Wisconsin has a long history of cheese-making. Although the first cheeses made in the states came from the Northeast, Wisconsin became the primary source for American cheese in the early part of the 1900’s, even exporting the popular American cheddar to England (where it started). One of the pioneers of Wisconsin cheese-making was Saxon Creamery, located in Cleveland, Wisconsin, about an hour North of Milwaukee.
Saxon was founded by Fredrick and Elizabeth Klessig, who emigrated from Germany in 1948, and purchased 160 acres of farmland for $500.00 in 1850. Their initial crops were small grains, like many of the farms in the area, but poor soil management practices depleted the soil and forced many farmers to shift to dairying operations. That move resulted in excess milk, which necessitated more formalized cheese production. The first production facility in Wisconsin was a “kitchen factory” operated by Anne Pickett near Lake Mills; she purchased milk from neighboring farms to make cheese. The first true cheese factory was constructed by Chester Hazen, near Lagoda, Wisconsin, in 1864. Hazen’s facility operated separately from other farm operations and produced enough cheese to support local dairy farms.
Klessig’s factory was located in Cleveland, and produced a chedder-style cheese known simply as “American cheese.” They sold their products locally and to outside markets, reaching as far as Milwaukee, Chicago, Philadelphia, and even to England. Their operation continued into the 1930’s when economic pressures and changing markets forced many smaller operations to close or consolidate. Saxon continued to operate as a dairy until 2007, when the current family decided to restart the cheese making operation.
Jerry Heirmel, who kindly spent several hours with me at his creamery and farm, explained that his goal was to create a cheese accessible to “blue collar workers;” he felt (rightly so, in my opinion) that the price points of many cheeses put them out of reach of the regular consumer. His cheeses are focused on the middle-market consumer who shops at local grocers instead of fancy cheese shops. That’s not to say that his cheeses don’t deserve a place in the cheese case. Having tried all of their products over the past few years I can say without reservation that these are some delicious cheeses.
Saxon produces four cheeses: Green Fields, a monastery-style washed-rind cheese; Big Ed’s, a farm style Gouda named in tribute to “Big Ed” Klessig, father and grandfather to the current generation; Pastures, a farm style cheddar; and Saxony, and alpine style cheese. They fare well in competition: Green Fields won first place in the washed rind category, and Pastures 2nd place in the bandaged cheddar category, at the American Cheese Society’s annual cheese festival.
If you live near Milwaukee, you can find Saxon’s cheeses at Larry’s Market in Brown Deer. It’s also carried by some Whole Foods stores, some Kroger’s markets, online at Fromagination, and Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese. If your local market doesn’t carry it, ask! And, please visit the Saxon website for more information about the family and their cheeses. If you like to read more about Saxon, visit my main FromageBob blog.