Cooperative Cheese Making

In the era after World War I, corn was declining as the cash crop of choice among High Country farmers, and tobacco had yet to dominate, though more and more people were getting allotments. Instead, some people put their heads together to establish small cheese factories.

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The North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service helped set up the factories. The factories were built with water supplied by fresh-water springs. A steam boiler would supply heating water, often heated by coal or wood as electricity had not reached many rural areas. The heat was also used to help process the milk into cheese curd.

The job started in the barns of the region as people drew the milk from their dairy cows each morning. Farmers delivered their milk to the factory by horse-drawn cart or wagon, with the milk in five- or ten-gallon containers. Farmers were paid based on the fat content of their milk. The milk then went into a large processing vat that held about 200 gallons of milk, depending on the size of the factory.

The milk was heated in the processing vat until it "clabbered." A wire screen with a frame was lowered on the curd to cut it into square blocks. The whey that was squeezed out ran into a barrel or trough outside, where farmers could collect it to feed to hogs. The curd was worked up to squeeze all the whey out until the curd began to solidify.

The curd was chopped into finger-sized pieces and placed into hoops. The hoops were over a foot in diameter and six inches deep. Cheese cloth was placed inside the iron hoops, and the curd was packed inside as tightly as possible. The hoops were then placed round-side down in rows along the length of the cheese press. The press was tightened by hand, squeezing the rows of hoops to get rid of the last of the whey. After a day or two in the press, the hoops were removed and the cheese was placed in a cool room for storage and aging.

Before shipping, the rounds of cheese were dipped in paraffin wax for sealing. They were then shipped out to stores and wholesalers across the region. As transportation methods and roads improved, the days of hauling a wagon-load of cheese barrels off the mountain for money began to dwindle. But for all who stood in that room with the rich aroma of milk or who nibbled a handful of warm curd, they must have felt wealthy indeed.

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