SUGARCREEK, Ohio — History may not always repeat itself, but it continues to influence the present.
Ohio has a rich heritage in the cheesemaking business, and that heritage can be seen through the state’s cheesemakers today.
To celebrate its upcoming 100th anniversary, the Ohio Swiss Cheese Association (OSCA) is releasing a new book, The Ohio Swiss Cheese Association: 100 Years of Swiss Cheese and Swiss Culture. The book will discuss the history of Swiss cheese makers and cheesemaking in Ohio.
In 2005, the association’s office was sold. When members cleaned out the office, they found numerous old clippings and photos, which they put together into a pictorial history.
“We wanted to work more with the chronicling of the history with a writer for this project,” said Chuck Ellis, president of Pearl Valley Cheese and association officer.
So they contracted with Glen Hammel, local historian and author, to research and write the book. This book will contain Hammel’s research and writing, as well as many of the photos and clippings from the old office.
Hammel began in 2016 by looking up the town and county histories in libraries in Holmes and Tuscarawas counties, since they were the center of the Ohio Swiss cheesemaking industry.
Ellis said the book covers history as far back as 1830, when people first started making Swiss cheese in Ohio.
The “pioneer cheesemakers,” as Ellis calls them, made 200-pound Swiss wheels with copper kettles over wood fires.
By the 1930s, there were more than 30 companies making Swiss cheese in the Holmes and Tuscarawas county area, and 27 of these cheesemakers were members of the OSCA in 1940.
“Now there’s maybe 12,” Ellis said. In 2017, the association has nine members.
Still, Ohio remains the number one Swiss cheese producing state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, producing some 149.7 million pounds, or 48 percent of the U.S. total in 2016.
Many families who currently make cheese or have ancestors who did are still in the area. Hammel, who lives in Sugarcreek less than 20 miles from seven of Ohio’s Swiss cheese producers, said that most of the people he interviewed grew up in cheesemaking.
Ellis said “anybody who’s grown up here in the eastern Ohio area who’s in agriculture will recognize the locations and the family names of these plants.”
The stories and old photos will provide a look into the past, but Ellis suggests that some things will not look so different from the present. According to Ellis, the pioneer cheesemakers were mainly of Swiss descent and “had fun together on the weekends.” They enjoyed talking Swiss, yodeling and drinking beer.
“And that’s basically the way it is today as well,” said Ellis.
Hammel agreed. He referred to the cheese industry as “familial and fraternal.”
“How many industries still exist where most of the businesses are like a family secret passed down through three or four generations? Where they compete for business and awards, but will immediately drop what they are doing to help a competitor when an emergency comes up?” Hammel asked.
Although the industry has changed as it has grown, and some of the smaller cheese houses have been unable to keep up, Hammel said at the Grand Champion Cheesemaker competition, the losers always celebrated with the winner. The Grand Champion Cheesemaker competition is a series of three contests that are held throughout the year to decide the grand and reserve champion cheesemakers for the year.
“They are fully aware they are all in this together,” said Hammel.