Author Jeanette Hurt Illustration Graham Roumieu
When Mary Ann Hanna, director of Wisconsin’s National Historic Cheesemaking Center, arrived at Arnold Imobersteg’s farm near Orangeville, Illinois, late last year, the cramped white shed on the property looked no different from hundreds of other abandoned outbuildings on farms across the Midwest. But inside, it contained the dairy equivalent of Pompeii: a farmstead creamery that stood exactly as it had when Imobersteg’s Swiss-born parents stopped making cheese there in 1917-right down to the copper kettle and wooden cheese press bars. Hanna, who had been tipped off by a high school classmate, has seen plenty of dusty cheesecloths in her day, but even she was impressed. “It was just like somebody yanked me back to the early 1900s,” she says.
Imobersteg, 92, was more than happy to donate the 20-by-20-foot shed in its entirety to the Cheesemaking Center. Since then, a team comprising a bricklayer, a blacksmith and several cheese experts has been working diligently to clean it up. “I’ve seen restorations, but nothing like this,” says Ron Buholzer, a cheesemaker who has worked on the project. “It’s very rare to discover both the equipment and the building still in place.”
Once the structure is reopened to the public, local cheesemakers will gather under its rafters to craft giant wheels of Swiss for the first time in almost a century. The find will also be the focus of a documentary set to be released next year by Wisconsin filmmaker Bob Leff, whose imagination is running wild with the potential reenactments. “I can just picture how some guy had to be sprawled out above the kettle skimming the curds,” he says. “I guess it’s probably not that different from how they made cheese in the Middle Ages.”