heritage?
Drive along Wisconsin’s rural roads and you will see the
picture that defines our state. You will see neat barns and
farmsteads that span generations, tall silos and the waving
green crops of our farm fields, cultivated and managed by
Wisconsin’s well-educated and prosperous farmers. And,
of course, you will see our cows. You will see America’s
But rural Wisconsin was not always so prosperous. Our
famed dairy industry did not just happen: it was created
by countless, mostly forgotten, men and women who cared
for cows, invented new management systems and farmer-
saving equipment, provided financing for expansion and
modernization, produced products people wanted, and
marketed them profitably around the world.
Wisconsin’s landscape itself, its herds of productive
cows, its dairy farmers who still farm their great-
grandparents’ land, its truckloads of world-renowned cheese, and its citizens’ sense of a prosperous,
stable, and sustainable land is the legacy of the people who created dairying.
Help us honor their contributions and preserve their voices.

Dairy agriculture created the Wisconsin we love.

Capturing the stories through oral
histories, photographs, and documents
The Wisconsin Dairy History and Heritage Project will ensure that from now on the irreplaceable
recollections of the men and women of rural Wisconsin will not be lost.
We will send interviewers — trained to help
people tell their stories and knowledgeable about
cows, farming, and dairy history — to talk to people
throughout “Dairyland” who have witnessed the last
80 years in rural Wisconsin.
Our historians will talk with the influential and
the unknown, with dairy industry entrepreneurs
and leaders, with farmers with herds large and small,
organic and conventional, progressive and not-so-
progressive, and with farm technology innovators,
financiers, and milk processors from every corner
of the state to gather eyewitness accounts of dairying
in Wisconsin during most of the last century.
As well as recording hundreds of hours of con-
versations, we will create photo essays of these men and women at their farms or factories. We will
copy family and company photographs, letters, and documents to build a more complete record of
lives spent in rural Wisconsin.
We will preserve as much as we can of the living experiences of people who might otherwise be
forgotten . . . in their own voices.

We will help them write their own stories.

Public access, publications, and outreach
• We will publish the eyewitness accounts, stories, insights and histories of the
people, companies, and organizations of Wisconsin’s “Dairyland.”
• Through extensive outreach efforts, we will make sure the public, scholars,
journalists, and members of the dairy industry can benefit from the experience of
those who went before them.
• We will work with historical archives, such as the Library of Congress, the
Smithsonian Institution, and the Wisconsin Historical Society, to give scholars, farmers, the public,
and journalists access to our collection of eyewitness accounts, photographs, and documents.
• We will construct a web site where people around the world can explore and hear some of the
stories that comprise the book of dairying.
• Our own historians and others will publish written and audio profiles of the people of dairying.
We will write and commission studies on particular topics of interest to the industry, historians, policy
makers, and the public. And we plan a quarterly magazine of dairy history and rural heritage, as well
as audiobooks, blogs, and podcasts.
• We will sponsor the first comprehensive history of dairying in Wisconsin in more than 50 years.
[The last ended in the 1920s and left 90 years of progress and change unpublished.] The eyewitness
accounts of barn, vat, and bank gathered by the Dairy Project will add immeasurably to this history
and put a human face on our industry. By making these stories available to diverse audiences, we
will add greatly to the story of dairy agriculture in Wisconsin and the human players in this grand
Who we are
The Wisconsin Dairy History and Heritage Project is a nonprofit, tax-deductible organization that will
seek the advice and assistance of dairy producers, historians, agricultural entrepreneurs, industry
advocates, journalists, and educators to collect and publish the personal accounts of lives lived in the
dairy industry.
Although we are dairy enthusiasts, we are principally historians and cultural preservationists. We
are interested in the dairy industry in all its manifestations: from 2000-cow farms to organic dairies;
from crossroads creameries to multi-state co-ops, and from large, custom equipment operators to
Amish farmers with single-bottom plows.
Our project will be managed by Ed Janus, under the direction of a board of directors. John Oncken
will be the senior advisor. Together Janus and Oncken have many years of professional experience in
the dairy industry and as journalists, writers, radio producers, and historians. Both have experience
milking cows, making hay, writing books, and managing enterprises.


Although a city boy, Ed spent two years milking 30 cows and farming 240 acres in Crawford County in the 1970s.
He loved every minute of it — which means he was never a real dairy farmer. Nevertheless, he has been deeply
interested in dairying since those days.
In the early 1980s, Ed helped start the Madison Muskies, the first professional baseball team in Madison in
over 40 years. He was the general manager of the team. (During this time Jose Canseco played for Madison. At
that time, his batting average and his weight were each below 160.)
A few years later, Ed started Capital Brewery, which was once named among the top ten breweries in the
world! While president of the company, he wrote its business plan, helped sell $1.5 million in shares to the
beer-drinking public of Wisconsin, and oversaw the development of its award-winning beers. For these efforts,
he was nominated for the Wisconsin Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
For the past 20 years, Ed has been an audio journalist and writer. He has conducted recorded interviews
with over 300 people and produced radio programs on agriculture, health, outdoor living, and education. He
was editor-in-chief of the Rural Audio Journal, a series of audio documentaries on education in the rural Midwest.
He also produced an eight-part series on Wisconsin dairy farmers.
Ed has created audiobooks, podcasts, websites, and radio programs for broadcasters like Marketplace on NPR
and Voice of America. His book on dairying in Wisconsin will be published by the Wisconsin Historical Society
Press in 2010.


It is no stretch to say that John Oncken is the dean of Wisconsin dairy journalists. In fact, it’s fair to say that
John Oncken knows everyone in dairying in the state and remembers everything. He has written on dairying
and dairymen for over 25 years. He is interested in helping the dairy industry understand itself and in helping
the public understand and appreciate dairymen and women and their contributions to Wisconsin.
John writes for a number of dairy industry publications and has written a weekly column about the people
of agriculture — what they do and how they do it, that appears in a general interest newspaper and the state’s
leading farm weekly. He also has presented a weekly dairy commentary for WGN Radio in Chicago and its farm
director, Orion Samuelson, for over 15 years. John publishes the Agri-Dairy Business Letter, a well-respected
biweekly newsletter for the dairy industry.
John was the general manager of the American Dairy Association of Wisconsin and was instrumental in
forming the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. He was a county agriculture agent in Clark County, a TV farm
broadcaster in Green Bay, and advertising manager for American Breeders Service in DeForest. He has a B.S.
from the University of Wisconsin–Madison College of Agriculture, and was raised on a Wisconsin dairy farm.
John Oncken himself is a living history book of dairying for the second half of the twentieth century and
beyond. He has kept tabs on hundreds of producers — and their children — and knows their personal stories
and the stories of their farms and businesses over many years. His deep professional and personal interest in
our state’s dairy producers make him the perfect dairy historian to guide this project.
History Saved
We thought you might appreciate a few examples of interesting gems that history can
uncover — if we only ask.
While listening to people’s stories, our historians sometimes hear telling details that
illustrate much larger stories, like this one that reminds us of how dairying and our land
was built:
Sam Cook, a Sauk County cheesemaker, remembers that
when he was a boy, his neighbors, immigrants from
Bohemia, displaced “Yankee farmers” because they were
willing to haul load after load of bottom soil up to their ridges to replenish
the soil after the early settlers had “mined” it out. This image of the pain-
staking rebuilding of the soil and its fertility in the early days of dairying
reminds us of how our landscape was shaped by the transformative power
of the cow and the eagerness of immigrants to profit from her.
Often our interviews lead us to explore many of the technological innovations that “changed everything” for
Wisconsin dairymen. We want to find and record the small and large steps that were taken over the decades;
steps that shaped dairying and moved it forward with each generation. Many of these have been nearly forgotten,
but are still worth remembering because they have brought us to where we are today.
The electric barn cleaner is one such industry-changing example: With its advent,
the daily backbreaking and time-consuming job of hand-forking manure out of the
barn was a job gone — but not regretted. It was a labor that many a farmer’s son
or daughter swore would never be a part of their future.
The barn cleaner made manure handling less labor intensive, saved time and
frustration, and allowed for better management of cows and the dairy enterprise.
Freeing up time for farmers to enjoy life was important in keeping sons and daughters on the farm.
The challenge of developing a better system of handling manure provided an opportunity for a host
of entrepreneurs, many of them farmers with a bent for mechanical innovation, to apply technology to
make hard and dirty jobs more farmer friendly. So it is good to remember that the now humble barn
cleaner played its part in making dairying a more attractive way to earn a living.
The Dairy History and Heritage Project will tell the stories of these entrepreneurs, how they changed farming,
formed companies and took a major step in moving dairying away from physical labor and towards the efficient
management of cows and crops we enjoy today. Time is short and many of the innovators who lived through
these changes will soon be gone.
Sometimes what we discover in history’s dusty files allows us to think more astutely about the present. Take
the current and sometimes vexing discussion about how large or small our dairy farms should be:
In the 1950s, for example, there were at least three very large dairies in Waukesha County. The biggest,
Brook Hill Farm, milked 900 cows; nearby Wern Farm had 600 cows; and another, Keystone Farm, had
400! Since the average Wisconsin farm of that period had 15 cows, these three farms certainly stood out.
Were these exceptionally large farms seen by contemporaries as “progressive” or as an affront to
“authentic” dairying? We will explore such questions by asking people who still know the answers.
Sometimes our investigations uncover stories that might be described as “improbable,” like this:
In a glassed-in porch on a quiet street in a quiet subdivision in Viroqua hangs the Order
of the Rising Sun, awarded to Marlowe Nelson by the Emperor of Japan. This son of
Wisconsin dairying is today one of the most revered men in Japan because, one day after
World War II, he started talking to a young Japanese man about the Wisconsin Holstein
cows in the man’s pasture. As a result of this young Wisconsin county ag agent talking
about cows and dairy improvement in that field, Japan’s dairy industry was reborn from
the ashes of war. Marlowe Nelson’s belief in the power of milk and cows spelled significant
improvement in the diets of Japanese children and their overall well-being. Marlowe
Nelson exported the Wisconsin Idea to Japan: Improve cows and you improve the lives
of people.
It is time to acknowledge the great contributions of the men
and women who built Wisconsin by building dairying. We
know their stories are worth hearing — and we think they will
be pleased that we want to listen to them.

We look forward to providing more details about our plans,

how we will spend our funds, and how the dairy industry and
the people of Wisconsin will benefit from your contribution.
We also look forward to hearing about the wonderful people
whose stories you think we should preserve.

Ed Janus, director
4333 Nakoma Road, Madison, WI 53711
Front cover: Crawford County landscape, cour-
tesy Jerry Quebe. Executive Summary: Hay wag-
on, ca. 1910, courtesy Klessig Family; Cow kiss
with Dennis Iverson, courtesy Wisconsin His-
torical Society Press, by Mark Fey; Julia and her
calf, courtesy Mark Henrichs. Why Dairy History:
Cheesemaker Sid Cook, © Wisconsin Milk Mar-
keting Board; Field of Wisconsin corn, © Wis-
consin Milk Marketing Board. Capturing the
Stories: Mark and Tom Crave, courtesy Mark
Henrichs; Laura Daniels’ boots, courtesy Mark
Henrichs. History Saved: Sauk County road sign,
courtesy Cook family; Wheel barrow, courtesy
Klessig family; “Get more out of life,” Successful
Farming magazine, 1923; Land of Plenty book
cover, © Wisconsin Historical Society. “Film
strip,” from left: farm scene, courtesy Wisconsin
Historical Society Press, by Mark Fey; Crave
family; Mayer family, courtesy Wisconsin His-
torical Society Press, by Mark Fey. Inside back
cover: Cheesemakers Jeff Wideman, Jeff Work-
man, and Edelweiss employee, © Wisconsin
Milk Marketing Board. Back cover: Christian May-
er, courtesy Mayer family.

Designed by Jane Tenenbaum

© 2010 Wisconsin Dairy History Project