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Norman Bradish Horton, a Lenawee County court state senator, son of a cheesemaker and owner of nine cheese factories in Lenawee County, shepherded through a law which, in essence, banned the production and sale of “Soft Michigan” cheese.
Almost overnight, 23 of Michigan’s 26 producers of soft cheese found themselves out of business.
Michigan historian Laurie Catherine Perkins writes about this little known sliver of Michigan food history in her new book: “Cheese Fever: A History of ‘Soft Michigan’ Cheese, 1825-1925.”
By 1923, 26 small farmers were producing soft cheese, using a recipe brought to Michigan by a New Yorker. Of Horton’s decision she writes: “What prompted Horton to introduce this bill is unknown.”
Horton bit the hand that fed him. His family wealth was the result of more than 60 years producing Soft Michigan.
Lenawee County and Michigan’s first commercial cheesemaker was Rufus Baker, who began manufacturing cheese in 1866. Perkins tells how, by 1870, Baker was producing cheese worth nearly $60,000 a year. That’s a lot of “cheese.”
Cheesemaking expertise was imported from Herkimer County, New York — a noted area of cheese production. Lucina Perkins Horton (no relation) moved to Lenawee County in 1851, and shared her recipe for what would become Soft Michigan cheese. Lucina would go on to manage the cheese factory founded by her husband, George Byron Horton, Lenawee County’s second cheesemaker.
Author Perkins’ interest in the history of cheese production comes naturally, as she grew up on a farm in Lenawee County. Her interest was further piqued when she was working on her Ph.D. at Michigan State University.
While casting around for a topic for her dissertation, Perkins was inspired to dive deeper into the topic by an assignment from the Archives of Michigan.
Perkins was tasked to look at a couple of bound volumes compiled by state dairy and food inspector Charles O. Bradley, who in 1905 had inspected 26 cheese factories in Lenawee County to rate their compliance with state law.
In his report, Bradley also included the only known recipe to exist for Soft Michigan cheese.
Descriptions of Soft Michigan go across the cutting board and Perkins writes: “Soft Michigan has holes of varying sizes, is soft as opposed to the hard texture of cheddar. It is without an acidic taste.”
Thanks to her long association with the Lenawee Historical Society and Museum in Adrian, Perkins was able to use its extensive collection to document the history of the dairy industry in Lenawee County.
Austin also writes about Michigan’s "cheese governor," Fred Warner of Farmington Hills, who ran for office in 1904 while operating 13 cheese factories.
In the primary, Warner had to defeat fellow cheeseman George Byron Horton of Fruit Ridge. Both men used cheese wheels in their campaigns, and editorial cartoons of the day posed the candidates with cheese wheels.
Perkins writes how the burgeoning agriculture industry resulted in Michigan Agricultural College being formed with the express purpose of educating the state’s future farmers. In 1897, more than 19 students — all men —were enrolled in a fourweek short course that taught cheese making.
Perkins said women were not allowed in the classes, because they would be “a distraction.” It would be another 20 years before women could enroll in dairy education at MAC.
As the dairy and agriculture industry grew, so did government oversight. Perkins sheds light on the history of government regulation, and shows how establishing and enforcing standards created a better product.
Soft Michigan cheese was at a distinct disadvantage, because of these standards. First, the process required a much lower heat temperature and the soft cheese only had a 30 day shelf life.
Because the cheese was being sold to the public, consistency was important. Perkins said the cheese producers in Lenawee County, despite using the same recipe, would end up with each having a different looking and tasting cheese.
The days of the small cheesemaker on factory farms were soon eclipsed by industrialization. Perkins makes the case that Lenawee County’s soft cheese, which could not be made in a uniform manner, was doomed.
In less than 100 years, the cheese making craft had transformed itself from one woman mastering the curds and whey process to an industrial model with science as the basis.
However, as in the craft beer business, artisanal cheese makers are once again making small batches of specialized cheeses. That’s the case in Onsted, Michigan — not far from the birthplace of Soft Michigan. That’s where the Cambridge Cheese Co., recently opened by Courtney and Justin Chamberlain, makes soft Michigan cheese curds in six flavors.
“The market has come full circle,” Perkins said.